Jeff Feuerzeig’s Sundance-premiering documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story delves into the strange and winding tale of how a San Francisco musician and phone sex operator by the name of Laura Albert created a genderqueer avatar who went on to become a literary sensation and celebrity magnet before Albert was revealed to be her it boy JT LeRoy. The film opens in theaters September 9th.
What the doc doesn’t much explore is the oft-forgotten fact that back in 2007, indie production outfit Antidote Films actually sued Ms. Albert for fraud. The company had optioned the rights to LeRoy’s Sarah four years earlier, but then decided the deal should be rendered null and void because JT LeRoy didn’t actually exist. Never mind that Sarah was never published as memoir or autobiography – and that Antidote never explicitly bought the rights to JT LeRoy’s life.
Laura Albert, you might recall, was first outed in an article in New York magazine that bore the headline “IS JT LEROY A HOAX?” on its cover. I remember thinking at the time, WHO CARES? But then I read Stephen Beachy’s piece and my questions became both deeper and darker. Was JT LeRoy’s writing overrated? Definitely. Was JT LeRoy’s writing worthy of being published? Most certainly. Would JT LeRoy’s writing have been published if penned as a work of fiction from a thirty-something female musician and sex worker with no literary connections to speak of? Would queer novelist and JT champion Dennis Cooper have given a talented unknown named Laura Albert so much as the time of day?
For if JT LeRoy was a hoax, then Laura Albert was a scapegoat, the article’s real red herring. It’s a reflection of our reality TV world that all the talent in the universe will get you nowhere without a gimmick or connections. Indeed, I felt Laura Albert should have been applauded for creating JT LeRoy, for giving birth to such a beautiful child, humbly eschewing both the credit and subsequent fame – in other words, letting her art speak for itself without her image attached. It seemed to me that Albert’s foremost concern was to get her work out there, like an egoless mother driven to care only for the welfare of her kid, having conceived not for vanity but for the sake of the creation. (The onetime rumor that Asia Argento, the director behind another movie based on a JT LeRoy book, had given birth to LeRoy’s child was, in fact, completely plausible in my view – for what is a movie to its director if not her child?) It was those who could not see the metaphorical as truth – as much if not truer than the literal – that were to blame if they felt “tricked.” The best art is never literal, making Albert the purest of artists. So I found the notion of Laura Albert as JT LeRoy oddly touching. In a weird way, she had given hope to unconventional writers everywhere.
And yet JT LeRoy was not simply a work of fiction. JT Leroy did not spring from the whole cloth of Laura Albert’s mind. JT LeRoy was a living, breathing amalgam of street children everywhere. And the worst that Albert did was to give them all a much-needed voice. It is the public that craves live flesh, I realized, literary figures and celebrities that forced “Wigs and Sunglasses” (the LeRoy stand-in, embodied by Albert’s partner’s sister Savannah) into being. It was they who demanded a literal truth. Albert only responded. The word “hoax” implied an intention to deceive. Albert’s intention seemed to be to enlighten, to force us to go beyond the literal into the metaphorical. Thus, JT LeRoy was, as far as I was concerned, no hoax.
Alas, the court of law did not agree. As the curious author of an erotic memoir that had been published as fiction, I attended that Antidote Films vs. Laura Albert trial nearly a decade ago. It was a bizarre proceeding, to say the least. Firstly, to make the case that fraud occurred because the name on the cover of the book optioned by Antidote doesn’t belong to the author – i.e., that the author’s identity is not only relevant, but essential – the plaintiff’s lawyer brought up no less a literary legend than Shakespeare. “Of course author matters! Would people read Shakespeare if it wasn’t Shakespeare?” the three-piece suit mused rhetorically in the courtroom (as Christopher Marlowe no doubt had a good hearty laugh from the grave). But before the jury could mull over that dubious point, the slick barrister quickly moved on to the example of horror icon Stephen King, who would never use a pseudonym, he claimed. Uh-huh. (And to add insult to injury, that obviously not-so-well-read lawyer also assured the jury that the plaintiffs “weren’t out to punish anyone.” Never mind that Antidote was trying to collect 110K in punitive damages.)
For me, the trial seemed to exist in some sort of alternate reality. Indeed, I’d always viewed JT LeRoy’s life in the limelight as one spectacular, performance art piece, a collaboration between author and audience akin to a singer and his fans – with the fans unfortunately turning on their idol when “tough gangsta rapper” is revealed to have grown up in a quiet New Jersey suburb. But did that make the tune itself any less catchy? That lyrics can speak to someone’s experience so deeply is what keeps the music “real.” Which is why this demand for apologies from Albert, for heartfelt remorse, left me scratching my head.
Though the defense lawyers pounded hard on the subject of Albert’s psychiatric history once she took the stand, I believed Albert’s mental health to be irrelevant. (Though as a good friend of mine pointed out at the time, amputees who run marathons are called inspirational for turning disability into creative pursuit, so why wasn’t Laura Albert being held up as a hero for turning her emotional “disability” into art?) No, this case was solely about a book – published as fiction, optioned as fiction. Which should have been the end of the story.
Of course, it wasn’t. Albert lost the case, her fraud conviction preceded by Bible-quoting closing statements in which Albert was portrayed as evil. Yet what had this media feeding frenzy been if not a witch-hunt? Ultimately, the case was not about Laura Albert masquerading as a teenage, truck stop prostitute, but about getting revenge for the shame caused when one feels he’s been suckered. It was the same level of intense mob hatred that once had been directed at author James Frey after his supposed memoir was revealed to be fiction. But James Frey was not another one of Laura Albert’s alter egos. Mr. Frey published fantasy as hard fact. Laura Albert published LeRoy’s reader-perceived “memoir” as fiction.
That those throwing stones overlooked this simple fact until Beachy’s New York magazine article came out is still to this day astonishing. But then people only see what they want to see, that which they need to make a film marketable. Inconvenient facts are swept aside. If author identity was so crucial to the producers, why had no one at Antidote questioned why they were optioning a “memoir” that hadn’t been published as memoir? The only people “deceived” seemed to be those who wanted to be.
Looking back, I wonder whether the jury was really able to see the shades of gray – or only feel the black and white emotions of a dupe, the red of shame. Instinctively I knew Albert’s defense had miscalculated when they chose to address her mental health, which was beside the point, instead of sticking straight to the facts. This wasn’t a criminal trial, I thought, and any attempt to gain sympathy for a person able to talk her way into celebrity friendships could only backfire, with the jury instead seeing Albert as a manipulative woman hiding behind her abusive past. Playing (psychological) defense instead of turning the tables and playing (willing accomplice) offense carried an implicit admission of wrongdoing. The defense shouldn’t have taken responsibility – the bait – for a criminal act not committed. There should have been no apologies made for JT LeRoy’s birth, no excuses or remorse. To paint Albert as a frail, helpless victim was absurd. She was strong enough to have become an accomplished writer who fought for her work to get noticed, with or without her alter ego. The point wasn’t that Albert didn’t know what she was doing. The point was that everyone else on some level, whether they were willing to admit it or not, did.
Not that Antidote’s president Jeffrey Levy-Hinte ever second-guessed Albert’s fragile psychological state. “She’s liberated, in a way. It’s quite wonderful,” he told a New York Times reporter, referring to the loss of Albert’s beloved avatar, a statement which seemed a bit condescending coming from a self-described “person of principle” who’d just liberated an artist of over a hundred grand she didn’t have. (But then Sarah could still be made into a good movie Levy-Hinte also acknowledged – which I guess he felt would help offset Albert’s possible loss of the rights to all her books if she were unable to pay the judgment.) Indeed, a true man of principle would stand up and take responsibility for having been a willing accomplice to the perpetration of JT LeRoy’s very existence – something Laura Albert could never have pulled off if a trick-turning, trannie boy weren’t such a lucrative exploit.
Furthermore, the company president claimed that he still respected Albert as someone who “pulled off something quite startling — all these intelligent people were taken in.” But then how intelligent could one be if he couldn’t tell truth from his own wishful fantasy, couldn’t even read the word “fiction” on the binding of a book?
Photo: Brad Coy/Creative Commons