How Very Dare You: The Cathexis of JT LeRoy

I have a confession to make. I’ve been JT LeRoy-ed.

For those not acquainted with the name, JT LeRoy is, and possibly was, a cultishly popular American novelist whose identity was recently confirmed by professional sources as nothing short of a hoax. From his emergence onto the US literary scene in 2000 with the novel Sarah, LeRoy’s selling point – and vital contextual reading angle – was his ability to overcome, in his late teens, his harrowing background of transgendered child prostitution, parental abuse, drug addiction, penury, homelessness and AIDS. Though the works were fictional, they were firmly marketed by LeRoy as heavily autobiographical, even citing that dreaded hard-sell phrase, Based On A True Story. What isn’t in doubt is his impressive talent as a hustler in the self-promotion and networking sense. This uber-vulnerable ex-rentboy quickly sought – and won – the glowing approval, endorsement and even personal support from droppable names both literary (Dennis Cooper, Michael Chadbon, Dave Eggars, Mary Gaitskill, Susie Bright) and showbiz (Courtney Love, Gus Van Sant, Winona Ryder, Lou Reed, Billy Corgan, Shirley Manson, Pink, Carrie Fisher). Never mind the quality, feel the names. Ms Manson’s band Garbage even had a hit single based on Sarah, ‘Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go)’.

In a developing tale that has rather upstaged the stories in his books, LeRoy has turned out to be a work of fiction himself. His writings, phone interviews, email and fax communiques are now reported to be the work of a 40-ish woman called Laura Albert. The LeRoy that made the public appearances and pressed the celeb flesh was Albert’s boyish young sister-in-law Savannah Knoop, disguised in trademark blond-wig and sunglasses. Investigations were made into where the LeRoy royalty payments were going, photos were found on the Web revealing Ms Knoop’s resemblance to the person doing the appearances, suspicions were raised, those in working relationships with LeRoy confirmed the Knoop resemblance, and, after a trickle of doubt-gathering articles appeared from mid-2005 onwards (not least an extensive piece for New York Magazine by Stephen Beachy), the New York Times finally made the official ‘unmasking’ in January 2006.

The next chapter in this particular storyteller’s story must surely be Ms Albert and Ms Knoop’s own coming clean to such an ingenious piece of identity fraud, which they maintained for over a decade (LeRoy first struck up a telephone friendship with Dennis Cooper in 1994). But so far, they’ve refused to comment, not even issuing a blank denial. Many of the deceived celebs have also refrained from commenting, possibly considering their options until the hoaxers tell their story first. Some have been quick to file themselves in the I-told-you-so bracket, others (like Dennis Cooper) have put their hands up and happily admitted they were made fools of, but that it’s no big deal, let’s get on with life. Others (like Susie Bright) have reacted with a certain amount of umbrage, even anger at the sensation of being used.

By a curious coincidence, the NYT piece appeared in the same week as the eruption of another literary scandal. James Frey and his bestselling drug-addict memoir A Million Little Pieces was exposed as being somewhat economical with the truth. Mr Frey’s tale of triumph-over-adversity had previously gained the gushing endorsement of that great televisionary Ms Oprah Winfrey and was included in her TV book club, guaranteeing him sales in the millions. After it transpired that much of the book’s content was exaggerated or embellished – if not downright fabricated – Mr Frey went back on the Oprah show, apologized, but managed to come out of it with some credibility intact. He agreed that future editions of A Million Little Pieces would now carry an apologetic disclaimer. Some libraries have decided to move his book from the non-fiction to the fiction section. He got away with it. He looked Oprah in the eye and survived. And most importantly of all – he redeemed himself on television. The truth was out there eventually.

The question now is: will Laura Albert and Savannah Knoop make a similar appearance? Will the LeRoy books have their author biogs updated? Will the trailer for the Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things movie have the caption ‘Based On A True Story’ revised? One rumour posted on JT LeRoy fan forums is that Ms Albert plans to continue working under her LeRoy avatar for as long as possible, still conducting phone interviews in character. She’s come this far with the ruse, why stop now? Another is that she’ll half admit and half-not admit, in the spirit of some Warholian art-project about truth, identity and gender, the currency of abuse-lit and modern celebrity. It’s also been mooted that perhaps some duped celeb with money to burn might threaten to serve her with an identity fraud or deception lawsuit, if only to get her to admit the truth in court; one place where jolly hoaxes really must come to an end.

Time will tell, I hope. Because I really do want to know Ms Albert’s answer to one searing question: why? Did she think she wouldn’t be taken seriously as a woman writing from the point of view of a gay teen boy? Annie Proulx isn’t a gay cowboy, but her slash-fiction-like Brokeback Mountain seems to be taken seriously enough. Catherine Tate plays a gay man convincingly on her TV sketch show. Unlike in Little Britain, where a man in drag is automatically funny, cross-dressing women are rarely funny per se. Her ‘how very dare you!’ character is a brilliant creation; the gender of the performer behind the mask being impressively irrelevant. We know who’s behind it all, so we can move on with the story, or the comedy sketch. The trust is a given. There needs to be non-fiction behind the fiction, truth behind a tale. Something for the reader to hold onto. A favourite author’s name is a handrail for the reader.

And so to my own little brush with Mr LeRoy. A friend sent me a copy of Sarah just after it was published in the US, in 2000. I enjoyed it, but have to admit the endorsement from Dennis Cooper (who I admire), coupled with the sexy teen rent-boy backstory of its author played a major part in my appreciation. I wanted to put a quote from the book on the sleeve of my group Fosca’s debut album, On Earth To Make The Numbers Up, and so contacted the author online. In our emails (which I still have somewhere), Mr LeRoy seemed charming and friendly, happy to grant permission to use the quote, and even offered to send me a raccoon penis-bone, as featured in Sarah. I was grateful, though I did decline to the latter. Myself and the record label, Shinkansen, also cleared the use of the quote with his UK publisher, Bloomsbury, home to JK Rowling. They seemed only too happy to answer a query not related to the Harry Potter books. I hasten to add this was all some time before Leroy became known as a celeb-chaser, and before Garbage released that Sarah-inspired single. I never like to look like I’m trying to join in with any crowd, least of all a fashionable one.

Did I smell an avatar rat? No, not really. It’s true LeRoy moved in mysterious ways, declaring a crippling shyness as the reason behind the blond wig and sunglasses disguise. He spoke of androgyny and gender confusion, of the need to use ‘stand ins’. One early press photo depicting a beautiful blond young man in dark jumper and red trousers against a leafy sky, was actually of Dennis Cooper’s 80s muse, George Miles, used to represent LeRoy until Mr Cooper wanted it back (and now seen on the cover of Cooper’s novel Period). Then came the blond wig and sunglasses disguises. Those who socialised with the public LeRoy often saw him take the wig and sunglasses off once the cameras were gone, revealing a crop-haired, slight and feminine figure, now identified as Ms Knoop.

Why did the deception last so long? I think it’s a combination of the power of a good backstory, and the power of reader-author sympathy. LeRoy’s books are part of the popular Abuse-Lit genre, the most quintessential exponent being Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It. Tales of hardship in childhood do sell well and the nastier the better. The reader is appalled, shocked, engrossed, hating it, loving it; lines between human sympathy and concern, and car-crash ghoulish voyeurism, are blurred. There’s at least a guaranteed happy ending – the author has managed to write their story and get it published. In buying the book the reader feels they are supportive, even ‘doing good’ in some way. If the reader has had some personal experience of the unhappy events depicted, the connection becomes cathartic. In the case of LeRoy, many readers connected emotionally with the author, even hailing him as a role-model. Just as countless drug addicts looked to James Frey’s book as a moving tale-cum-self-help manual, many young street-walkers and gay teens across the world made an emotional investment in the curious author of Sarah. Some people think the books are all that matter, the author is irrelevant. But there’s a difference between using a pseudonym and passing off a persona as the truth.

I associate reading with being read to. My earliest relationship with fiction is being told bedtime stories by my parents, and it’s this reader-storyteller connection that defines my own reading as an alleged adult. When choosing a book from a library or shop, I always turn to the author biog and photo. If I don’t like the look of the writer, I put the book back on the shelf. I don’t care how acclaimed Ms Zadie Smith gets, her expression of superior, humourless disdain in her photos puts me right off her books. By choosing one book over another, the reader is technically investing hours of their time – and trust – in the company of one person. I wouldn’t spend hours listening to someone I didn’t like in a pub, let alone in the comfort of my own home. So I like to know a little bit about who’s telling the story when I’m reading a book, preferably with a photo. If an author’s photo makes them look like Man At C&A, forget it. No one in a bad sweater and driving-instructor glasses can tell me anything that is of interest to my life.

Besides, anyone who says the identity of the author doesn’t matter and that good writing per se will always prevail is being naive, or at the very least impossibly idealistic. Lately, the Times conducted an experiment sending out the first three chapters and synopsis of a novel to twenty top UK literary agents and publishers, using a pseudonym but no author biography. The novel was actually a Booker Prize-winning work by Nobel laureate, VS Naipaul, but all twenty copies were rejected. Doris Lessing was once rejected by her own publishers when she submitted a novel under a pseudonym. It’s an old exercise, but does serve to remind those who cry ‘the work is enough!’ of the way books and publishing really work. Author names, reputations, connections and personae matter, consistency of the personae even more so.

So it goes with my feelings toward JT LeRoy. To enjoy a story, only to see the author whip off a rubber mask and blow a raspberry in one’s face does matter to me. I find deliberate deceit, like anonymity, extremely tiresome. It’s not like George Eliot, where Ms Evans took a male pen name in order to be taken seriously (and to divert attention from her own private life at the time). It’s not like Belle De Jour, where the author’s pseudonymous nature is clear from the off. It’s not like Lemony Snicket, whose identity as Daniel Handler has never been concealed (though I personally find Mr Handler’s Snicket mythologizing a bit tiresome). It’s the feeling of a bond of trust abused, of a hand extended from the page, just about to take the reader’s hand only to then thumb the author’s nose at the reader. A handshake that turns out to be an electric buzzer. Hilarious. I feel similarly about people on the Internet pretending to be something they’re not. A bunch of bored chums at work running a fake Michael Winner Livejournal. People who illustrate their online diaries with a photo of a kitten or a still from Doctor Who instead of their own face. If you have something to say, put your name and (real) face to it. I’d much rather spend my time with people who I can put a face to. Actually, this is one reason I never like making phone calls, or attending fancy dress parties, but that’s a subject for another time.

So while I’m impressed by the scope, ingenuity and longevity of the LeRoy hoax, my ultimate feeling about the whole affair is of emotions and energy wasted unnecessarily. After reading umpteen discussions on the Web about the hoax, I realised I could be spending this time reading the works of people I like, who don’t hide behind masks and avatars. I switched my computer off, went into town, and bought the latest Dennis Cooper novel, The Sluts. It’s told entirely through postings on an LA escort website, where people may or may not be who they claim. This is where we came in.

This piece was definitely written by Dickon Edwards. Photos are available. The blond hair doesn’t come off.

Highgate, 2006