Sunday, January 08, 2006

JT Leroy (Partially) Unmasked

This quarter I'm teaching a required undergraduate writing major course, "The Situation of Writing," which is basically a sociologically and anthropologically oriented chat-fest for our senior students on a range of issues related to (creative) writing and the writers. It's one of the funnest courses I have the opportunity to teach and I look forward to it, even if I have to cram a semester's worth of work into a quarter. One of the things I tell my students on the first day as I go through the syllabus and reel off the required readings (from a sourcebook and six books), I always tell the students that transformation is occurring in the literary world as I'm speaking, and so I'll have to bring in materials that I haven't already placed on the syllabus. I've already come across 5-6 articles or pieces that I am debating introducing, but today I came across one that I have to post here: the JT Leroy brouhaha.

Leroy?In today's New York Times Warren St. John reports (tentatively, at points) on his paper's and other press organs' unmasking of JT Leroy, a literary cause célebre over the last decade. (Before I go any further, let me just say/add that I've always found the hullabaloo around Leroy's initial story problematic (Oh look what we've found!), and have always been suspicious of the literary world's celebration of and fawning over him/her. Also, bloggers and others in the literary world, like Joy Press of the Village Voice, had previously asked a who Leroy really was, though the Times article doesn't acknowledge this.) For those not familiar with his/her story, it boils down to this:

Mr. Leroy's tale was harrowing in its details and uplifting in its arc. He was supposed to have been a young truck-stop prostitute who had escaped rural West Virginia for the dismal life of a homeless San Francisco drug addict. Rescued as a young teenager by a couple named Laura Albert and Geoffrey Knoop and treated by a psychologist, he was able to turn his terrible youth into a thriving career as a writer. JT Leroy has published three critically acclaimed works of fiction noted for their stark portrayal of child prostitution and drug use.

Along the way Mr. Leroy gained the friendship and trust of celebrities and noted writers, who supported his career financially and offered him emotional support when he declared that he was infected with H.I.V. Sales were good, and his books were published around the world. Shy and reclusive, Mr. Leroy, now 25, appeared in public often disguised beneath a wig and sunglasses.

Of course you know where this is going. The incredibly moving story of "Mr. Leroy's" life was as fictional as those "acclaimed works of fiction," and not only that, but the always-disguised "Mr. Leroy" wasn't and isn't who people thought he was and is. Truth be told, Leroy appears not to be a "he" or "s/he" (as s/he'd claimed at various points) at all, at least physically, but a "she"...or maybe two "shes." But wait, the Times hasn't yet figured that one out.

Okay, so what gives? Well, it seems that the person performing as JT Leroy publicly, at least some of the time, was in fact Savannah Knoop, the younger half-sister of Geoffrey Knoop. When someone at the Times--like Stephen Beachy of New York magazine, who began to break open the ruse back in October--sleuthing online found an image of Savannah Knoop at a San Francisco event in 2003 and asked several people close to Leroy if "she" was "he," they said yes, this was the person they'd thought was he. Leroy. Or as the Times tells it:

Five intimates of Mr. Leroy's, including his literary agent, his business manager and the producer of a coming movie based on one of his books, were shown the photograph and identified Ms. Knoop as the person they have known as JT Leroy.

"That's JT Leroy," said Ira Silverberg, Mr. Leroy's literary agent, upon seeing the photograph. Mr. Silverberg said he had met Mr. Leroy a number of times in person. Lilly Bright, a producer of "The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things," a 2004 film based on Mr. Leroy's 2001 collection of stories, was no less certain. "It's JT Leroy," she said, adding that she had worked with Mr. Leroy extensively on the production.

Say what? Five intimates were that clueless? Now you may ask, how could these supposedly smart, perceptive people (a literary agent, a movie producer, etc.) not suspect that something about this whole scenario wasn't kosher (especially given the image that appears in the Times), let alone tell that "he" was a "she"; but then it appears there'd always been questions about Leroy's gender, because he'd appeared in wigs and lipstick from the beginning, as a disguise, and in recent years had claimed to be "transgender" as a way of short-circuiting the continuing queries. And perhaps, as Beachy suggests in article, people were willing to suspend disbelief and buy into the "amalgam"....

Meanwhile, according to the Times, people in San Francisco recognized Savannah Knoop as...Savannah Knoop. And one young woman mentioned in the article, Nyoka Lowery, pointed to yet another site, to which the Times links, that shows Savannah Knoop as herself (and not in her JT Leroy incarnation). So, it appears that Savannah Knoop = JT Leroy, at least in person. Knoop's response to the Times's inquiry was, "I don't need this in my life right now" before hanging up the phone. Yeah, as if "this" already wasn't "in" it!

Okay, so what, you might be saying; this was just a game/deception that some people were having with/playing on the press and publishing industry and public, and they were able to get away with it for a while and to the tune of contracts, advances, and thousands of dollars. Or maybe it was an elaborate artistic or psychological performance, or some version of both, which others supported. As for Savannnah Knoop, it seems she was engaged in an elaborate public charade/performance, at least in recent years, to maintain the fiction that Albert and her half-brother (and maybe even she, as well as others like Albert's mother and sister) had concocted. But without question, there are a range of ethical and legal issues involved, particularly in terms of the narratives about Leroy being an adolescent runaway-child prostitute-drug addict (and there are writers who've spiced up their biographies with versions of each of these personae) who was living with HIV (certainly few have gone this far), and how Albert and Knoop and whoever else was in on this game (including Albert's family members, perhaps even the publishing industry people who now feign ignorance) used these fictions to manipulate various people and profit off their lies/fictions and manipulations.

The Times seems less concerned with the ethics of the case, though, and more fascinated by another question: who exactly wrote the novels? Non-Foucauldians they, because, as St. John says,

Writers like Dennis Cooper, Mary Gaitskill and Mary Karr were among those who offered support to Mr. Leroy's literary career, as did several prominent editors at Manhattan publishing houses, and numerous film and pop music celebrities offered him emotional support, including Courtney Love, Tatum O'Neal, Billy Corgan, Shirley Manson and Carrie Fisher.

That's quite a lineup, by any measure, and includes Bruce Benderson and NYU professor Sharon Olds, whose work a john supposedly gave to Leroy during those prostitution sessions. But the kicker:

And of course there were journalists (including, in November 2004, this reporter), who wrote credulous profiles of the successful young writer after interviewing him, often in person. The New York Times even published an article last September under the byline JT Leroy in a Sunday magazine supplement, T: Travel.

Even the reporter was implicated in this farce. "Credulous profiles"--let's not forget this person writes for the paper that whipped up the Whitewater scandal and regularly published Jason Blair and Judith Miller, among others. (Though to be fair, the Voice, Guardian and numerous other papers profiled this literary darling and did raise various kinds of red flags, if I can trot out that cliché.) St. John goes on to note that in fact, the Times did not publish a subsequent article by Leroy when questions arose about his identity. What were the circumstances? Well, let's go back to the October issue of New York magazine, in which journalist Stephen Beachy first posited that Laura Albert was actually the person writing JT Leroy's novels (and this piece is quite thorough and worth reading for its own, numerous merits).

The New York article, written by Stephen Beachy, portrayed Ms. Albert, 40, and Mr. Knoop, 39, as unfulfilled rock musicians who concocted the character of JT Leroy to gain access first to literary circles and, later, to celebrities. The scheme began, Mr. Beachy wrote, with faxes, e-mail messages and phone calls by Ms. Albert, speaking in a West Virginia accent as JT Leroy. The article also described an acquaintance of Ms. Albert's who said she had asked him to type and fax manuscripts that bore striking thematic similarities to work later published by JT Leroy. When that name became famous, Mr. Beachy theorized, an actor was needed to play JT Leroy in person; he did not know, he wrote, who that actor was.

Mr. Beachy discovered that the advance for Mr. Leroy's first novel, "Sarah," published in 2000, was paid to Laura Albert's sister, JoAnna Albert, and that further payments to JT Leroy were made to a Nevada corporation, Underdogs Inc.

The president of that company, according to public records, is Carolyn F. Albert, Ms. Albert's mother, who lives in Brooklyn Heights. Reached by telephone, she declined to comment. The payment for Mr. Leroy's article in The Times was also made to Underdogs.

Or, in Beachy's words:

But isn’t this scenario, of actors or thirtysomething women portraying literary street kids, even more far-fetched than the official story? It’s certainly as elaborate. It is also precisely the story that a friend, or ex-friend, of Geoffrey and Laura, Steve O’Connor, told his friends consistently between 2003 and 2005. O’Connor said that Laura had told him she wrote the books, and that it was only recently that they’d found someone to play the part of JT in public. They were trying to use JT, O’Connor said, to help promote their band. O’Connor had been close to them but had never seen any sign of a street kid in their living room. O’Connor isn’t the most reliable source—he’s unstable and drug-addicted, according to reports—but he had been in a position to know if there’d been anyone sleeping in their living room.

Other friends of Geoffrey and Laura had never heard of JT until 2000, although he was supposed to have been living with them since 1997. One friend confirmed that he believed O’Connor’s account and that it was certainly more plausible than the idea that they’d been hiding a real JT. An old friend from California, now living in New York, was flabbergasted to hear about JT at all: Although he had a long friendship with the couple dating back to 1992, he had no idea Laura and Geoffrey even knew the author and said he’d never heard of anyone else living at their house. “This is totally the kind of thing Laura might do,” he mused. “She craved the limelight, but she didn’t really want all the attention.”

JT has said he received $24,000 for each of his first two books. His income has risen quite a bit since then; there have been movie deals and translations. “JT LeRoy” is a reasonably profitable business, in operation now for a mind-boggling eleven years.

So much for that band! But it just gets better:

After the publication of Mr. Beachy's article, The Times began to examine the circumstances of the T: Travel article written by Mr. Leroy, about a trip to Disneyland Paris. A review of the paperwork accompanying the assignment revealed a discrepancy: the article described four people on the journey. Expense receipts submitted to T: Travel by Mr. Leroy, however, included only an Air France itinerary for three people.

Employees at Disneyland Paris and at two Paris hotels identified Ms. Albert from photographs as the person who presented herself as JT Leroy. Those employees said no one remotely resembling photographs of JT Leroy was traveling with Ms. Albert, who told them her companions were her husband and son. Ms. Albert and Mr. Knoop are the parents of a young son.

When hotel employees told Ms. Albert they were under the impression that JT Leroy was a man, they said, she told them that she had had a sex-change operation three years before and was now a woman.

So Savannah Knoop wasn't the only public face of JT Leroy--and s/he also missed out on a paid trip to EuroDisney!

As of now, it appears that now only Peter Cane, Leroy's lawyer, is responding to emails, though he provided one from "Leroy" to the Times, in response to their unmasking of Savannah Knoop, which said, "As a transgendered human, subject to attacks...I use stand-ins to protect my identity." Yeah, right. His/her agent, Silverberg, says that a new novel is under contract at Viking, a unit of Penguin (now part of Pearson), which is standing behind their author, and why wouldn't they, at least until the entire mystery is revealed. The Times wonders primarily what the effect will be on Leroy's readers, as well as those who went out of their way to help Leroy. Though the situations are not exactly similar, I thought of the Binjamin Wilkomirski scandal, with all the ramifications, including for someone who might come along in Leroy's wake with a "real" story similar to his. (There are so many other notable literary hoaxes, such as Thomas Chatterton's Rowley poems fakery, the Spectra hoax, the Ern Malley hoax, the Yasusada poems hoax or the Hitler Diaries--remember those?) I also thought about the power of celebrity in this country, literary culture and our mainstream mass media, and the imbricated, implicated systems of all three; the nature of US and international publishing today; and fiction as a genre and literary practice, and the demands for and performances of authenticity that develop around authors and works, just to name a few. Beachy is quite philosophical about the whole thing, though some of the people who were involved and feel duped, like author Joel Rose, are so sanguine.

As I read this piece I also thought of Percival Everett's hilariously trenchant novel Erasure (Hyperion, 2002), which uncannily prefigures and sends up some of the central issues in this story.

I can't wait to discuss and explore this with my class!


  1. I read one of Leroy's books a couple years ago after reading a long article in the Voice. I thought the story and the credulous, self-righteous celebrity surrounding it stunk to high heaven--but so deliciously! How wierd and perverse and interesting it all was. In some hopelessly beyond my reach to tease out critically this JT Leroy phenomenon is obviously related to the "missing white girl" syndrome, where everybody high and low sits up and pays attention when someone blonde and female has something terrible happen to her (with a few healthy dashes of liberal white guilt sprinkled over--could you see black folks carrying on that way over someone?). What a yummy interesting post you've got today!

    Kai in NYC

  2. Kai, great points! Also, I would say that Leroy put a youthful, myterious white face on the narrative of children and gay PWAs (though since he was supposedly pimped out, of course, he could still be viewed ideationally in the liberal and wider public consciousness as a victim), so that confluence also drew him/her lots of attention. As I said, I love how bureacracy at times trips people up--the f*cked up travel records not gibing led to greater inquiry, etc. Also, I love how divergent sexual identities, and the performative authority they provide (or can provide). Just think about all these people who DINED with Leroy and had no clue...or did they?