I WROTE IN MY DIARY, ‘IF YOU TAKE HIM, I’LL DIE.’ I COULD NOT IMAGINE LIFE WITHOUT JT . . . THAT’S THE THING. YOU LOVED HIM? I LOVED HIM MORE. Laura Albert
Looking back, Laura Albert anticipated just about all of it. Long before we had split our personas into the lives we truly live and the ones that we choose to create on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and everywhere else, Albert created her own avatar. Before the lingo of gender fluidity and transgender identity became commonplace, Albert, a budding musician and freelance writer in San Francisco, was writing novels, articles, and stories under the invented name of JT LeRoy. “JT” was a painfully shy, former West Virginia truck-stop prostitute who made his way to the West Coast as a teenager in the mid-1990s and, after he got there, quickly went viral—well before that phrase was in vogue. JT released his debut novel, Sarah, in 2000; the short-story collection The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, later adapted for film by Asia Argento, came out in 2001. LeRoy wrote the original draft for Gus Van Sant‘s Elephant, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2003. The diminutive, soft-spoken young author won the affection of both celebrities and the literary establishment, garnering praise from Tom Waits, John Waters, Zadie Smith, and Dave Eggers. Madonna, Bono, and Winona Ryder were fans and maybe, so went the story, also “friends.” LeRoy’s work even inspired Shirley Manson of Garbage to write a song, “Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!).” He was also presumed by most of the world to be real—a perception that Albert herself not only encouraged but facilitated.
The role of JT was played in public by Savannah Knoop, the twentysomething half sister of Albert’s then-partner; in this ongoing game of identity swapping, Albert herself played the role of JT’s handler “Speedie.” Because of JT’s supposedly debilitating timidity, celebrities were enlisted to read his work aloud for him at events. LeRoy was feted at parties and photographed with the likes of Debbie Harry, Tatum O’Neal, and Courtney Love.
Rumors and innuendos that LeRoy was an invention began swirling, most notably in an October 2005 New York magazine article by Stephen Beachy. But what might be the most elaborate and longest-staged illusion in the American literary world all truly came crashing down in early 2006 when New York Times reporter Warren St. John published two articles declaring that LeRoy was a fraud and outing Albert as his creator.
Albert/LeRoy was working as a writer on the HBO television show Deadwood when the story broke—or to use Albert’s preferred terminology, when “the reveal” happened—and critics and opportunists were quick to pounce on her. A film company that had optioned JT LeRoy’s work sued her. Journalists labeled her as just the latest in a long line of literary hoaxsters, lumping her in with everyone from non-gangbanging memoirist Margaret Seltzer to non-Native American author Nasdijj to, of course, James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces. Maybe this was inevitable; it was also unfair.
My own affinity for this author’s work is divided equally between empathy for the characters in LeRoy’s stories and admiration for Albert’s accomplishment in the creation of LeRoy and his cult following, which itself is a compelling work of performance art. Before my first novel, Crossing California, was published, I would occasionally write under pseudonyms—not to dupe anybody, just because, as Albert taught us, adopting another identity can be one of the most liberating things writers can do to free themselves of their own expectations and fears. Crossing California, published in 2004, well before Albert’s “reveal,” featured a 13-year-old artist named Muley Wills who invents a fake Russian cousin named Peachy Moskowitz, then gets a friend to play Peachy and bring her to life.
I first encountered Albert, now 47 and still living in the Bay Area, when she blurbed as “Laura Albert, a.k.a. JT LeRoy” for my 2010 novel The Thieves of Manhattan, about a con artist who seeks to scam the literary world by selling a fake memoir. Since then, we have kept up an active, if occasionally mad, correspondence. One of my favorite moments came in 2012 when a photographer snapped our picture at an event in New York where Albert was speaking about bullying. I asked her to send me the picture; she sent me a picture of herself with porn star Ron Jeremy.
These days, society seems to be coming around to Albert. Her story was recently dramatized as a rock musical performed throughout Brazil, and as a docudrama on Japanese television. She also toured France—where the citizens seemed less scandalized by her exploits, perhaps because they had already experienced their own JT Leroy-esque scandale in the 1970s, when Romain Gary won the Prix Goncourt under a pseudonym and had someone play his fictional author. For her part, Albert is writing her own story and has recently completed a screenplay she describes as “Romeo and Juliet meets Capturing the Friedmans.” Her novel Sarah is being released as an ebook. She has also finally agreed to a feature documentary about herself and the JT LeRoy saga, to be directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, best known for The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005).
Looking back at the JT LeRoy carnival, it’s hard not to feel a bit nostalgic for that time when writers—even invented ones—seemed to matter more than they do now. And it’s hard not to feel a bit awed by how much of the way we live and consume culture was predicted by the saga of LeRoy—the shattering of barriers between artist and audience; the ephemerality and interchangeability of identity and celebrity; the idea of authors as brands.
Yet, some people who feel they were duped or taken advantage of by Albert still seem to resent her. And when we met for breakfast near New York’s Union Square in the spring, that’s where our conversation began:
ADAM LANGER: So, people are still calling you the Antichrist? Really? Aren’t they done with that by now?
LAURA ALBERT: That’s over for most people, but there are still a few hardcore haters out there. And it’s really weird when I say that someone still has a problem with me, because people get very shocked. Most people realize we’re talking about fiction, about art, about creating another persona. Most people believe that art should surprise, that art should shock and be unpredictable. And I actually colored inside the lines more than I scribbled outside. I published the JT LeRoy books as fiction. I didn’t trespass beyond that mark. I brought Harry Potter to life. I labeled it fiction and I made Harry Potter real. I didn’t do anything new.
LANGER: But you also said that Harry Potter wrote what you wrote.
ALBERT: That’s what I’m saying. I brought him to life. I made him real. Show me the rules of art. Art should confuse—if you’re confused, that means you’re actually thinking about something. People are just a lot more conservative than they can recognize or admit.
LANGER: Does that surprise you?
ALBERT: No. People have always been conservative. But there are also people who are very hospitable to new occurrences in art and things they weren’t expecting, and they were open to accommodating what I did. Others couldn’t; it was their breaking point. Anyone who really overturns things gets that kind of very mixed response. People were outraged by Warhol. Outraged. He sent someone out to give speeches as himself. I didn’t do anything new.
LANGER: Did you ever meet Warhol?
ALBERT: I didn’t meet him. I saw him, though. I was 17 and in a group home, and he was going into a building. It was on 79th and Broadway. I knew who he was because I used to read Interview magazine, and I had friends who were in the downtown scene and I was in the punk scene.
LANGER: We’re talking, what? Like early ’80s?
ALBERT: I got into punk around ’79, and this was probably around ’83. And I knew I could go up to him and get his autograph, but I also knew that he would look at me like I was completely invisible, and that would have been too painful—I already knew I was invisible, and I couldn’t bear to have that reinforced. I didn’t want to be a little fawn going up to him. I would have liked to come up to him as an artist.
WHEN AUTHORS HIDE THEMSELVES, IT’S NOT ALWAYS JUST TO MEET MADONNA. SOMETIMES IT’S THE ONLY WAY TO TALK ABOUT THINGS THAT ARE TOO TERRIFYING TO TALK ABOUT. Laura Albert
LANGER: You were thinking that even at 17?
ALBERT: Yeah, ’cause I was in the punk scene and the whole punk scene was anti-hero. I wasn’t into that whole idea of “Ooh, can you sign my piece of paper?”
LANGER: Did you ever ask anyone for their autograph when you were a kid?
ALBERT: Michael York when I was in a museum. I was 11. My mother recognized him because I had a mad crush on him. So, you got a new book coming out?
LANGER: Right. It’s called The Salinger Contract.
ALBERT: What were the reactions you got for the last one? What did people say about JT’s name being on it?
LANGER: They liked that in France. Some people in the U.S. gave me some shit about it.
ALBERT: People don’t think things through.
LANGER: Well, they’re so worried about little things that they lose sight of the bigger ones.
ALBERT: I know. That’s the thing that’s mind-blowing to me. You’re gonna get upset about a fiction writer? People think in sound bites. At first the story everyone wanted to tell about JT after the reveal was that I was Fagin or Svengali; I was the Antichrist. I was just so goddamned crafty that The New York Times didn’t have a chance—I was the Lex Luthor of the literary world. But after a while, people were like, “What about the work? How can you be Lex Luthor and also this buoyant spirit?” It just doesn’t compute.
ALBERT: So, what’s your new book about?
LANGER: It’s about a writer who meets a very rich man who asks him to write a book for him. The catch is that he can’t show it to anybody else—only one copy will exist in the world. He has a library filled with these manuscripts, some of which were written by famous recluses throughout history, like J.D. Salinger. And it turns out there was a reason why Salinger lived like he did, why he was hiding. I guess the idea came from hearing authors talk about how a certain book changed their life and so often I think that’s bullshit. I wanted to take that premise literally, write a book that literally changes someone’s life. Do you think a book or a piece of writing can change someone’s life?
ALBERT: I don’t know. I think a piece of writing can change your life, when it frames something differently or makes you realize something you didn’t see before. There are things that I’ve read like that. But I also believe that writers or artists create what they don’t see represented and, for me, I wrote what I didn’t see represented. I was seeing all those abuse books that were pretty tawdry and cliché.
ALBERT: Memoirs or not. To me it doesn’t matter how they’re labeled or who wrote them. It’s the felt authenticity of them. You know that phrase they have that’s really derogatory? Misery lit? I think that’s ridiculous. My feeling is let everybody who wants to write, write. You want to take a knife and open a vein? Go for it. Maybe one or two will have a huge enough impact to change how we view the world, like Dickens did, writing about children in workhouses. Because art combined with craft can hit people and allow them to see or care in a way they didn’t before.
LANGER: But that’s so rare. Books with that societal impact—Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Bleak House—they come along once in a generation.
ALBERT: Society is nothing but individuals. You want to elevate society, then you treat every individual you encounter in an elevated way. And you don’t try to stop people by shaming them and calling their writing “misery lit.” If you come from a place where the ground is very stable, where you have the normal, socially acceptable forms of dysfunction in your family, then you don’t know what to do when you encounter somebody whose paradigm is completely different. That’s why there are some people who assume that I apologized for making JT live. But I never apologized. It’s like what Oscar Wilde wrote: “We have no right to quarrel with an artist for the conditions under which he chooses to present his work.” You don’t like my writing? Fine. But don’t tell me how I’m obligated to present it. I don’t talk about my past because I think it will somehow give legitimacy to what I’ve written. Anyone should be able to do what I did; my background is irrelevant. I don’t offer my life history as any kind of excuse. We should all be able to assume different voices. That’s the idea of art, to be able to go to new worlds. We’re just so puritanical; it takes a while for the culture to catch up.
LANGER: Do you have any trouble getting people to look at your work now because of everything that happened?
ALBERT: Mostly not, but every now and then I do run into some editor who ran something about JT before the reveal and still won’t talk to me. I don’t know whether it’s their ego that got involved or whether they just drank the Kool-Aid sold by The New York Times that it was all a hoax.
LANGER: You mean Warren St. John’s piece?
ALBERT: There was a perfect storm at The New York Times then—they’d just had the scandals with Jayson Blair and weapons of mass destruction and Judith Miller, and it was right around the time of James Frey. You have to contextualize it. Their credibility was already being questioned, and then they had JT write for the Times. And what did I cover for them? Disneyland Paris. You know, what really makes me sad was that my books had meant so much to so many people, and now they were being encouraged to think, “Oh, she was lying. She’s laughing at you. You’ve been tricked.” But today I get people who appreciate that I wasn’t lying. I was hiding.
LANGER: Do you ever stop to look back at how outraged people were by what you did and think, Wow, that was all kind of ridiculous.
ALBERT: Sure, but mostly I’m moved by the people who keep coming to me. They did a play about me in Brazil, and it was a big hit. I was also brought to Brazil with Alice Walker as the U.S. representatives at their book biennial. I’ve been a judge at film festivals around the world. I even shot a Korean commercial for a charity fundraiser. France has been phenomenally supportive. Everywhere I go, all sorts of folks come and share the most heart-wrenching stories. I had used JT as asbestos gloves to handle material that I otherwise couldn’t touch. Now that the gloves are off and I’m more directly available to people, they feel empowered to make themselves more directly available too.
LANGER: When you look back at everything that happened, are there things you would do differently?
ALBERT: You know what? I was ready. At the time, I was writing for Deadwood, and David Milch was really a wonderful mentor, very protective of me. At the beginning of the season, Milch had asked me how I would like my name to appear in the credits and I said, “JT LeRoy,” and he gave me this sad, kind of Eeyore look. And at the end of the season, when the press had broken the story, he asked me again. “How would you like your name to appear?” I said, “Laura Albert.” I kind of mumbled it. And he said, “That’s what I had hoped.” And he gave me the grace to get there. I get e-mails telling me, “I’m gonna create a whole persona. I’m gonna do just what you did.” And I’m like, “Good luck!” People ask me, “How did you do it?” Well, the truth is, things get invented by accident or by dysfunction. Or by suffering. You create the way a pearl is created, to alleviate irritation. I never asked myself, “Gee, how do I burst forth onto the literary scene?”
LANGER: So it’s irritation, but it’s improvisation, too—making it up as you went along. Not the books, but everything else that went along with it—the readings, the parties, the different characters that you and everyone else had to play.
ALBERT: That’s what people lose track of when they talk about this. At the end of the day, it’s hard to write books. I wrote fiction that was well received. A little group-home girl got into the worlds of people who she admired. That’s still pretty impressive to me. The fact is that I wrote and did the work; it’s not like it was some publicity stunt. That’s why I think in France there was really no issue. They know there that writing is hard. Here, people read the best-seller list and say, “Yeah, I can do that.” They don’t do that in any other art form. They don’t go to a ballet and say, “I can do that. I can be Baryshnikov.” But with books, not only do they think they’re gonna write one, but it’s gonna puncture the crème brûlée of popular consciousness and be the next best thing.
LANGER: So, who’s the astrologer who told you that you could write.
ALBERT: Nobody. My mother was always writing. But when I was in the group home, I was told, “You’re the writer, you tell our stories.” Back then, I was calling hotlines. There was a pay phone on the corner of the group home and I would call all the hotlines as characters, always a boy, and I could talk about stuff that I had too much shame and disgust to talk about. That began for me in the ’70s, when people were just starting to talk about abuse. There were these huge silences, and when they started talking about abuse, they would talk about a blond-haired, blue-eyed little boy. I didn’t see anyone who looked remotely like me. If I could’ve been a little boy, I would’ve. I was first published in third grade. Plays magazine ran my play “The Flower That Grew Overnight.” And it’s about a boy. When I was 11 and I passed for a boy, it was the happiest day of my life. To be trans was a really frightening thing. I saw Rocky Horror Picture Show  when I was 12 and that was really freaky shit. Whoopi Goldberg had this routine where she would put a shirt on her head and say, “Look at my long blond hair and my blue, blue eyes.” We all know who has more power. I remember people would say to me, “You don’t look Jewish—I mean that as a compliment,” and I would feel complimented.
LANGER: Does it get harder to put pen to paper knowing some people will have already formed their own impressions based on what they think of the whole JT story?
ALBERT: Definitely. It’s like being a deer at the watering hole. “Look at all these swell deer around me. I’m safe with them—but look at that lion across the way. I have to keep my eye on that lion.” I tend to focus on the one negative. You know, after the reveal, I had an agent yelling at me to write my memoir. He was like, “No one’s gonna care about you in seven months; you’ve gotta do this now.” I was like, “People didn’t care about me seven months ago. What’ve I got to lose? I’m not ready.” I wasn’t ready to write about it then. All those writers of “fake memoirs” were calling press conferences and saying, “I wrote that I’m a pygmy from Antarctica, but I’m not. You got me.” But the JT LeRoy books were not fake memoirs. I was the opposite of those writers. I wrote in my diary, “If you take him, I’ll die.” I could not imagine life without JT. It’s intense for me to think about. It wasn’t a joke. It was real to me. That’s the thing. You loved him? I loved him more.
LANGER: You say it in the past.
ALBERT: You know, JT LeRoy does not exist. But he lives. That’s what a famous film historian once said about Bugs Bunny.
LANGER: If the reveal didn’t happen, would he still be writing books?
ALBERT: It had to come out because I was telling people all the time. It was like I was daring them to bust him. First, I was very careful and didn’t tell anybody. But by the time I was doing Deadwood, most everyone on the set knew.
LANGER: Is your past littered with people who you told and who then pretended to be outraged with what you did? With celebrities and confidantes who appeared with JT and knew the whole story but pretended they didn’t?
ALBERT: A lot of people knew and, because of the way things were falling, they denied knowing. Billy Corgan knew and he totally protected me. He still does. You know who also knew? Courtney Love. She told me to do a memoir. She was like, “Go on Oprah. America loves redemption.” I wouldn’t play that game. I wouldn’t get up there and say, “I have sinned against culture. I have transgressed. I’m sorry; I’m goin’ to rehab.” No, I wasn’t a sinner. That was my lifeline. JT kept me alive. She wanted to take me on Oprah and bring a sinner to the cross and have the redemption refracted onto her. I told her, “I’m not doin’ that. I’m not goin’ on Oprah. I’m not crying.” It’s funny because, in the group home, we always had this fantasy about being on Oprah.
LANGER: What would have been open to you if you had gone that route and said, “I’m a sinner, I’ve transgressed” and all that?
ALBERT: I couldn’t have done it. I would’ve had to lie. That’s the irony. People were calling me a liar, but I told JT’s truth precisely because I couldn’t tell my truth. I was very honest about his truth. I gave myself over completely to his truth. Part of that is because I’m not good at filtering. Everyone knows that about me—if I think something, I say it. That’s why lawyers are just like, “Just shut the fuck up.” I am very honest and people can be snarky about that all they like. I don’t see them opening up; I don’t see their books.
LANGER: Do you find people to be hypocrites?
ALBERT: A lot of people signed up for the parade. The parade came to town, and they loved it, and it helped them. And when the reveal came, they could get attention for being injured.
LANGER: And now you’re writing the story of everything that happened?
ALBERT: I am. But it’s slow. It’s very intense.
LANGER: Do you miss the parade?
ALBERT: Of course. It was a big distraction, but I got a lot of insight. A lot. I got to see a lot of incredible dysfunction by playing Speedie. I was treated the way people treat assistants: “We don’t have a ticket for you. There’s no more food.” But what was so difficult was that I couldn’t really participate in what was happening around me without intruding. Once I was with JT and Carrie Fisher and Beverly D’Angelo. And Beverly D’Angelo was crying, talking about how much the work meant to her. JT was just kind of standing there, so I came over and started asking questions like, “What about the work moves you?” Because I was very much affected by her reaction. But for them, I was just being inappropriate. They turned and looked at me like, “This is none of your business. We’re having a moment. Who are you to be asking these questions?”
LANGER: I know you said you couldn’t conceive of doing anything differently, but do you think of how people reacted to you? And do you wish any of that could have been different?
ALBERT: Sure. You know, if there’s one thing I wished, it was that people would have read the work and stepped back and said, “Wait, what is this material telling us? Why did she do this?” When authors hide themselves, it’s not always just to meet Madonna. Sometimes it’s the only way to talk about things that are too terrifying to talk about.
LANGER: Have you talked about everything terrifying that you need to talk about by now?
ALBERT: There’s lots more.
LANGER: Things you still need to confront?
ALBERT: Yeah. But it’s not always easy to get access to it. Sometimes writing can be really hard. It almost reminds me of Peter Pan, where Tinker Bell dies …
LANGER: And so we all have to clap our hands so you can keep going?
ALBERT: Right. We all have to say, “We believe in Tinker Bell.” She’s like Bugs Bunny or JT. She doesn’t exist either, yet she lives.
ADAM LANGER IS THE AUTHOR OF A MEMOIR AND FIVE NOVELS, INCLUDING CROSSING CALIFORNIA AND THE THIEVES OF MANHATTAN. HIS NEXT NOVEL, THE SALINGER CONTRACT, IS OUT IN SEPTEMBER.HE LIVES IN NEW YORK CITY.