In 1999, JT LeRoy — a 19-year-old, homeless, transgender, HIV-positive, former truck stop sex worker — achieved instant literary fame after publishing two semi-autobiographical books: Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things Shortly after LeRoy published a third book, Harold’s End, a writer with New York magazine wrote an article questioning whether the elusive author was even real.
While LeRoy’s stories of turning tricks, drug abuse and vagrancy resonated with lyricism and emotional pain, LeRoy’s style of communicating raised suspicion: he would always show up to public readings in a conspicuous blonde wig and sunglasses, tried to pass off photos of himself as a young blonde boy (even though the boy in the photos looked noticeably different), and was very shy in person (even going so far as to hide under a table at one public reading) even though LeRoy was known for being quite chatty and direct on the phone.
Soon after the New York magazine article came out, The New York Times revealed that the person playing LeRoy in public was actually a woman named Savannah Knoop, and that the real author of LeRoy’s stories (as well as the voice of LeRoy on the phone) was Laura Albert, a San Francisco musician who also posed as LeRoy’s British-accented publicist, “Speedie”. The revelation became known as “the greatest literary hoax of the 21st century” and is now the subject of director Jeff Feuerzeig’s recently released feature length documentary, Author: The JT LeRoy Story. The film is his third — he also made the documentaries Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King and The Devil and Daniel Johnston.
In the doc, Feuerzeig recounts LeRoy’s journey from fame to infamy using recorded phone conversations that LeRoy had with an encouraging therapist named Dr. Owens and celebrities like Courtney Love and Billy Corgan early on into LeRoy’s career, as well as cartoons illustrating LeRoy’s incredible tales.
LeRoy’s cover was eventually blown by Albert’s bandmate and one-time husband Geoffrey Knoop (brother of LeRoy imitator Savannah). And though the revelation got Albert lacerated in the press and dragged into court by her publisher for fraud, Albert’s real-life experiences with abuse, homeless and her time spent as an orphan in state care helped provide the background for her heartbreaking tales, tales that still retain power and emotional rawness whether JT LeRoy “exists” or not.
We spoke with Albert after a showing of her film at the Texas Theatre in Dallas, Texas.
Unicorn Booty: All your phone conversations — did people know they were being recorded? What were you recording them for? You know, because that just seems like an incredible undertaking, amassing audio recordings over the entire time scale… it blows my mind.
Laura Albert: Well… JT did a lot of the [recording], so most of it was interviews with different magazines. So, like the Courtney Love stuff, there was the interview that went for 12 hours straight. We were both powered by different things. (Laughs.) We were able to stay awake… I was slamming [something] and she was slamming something else. And yeah part of it was also [recorded on] voicemail, and we would pick up the phone and talk and things like that.
A lot of the people who were in those recordings didn’t end up getting interviewed for the film itself. I’m wondering if you can tell us a little bit about the way the narrative was shaped working with Jeff [Feuerzeig, director of Author: The JT LeRoy Story] and why the decision not to include some of those people occurred.
Well, he interviewed a lot of those people and I think that it was the idea at a certain point — it did allow the trajectory to slow so there was kind of like this…
First of all, we’ve had ten years of other people explaining who I am and what my motives were or my paradigm or… basically other people explaining me. And you never heard from me. And I guess for some people that might be really scary — to have me explain me. Whether you believe it or not, it doesn’t matter. It’s like this is me — you’ve had ten years of other people.
And the other thing is that, I guess I felt it didn’t really add to the story. I guess it was also the idea of doing something different. I mean, I know for myself, I’ve gone into documentaries and it always felt like I’m taking a bite of it or doing something nutritional. Do I want a twinkie, or do I want kale? Like most documentaries would be kale so I guess we wanted to kind of make… maybe it would be like kale that tasted really good. (Laughs.)
I just think it’s like — instead of doing the talking head thing it was, you cut to this person then that person and this person telling my story. Ten years ago. So, I don’t know. I think that’s question for [Jeff], also because it wasn’t my decision. I had nothing to do with that.
I was especially impressed that all the recordings of Dr. Owens, because it seems like something that wouldn’t have been a part of the journalistic interviews. That seems like it happened so early on into the JT LeRoy story, you talked to him for what seems like the entire time. How early on were the conversations with Dr. Owens going on before recording them?
I think [they were recorded] pretty much right away, and that was for a lot of reasons. Part of it was that it was such another state, going into that other state of being. That was a way [to] hold on to what was being said. They discussed… writing for that purpose of keeping continuity and… to be able to process it. And for the same reason, to be able to record.
And it was, for me it’s kind of like when somebody would have a relationship with [a man named] “Gary.” I say to people, I was there, and it’s like I was a limousine driver. I’m there driving in a car, and I’m hearing your conversation but it’s yours — you’re having a conversation with [Gary] and a lot of times it’s not that available to me. I’m not saying I can’t recall it, but often times it’s not as available to me as it is to that segment for Gary. I don’t know how to explain it.
I think I know what you’re saying.
(Laughs.) Ah it’s coming back to me now.
It seems that, in this day and age, authenticity is kind of at a premium. We want bisexual people to represent themselves in the media. We want marginalized people speaking for themselves, and in the movie, the story of JT LeRoy and your power are under the label “fiction,” and yet I’m wondering how you feel about a very specific case that kind of brings identity and a reveal to the forefront.
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Rachel Dolezal, she was president of a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and she claimed to be African-American, even though she had two totally white parents. She got lambasted in the media for it, and I was wondering: Should we get to take on personas to speak other people’s truths or do we do damage to the voiceless when we speak for them? How do you feel about that?
You know, I really can’t speak to other people’s experience and their story; I really, really can’t, nor would I want to. I really try to have compassion for people as they choose to name and present themselves. I’m here right now making a film where we’re talking about gender and nobody — when the story came out — nobody thought to ever ask me how I identified. You look at me and you say, this is a woman. Nobody ever thought to think maybe that I very much would identify as a boy.
My son is in school and it would be unthinkable in his school — there are so many trans kids in that school and if you said you were one of them, you could not use the pronoun that you want. That you look female and you can’t call yourself “he.” That is like, I think a teacher would be fired for that. And so it wasn’t available. That was not available to me to be able to present as I wanted to. It wasn’t even on the table.
This is the seventies and [being] trans was frightening. It was just only beginning to be discussed. It just wasn’t an option, especially if you didn’t — and I use this term — “pass.” And I didn’t pass. And it wasn’t available to me. What I really wanted to be was a boy, and what I really wanted to be was a gay male boy.
There are all kinds of other permutations but all I could do was speak to my experience and what it was for me, and I really, I just think we should have compassion because we really don’t know until we go ahead and ask them and allow them to speak and understand what their story is. That goes back to why Jeff mainly allowed me to speak — so you can understand, maybe what was assigned to me isn’t what was just wholeheartedly accepted. Nobody asked me.
And here I am right now obsessively speaking about gender and wanting to be a different gender than you are, you would think — is this what is automatically popular in the culture? Absolutely not! It was the opposite. So I don’t know if that answers your question, but…
I think your reflection on it was exactly what we were looking for. At this point I’d like to go ahead and open it up to the audience.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: I’m just curious — the film seems to be fundamentally about offering to tell your story — what it must have felt like to you to remain participated in a film that you did not ultimately author?
That’s a pretty intense question and one that I absolutely have to grapple with, which is that — I had to completely trust and, you know — in a way what was beautiful about JT was I learned to give a story over. It was my story and I realized “Jeremy” morphed into JT.
You know when we create art, in a way it belongs to everybody. It moves out of the controller and into the realm of art. For instance, think about when you hear a song and you ascribe all this intense meaning to it — then you hear an interview with the musician and he’s like, “Dude, I was just writing about banging some chick,” and you’re like, “Fuck man! I thought that was about [something] transcendental,” you know, whatever, right? When you create art it becomes of the world and, in a way, JT was like that.
It was like what Warhol said, “in the future everyone would have fifteen minutes of fame.” It’s like everyone would have fifteen minutes of being JT And Winona [Ryder] started off doing that. She created this whole story and how she knew him and had this backstory relationship with him and people were doing that all the time and I loved it. I thought it was very organic and beautiful and it was extending the self-authenticity of this realm, which really was in service to allow people to talk about things that were not being discussed. It was not there in popular culture. It just wasn’t. And it’s something that I needed.
So I had practiced giving up control by allowing it to move away from me. At first it was mine. I mean I kept it very small. I’d call a hotline to release something I needed to release and would never, ever be able to do with a girl. I mean we just talked about that. I was too ashamed to discuss. Unfortunately doing it that way meant I could never get that help. But when I was writing it, it relieved it. And it just got stronger and stronger. It’s so complex and it still blows me away, I don’t think I even get to understand it yet. It was larger than myself in a sense, if you will.
I was approached by so many people and I knew that I had to make my decision not based on fear but by faith. When different people would come to me about doing this story you could tell right away — were they coming [only] because it was sensationalism and the celebrity and everything? I was very, very adamant that it not be about a celebrity jerk-off fest. Because to me those relationships were sacred.
You know, JT might not exist but he lives. And it was a profound mischaracterization of what I was about, to do that. And once I got that this was a true artist, I passed everything [to him]. I gave him everything, night and day, every part of me. Everything, every tick, every thing I did. I mean there was all kinds of stuff in there that I didn’t really even label. So a lot of it is just trying to capture what was captured. And I am like that with people, I really [gauge] their trust and I open or I close and there’s really no in-between. I think that speaks to why I needed to create this other persona. If I can’t do it well, if you have a different being, what’s true to that persona, that being.
So once I [found] someone that I could trust, it was an active thing. And I still struggle with that. There are times when I’m just like, “oh, you’re gonna hurt me.” And I just have to let go of that. And it’s not about that, ultimately. It’s become not my story, in a way.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: What happened in your relationship with Geoffrey Knoop [Laura Albert’s husband; Knoop’s half-sister Savannah portrayed JT LeRoy in interviews] after he spoke to the press?
Well, I mean, as you can see, with Geoff it was a pretty big betrayal. For me it had to be done, it was going to happen sooner or later. And I recognized that and it was a gift. It was like, in a way it was an archetypal story where you’re getting betrayed and you don’t think it’s going to be from your closest [fired]. It’s that archetypal, I’m not gonna go there. But you can go there.
It was gonna happen and it needed to be done, but it was very painful and it was… Well, I don’t like to use the word “Judas” but, it was my partner. And again, he gave me a gift, so I have to have gravity toward it, but it was phenomenally painful. This was the process when my pain and its pastness becomes the future tense of joy. And I would never have given [JT] up. I never would have cut that cord. But… I was ready.
I was waiting for the next step and it was anaerobic. You know there’s a certain point where aerobic exercise becomes bad for you, I got as far as I needed to by doing this process. It wasn’t self-healing. So anyway the relationship at that point where I chose [JT?] came together and Geoff didn’t. The thing is, we have a child together so we were forced to try to work things out, you know.
We’ve just come from my son’s graduation where we went together to dinner and we still have a very deeply connected bond of the dads, even beyond this beautiful child. So, I understand, again, that he had to do what he had to do. It was a gift to me ultimately so, and I created this situation that he didn’t really sign up for.
Unicorn Booty: Thank you.
Thank you. I wanted to tell you, the books are coming out on Harper… which is amazing to me that they’re able to have a life of their own. New editions with unpublished stories will be out in September. Keep the Unicorn Booty flying!