You're on the brink of adolescence, chubby, frizzy-haired, self-conscious to the point of social paralysis. What if you could be someone else? Maybe the cute blonde in your class, the one who, when you stare at her across the room, seems effortlessly adorable? What if, through cunning, you could convince people you were her and receive all the attention? If it worked, would you do it again?
It's the summer of 1978, Brooklyn Heights, kids hanging out on the Promenade, taking for granted the iconic Manhattan skyline. Laura is the chubby 12-year-old, pining for Ray, a 13-year-old Portuguese-American boy she thinks is cute. But she's sure he will never be interested in her. She starts calling him on the phone anyway. Not as Laura, but as a Swedish girl named Katrin, who tells Ray she's just visiting and living with her friend Laura.
Katrin calls Ray every day; she's so exotic and, judging by the photo Laura gives him (of the cute blonde, cut from an old yearbook), beautiful. Ray begs Katrin to meet him, but there are always reasons she can't. Running out of excuses and panicked she'll be discovered, Laura gives Katrin — and herself — an out: a fast-acting cancer. Katrin's terminal diagnosis only deepens Ray's need to see the girl, to comfort her as she slips away, but Katrin dies, and, as Laura remembers it, the entire neighborhood falls into mourning.
Thirty years later, Laura is still intoxicated by her creation. "We should call Ray," she says. "For all I know, he's been looking for Katrin all his life." That a boy would spend 30 years looking for a dead girl might seem the stuff of paranormal romance, save that Laura never had the courage to tell Ray that there was in fact no Katrin.
Laura is 42 now, living in the San Francisco apartment where she spent most of the past decade talking on the phone with authors and celebrities and the media. Not as Laura, or Katrin, but as a boy named Terminator, Jeremy and, finally, JT LeRoy, a transgender teenage drug addict whose story saw him go from alleged truck-stop hooker to actual outre literary darling. Asked whether she's aware of the similarities between this deception and the one she pulled back in '78, Laura says, "Well, duh."
The first time I met Laura Albert, she went by yet another name. It was at the wrap party for the 2004 film version of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, JT LeRoy's second book. Like many readers of JT's work, I'd heard rumors: There was no JT, and it was Dennis Cooper who wrote the books, or maybe Mary Gaitskill (both were early supporters). While most writers are honeycombed away, engaged in their solitary work, JT was known for his entourage and evasive tactics. Not showing up for his own readings only added to the mystery: Wasn't it almost cooler when Lou Reed read the work instead? When you knew Tatum O'Neal and Courtney Love were JT's phone pals? When W magazine called him a "marketable wreck"?
Assigned by the L.A. Times to cover the Heart party, in the penthouse of Chateau Marmont, I tried to find out whether JT existed. The actress Chloe Sevigny said she knew he did, because "he's left several messages on my answering machine." Asia Argento, the film's director, took the question as an insult; surely, her sneer suggested, I was an enemy of art, and/or simply a square.
In the master suite, where Sharon Osbourne cursed in the doorway and Marilyn Manson lolled on the bed with a boy, I mentioned to someone that I was writing for the Times. A woman nearby, with bright-copper hair and Kabuki-style makeup, immediately turned to me.
"There are so many things I want to tell you," she said, things about her and JT's band, which had "just finished recording a song with Jerry Harrison from Talking Heads." Harrison nodded hello from his spot by the window. I asked the woman her name.
"Speedie," she said, her breathlessness intimating that I was her favorite person of the evening. When I asked whether JT was real, she paused, and smiled in a way that at the time said she was letting me in on the secret but in hindsight I can say meant JT was the bait and I had just swallowed.
"Ask him yourself," she said, pointing to a figure crumpled next to a night table, a spindly epicene blond in the process of passing out.
"JT," Speedie instructed, "tell Nancy about the songs you wrote."
"The name of the band is Thistle, like what Eeyore likes," he said, before standing, at Speedie's command, to pose for a photo with Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon. He slumped back down. "Sorry if I'm not answering your questions very well," he said, then rested his head against my knee and fell asleep.