By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Laura's apartment is quiet during our final meeting, and I think: She's lost a lot since JT's heyday — the father of her child, her movie deal, the public's trust. In 2005, in the foreword of what would be JT's last book, Dave Eggers wrote, "JT LeRoy's first two books ... will prove to be among the most influential American books in the last ten years."
I tell Laura her life has changed.
"Not really," she says. "I still live in the same place. My life isn't really that fucking different."
Her phone rings. In her haste to take the call, she accidentally disconnects. "Shit, shit, shit," she yells, running down the hall and closing herself in her office. An hour later, she emerges, tearstained.
"It was David Milch," she says, creator of the HBO series Deadwood, on whose set Laura was when news of JT's nonidentity broke. (A fan of the series, Laura — or rather JT — had pitched an article about Deadwood. She says she stayed on as a writer for nearly the entire third season, though apparently without credit. Her son, however, appears as an extra in several episodes.)
"You know, if I ever doubt who I am, I can look at the people who love and believe in me," she says of Milch. "If I ever think — because I do, I consider everything — if somebody says, 'You're a shit bird,' I look at it and think, 'Well, am I a shit bird?'"
While Milch is someone Laura says she told "right away" that she was JT LeRoy, when I e-mail her to confirm the quote, she writes back, "This articulation is not correct." (Milch himself declined to be interviewed for this article.) Later still, I will read that when Laura walked into Milch's Los Angeles office with a New York Times reporter in tow, apparently to show she still had friends in high places, Milch told her, "Shut your mouth ... Quit this sick behavior. Disengage. Forget the press. Go home. Be still. Get healthy. Raise your child. And pray that you can write."
It was not advice Laura heeded: When the Times article came out, she mass e-mailed it to friends.
Maybe writing is Laura's only salvation. JT's fuel is clearly spent, and even if people still like the books, the persona, once exposed, has lost its power to transfix. So why not just write? But Laura tells me she won't, "not more than in-my-diary kind of stuff," not with the possibility of the lawsuit swooping in and taking any earnings.
She is, however, writing a song for the Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan, who she says has always known she was JT. "The name of the album [is] Zeitgeist," she says. "And the more I research Zeitgeist, our feeling of what is our Zeitgeist, what I came to feel is that our Zeitgeist is one of despair, which is Kierkegaard's 'sickness unto death.'"
As she speaks, she lifts her hands, and, running beneath the garters she always wears from wrist to upper arm, I see scars a half-inch wide and bisecting the softest part of her inner arms. I wonder how they could have gotten there; they're too dramatic for mere cutting, and as a suicide attempt, it seems impossible that someone could inflict these upon herself.
"It's a despair that doesn't even know it's in despair," she continues, as she reaches for her medicine bottles, her fingers purple-blue. "It's a deep, deep cultural despair."
Not until I am on the flight home do I realize the scars are the result of brachioplasty, a cosmetic procedure that removes excess fat or skin.
A few days later, I call Ray. We haven't spoken in 15 years. I ask if he's heard of JT LeRoy; he says yeah. I ask if he knows JT LeRoy is really Laura Albert, and he says he does. Then I ask if he remembers Katrin.
"No," he says. "Was she from the Heights?"
I tell him she was a Swedish girl he talked to on the phone, who lived with Laura. He's quiet and then says, "Oh, Nancy, you just brought chills to my spine. She totally fucked me up with this."
How long, I ask, did the calls with Katrin last? "First of all," he says, "it wasn't Katrin, it was Katrina. The calls are going on a couple of weeks, and then she tells me she has leukemia, and she's going to die within the year. And I'm feeling really bad. It made me feel terrible. You know, when you're 13, you want to change the world, and I couldn't."
What does he remember about Laura from back then? "She was kind of witchcrafty — hook nose, long hair, overweight," he says. "I guess she had a crush on me and was trying to live through this character."
When I ask what happened when Katrina died, Ray doesn't know what I mean. Then he says, "Nancy, you just made me remember. I got a message on my answering machine right before I got married, 10 years ago, saying, 'Katrina died.'"