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The Life and Death of JT LeRoy

“If you are disappointed that I am 15 years older and a female, I’m sorry. If it devalues the work for you, I’m sorry for that. I am sorry for people who really fell in love with the little boy; I fell in love with him too, and I’m sorry he’s gone.”
Marissa Roth

1980: He is born on Halloween, in West Virginia. His early life is marked by physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his lot-lizard (i.e., truck-stop hooker) mother, Sarah. JT, who experiences gender-identity issues, himself turns to prostitution and drug use. He winds up homeless and drug-addicted in San Francisco, from where he is rescued, variously, by an outreach worker named Emily Frasier and a streetwise musician named Speedie.

Marissa Roth

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“If you are disappointed that I am 15 years older and a female, I’m sorry. If it devalues the work for you, I’m sorry for that. I am sorry for people who really fell in love with the little boy; I fell in love with him too, and I’m sorry he’s gone.”

1994-'95: Through his therapist, whom he speaks to only by phone, JT gets his work to poet Sharon Olds. JT claims to be familiar with Olds' work because one of his tricks likes to read her while they're having sex. JT faxes his writing to New York literary agent Ira Silverberg, with the request that Silverberg get the work to client Dennis Cooper. Cooper, 42, begins a telephone relationship with the 15-year-old. Cooper will later say of the boy he helped personally and professionally, "I think he had a really hard time being a prostitute because he's an enormously shy kid and insecure beyond belief. But I think writing his books, he found something to hustle, and it's been very good for him. It's safe."

1996-'97: With Cooper's help, JT develops a telephone relationship with author Bruce Benderson, whom he uses to get in contact with author Joel Rose, editor Karen Rinaldi and agent Henry Dunow. By 1997, JT has a book deal with Crown, and is writing for the magazines Nerve, the New York Press and Spin. He avoids personal meetings, claiming they make him too anxious.

JT nevertheless agrees to meet Mary Gaitskill, who, he will later tell an interviewer, "read my stuff and told me what I was doing wrong. She sent me a bunch of books to read, everyone from Nabokov to Flannery O'Connor." Gaitskill waits at a San Francisco café; is rushed by a boy who hands her some writing, vinegar and chocolate, says, "I'm Terminator," and flees. Gaitskill instead finds herself joined by LeRoy's friend Speedie, who strikes Gaitskill as "very bright and very young." Speedie is in fact in her mid-30s.

1997: Under the name Terminator (for Jeremiah Terminator), JT's short story "Baby Doll" appears in the collection Close to the Bone. In it, a boy named Jeremiah dresses up like his mother and seduces her boyfriend. Willamette Week calls the story "especially haunting."

2000: JT's first novel, Sarah, is published. Inside blurbs include Benderson's "Not only does [JT] walk with God, he writes like an angel," and Cooper's pronouncement that the book is "a revelation."

Because JT claims morbid shyness, celebrities such as Mary Karr, Lou Reed, Tatum O'Neal and Courtney Love read his work at public events. JT's phone relationships with celebrities become legendary; sometimes, he calls to gossip; other times, he claims he is conflicted about his upcoming sex-change surgery, that he's ill with any number of diseases, that he's suicidal. In their descriptions of the writer, the media start to report that JT is HIV-positive, a status he does not deny.

2001: JT begins to make appearances in public, always in a Warholian blond wig and dark sunglasses.

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, a series of interlocking and purportedly biographical stories, is published. The L.A. Times calls JT "an authentic wunderkind," Newsweek pronounces his work "powerful," and the San Francisco Bay Guardian writes that the book is "relentlessly brutal and flawlessly scripted ... LeRoy's prose soars."

Mary Ellen Mark shoots JT, in wig, tutu and toe shoes, for Vanity Fair. While she finds JT extremely cooperative, she also will later say, "I felt she was a girl because I really connected with her as a woman ... I had photographed transgendered people ... and that was very different."

After reading the manuscript for The Heart Is Deceitful, Shirley Manson of the band Garbage writes a song about JT called "Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!)" and will later say of the tiny, androgynous author, "I have held hands with him, I know he's for real."

2003: JT writes a draft of, and is given an associate-producer credit on, the Gus Van Sant film Elephant.

2004: JT becomes the front man and lyricist for the band Thistle. Joining him are Speedie and her boyfriend, Astor.

On Salon.com, JT offers advice to the Olsen twins before they turn 18.

May 2004: JT travels to Cannes with Speedie and Astor and their son for the debut of the film version of The Heart Is Deceitful.

November 2004: In a New York Times article titled "A Literary Life Born of Brutality," JT is quoted as saying, "The thing about attention is, it's like drinking. One drink is too many, and a million isn't enough."

February 2005: JT's slim novella Harold's End, with illustrations by Cherry Hood, is released. Despite being edited by Dave Eggers, and featuring cover blurbs by Zadie Smith, Nan Goldin, John Waters and Lou Reed, the book sells poorly. Writing for The New York Times, Bookforum's Albert Mobilio calls it "a shiny post-card of a book that offers a paper-thin impression of the author's talents."

2005: Willamette Week reviewer John Freeman writes, "In spite of the celebrities haranguing us to treat him like Joyce, sentence by sentence, LeRoy is not an especially crafty writer. There isn't a single metaphor or image of note in the entire book."

October 2005: Stephen Beachy writes an article for the San Francisco Bay Guardian that all but proves there is no JT. But the Bay Guardian decides not to publish, and Beachy instead takes it to New York magazine, where it runs on October 17 under the title "Who Is the Real JT LeRoy? A search for the true identity of a great literary hustler." In it, Beachy offers solid proof that JT is actually the confection of the 40-year-old Laura Albert, a.k.a. Speedie.

January 2006: The New York Times runs "The Unmasking of JT Leroy: In Public, He's a She," which reveals that the person appearing in public as JT is actually Savannah Knoop, half sister of Geoffrey Knoop, a.k.a. Astor (Laura Albert's real-life boyfriend). The article has the ironic good fortune of appearing one day after James Frey's A Million Little Pieces is revealed as a con.

2006: The film The Heart Is Deceitful is released; New York Times critic Manohla Dargis calls it "well-nigh unwatchable" and suggests, "Given publishing's seemingly endless appetite for memoirs filled with sexual sob stories and kinks, a JT LeRoy was inevitable ... It's only a matter of time (here's hoping) before Ms. Albert grovels for forgiveness before Mr. Cooper, as Mr. Frey did before Oprah Winfrey."

2007: JT's next book, Labor, is put on hold indefinitely.

Laura Albert is sued for fraud by Antidote International Films, the company that three years earlier had purchased the rights to Sarah, which it now claims is "too sullied and emotionally charged" to make into a film. Albert loses, and is ordered to pay $350,000.