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.
After my piece ran, I received an e-mail from JT, thanking me for taking care of him. Then he began calling with invitations to San Francisco to hang with him and Speedie and her boyfriend, Astor, and their 6-year-old son, Thor. I had the impression JT thought I would be useful, an impression confirmed when he started to e-mail promotional band photos and CDs with the message “Drew Barrymore is a fan!” Because JT told me he had a sweet tooth, I sent homemade brownies, which, he said in a message left on my answering machine, were “so good, I want to trade phone sex with you.”
When I was little, my father told me not to lie, not merely because it was wrong but because it was too hard to remember the lies and thus have your stories make sense. JT's stories made no sense. Sometimes he was Thor's father; sometimes Thor belonged to a woman named Emily, who was threatening to take the boy away. I read a Michael Musto column that claimed Speedie was a transsexual; I looked through the e-mailed photos — she did have awfully big feet. I was fairly sure the honeyed JT voice on the phone did not belong to the kid I'd met at the party, but I enjoyed the instant intimacy, and the access, however vicarious, to this white-hot corner of the literary world.
And yet the calls grew tedious: I was not interested in phone sex; did not, as JT kept asking, promote the gifts he sent. The conversations dwindled, and then stopped, until about a year later, when he called to say he was sending me a toaster, or maybe a blender, something a friend had designed. I found the call baldly patronizing and told him I did not need a small appliance. There was a pause.
“Nancy, I thought you forgot about me, and you know how I am with abandonment,” he drawled, which was when I knew this was not some damaged kid but someone with a Rolodex of responses at the ready to reach the day's objective. But what was the point, to test my loyalty? Get a toaster mentioned in the Times? Whatever it was, with the exception of a short interview I conducted with him (or whoever was playing him), JT and I never spoke again.
In January 2006, following publication of a long New York magazine feature questioning the authorship of JT LeRoy's work, The New York Times authenticated the rumors: The books were written by a woman named Laura Albert, also known as Emily, also known as Speedie. The journalist in me considered calling, but Laura was in the midst of an editorial pile-on, and her boyfriend, Geoffrey Knoop (a.k.a. Astor), had left and gone public in hopes of selling movie rights to his story. So I let her be. Then, in June 2007, Antidote International Films, which three years earlier had optioned the film rights to Sarah, JT's first novel, took Laura to court and won a $350,000 judgment against her. Back in Brooklyn Heights, my mother asked if I knew Laura; I told her that Laura and I had some dealings a few years earlier.
“No, I mean when you were kids,” she said, and sent a clip from the local paper, which included a photo of Laura when she was in grade school, putting to rest at least the question of whether she was female. I e-mailed “JT” to say, Hey, I was a Heights girl too.
Laura called back. It was JT's voice, albeit with more Brooklyn, less sugar. “I'm really being persecuted here,” she said, explaining that the press had turned against her and gotten the story completely wrong, and maybe I, being from the same place, around the same age, would understand. Then she asked, “Did you know Ray?” I told her that yes, Ray was my brother's best friend.
It goes without saying that each generation gets the celebrities it deserves. When Laura tells me, as she will many times, “JT was my respirator; I needed him to live,” she means it literally. By the time I see her again, she is surviving on thin air. W and Vanity Fair no longer come to call; it's the New York Post, which calls her “cranky” and concludes that, with Laura, “it's hard to tell where the reality starts and the show ends.”
That, in better days, had been the point: Laura became famous making sure people did not know who she was, but rather who they wanted her to be. After she and Geoffrey moved to San Francisco in the mid-'90s and failed to launch their music careers, she earned a living as a phone-sex operator. Laura also applied the same skills it took to gratify clients — the false identities, the fantasies, the ready recitation of degradation — to build a telephone relationship with a San Francisco therapist, Dr. Terence Owens. Over several years of near-daily conversations, she told him she was a suicidal male teen named Terminator. Owens would later encourage Terminator to write (“because he felt JT had a problem with continuity,” says Laura), paving the way for some of Laura's earliest access to readers and criticism.
During the cultural relativism of the '90s, if you wanted to sell your books and be an underground star, you could not do better than the JT confection. Support from those who'd fought the '80s culture wars? Check. Solidarity with, or at least acknowledgment from, the queer and transgender communities? Check. Drugs and sex were expected. Child prostitution might have been a dicier sell, but not if the author experienced it, a well-peddled feature of JT's life. Perhaps best of all, JT was a victim, and victimhood in the '90s meant sales, as long as you'd triumphed over the neglect and abuse and depravity. JT had, through his writing. And the more attention we gave him, the greater his triumph. He was perfect.
It would make sense that Laura understood the brilliance of her construct; that she'd been priming for it since Katrin. She tells me how, growing up in New York, she was a giant fan of Andy Warhol and, at 17, saw him on 79th Street. “I wanted to go up and say hello, but I didn't, because I knew instinctively that what I'd see reflected was, I was nothing,” she says. “But I had this feeling of 'Perhaps one day,' when maybe these things that were stirring and bubbling inside me articulated in some art form. When I had my book and I could say, 'I'm coming to you as an artist, not as a fan,' not as someone who's, you know, in awe.”
Laura wanted her work to be her emissary, and in this, she eventually succeeded. In addition to writing her books, she created a Warhol-like happening, and if its truth was mercurial, wasn't that part of the enchantment? Like a trick rider jumping from horse to horse, Laura's feat might be seen as a tour de force, as well as focusing a corrective lens on why we read what we read. Going over Sarah on the plane to San Francisco, I find it plagued with a first novel's problems: clumsy metaphors, dangling plotlines, and the sort of humor I found touching when I thought it was written by a 15-year-old boy, but which now seems lame. The author Mary Gaitskill, who helped JT early in his career, mused on what might be Laura's real contribution when she told The Independent (London) in 2001, “It's occurred to me that the whole thing with Jeremy is a hoax, but I felt that even if it turned out to be a hoax, it's a very enjoyable one … a hoax that exposes things about other people, the confusion between love and art and publicity. A hoax that would be delightful and, if people are made fools of, it would be okay — in fact, it would be useful.”
This turns out not to be the contribution Laura wants to make, or not yet at least. Months after her trial, three years since she/JT has published any new work, Laura's in a hard spot. She'd like credit for creating JT, but also immunity from any trouble his creation has caused. Alone onstage this time, no more trotting out sick, beautiful kids for love and veneration, Laura is banking on people appreciating that she “contains all of JT's pain, plus my own,” and that she is equally victimized (if not by an unloving hooker mother named Sarah, as JT purportedly was). Thus, she deserves more of the sympathy and sunshine once allotted to JT, not less. In fact, it's been quite chilly in Laura's apartment for some time.
“Some people seem to be hoping Laura/Speedie was abused, so that some trace of the old JT LeRoy story will cling to the books,” blogged Dennis Cooper, JT's former mentor and champion, soon after JT was exposed as a hoax. “But whatever the real story is behind whoever wrote JT LeRoy's texts, the fact is, they're almost on their own now.”
Soon after letting me into her Nob Hill flat, Laura proves how limber she is by doing a full split in her narrow hallway, along which rest several pairs of her size-11 shoes. Then we sit down in the kitchen with some herbal tea and the lights out, and get down to business. “The ultimate hope is that I can reveal myself and you won't go away,” says Laura. She had lost the Antidote lawsuit the week before, and spends a good deal of time on the phone, no longer with celebrity supporters but with her father, her sister; someone who might hook her up with Inside Edition. She pauses to listen to a song seeping from someone else's apartment. “Oh my god, is that John Mayer? I don't need to pay off any lawsuit — this is my penance.”
To explain how she's wound up where she has, Laura first whips out the platitudes, about taking problems of the soul and turning them into art; about following in a distinguished line of writers using pseudonyms; about being not “a poster child for the First Amendment [but a] poster 40-year-old woman!” That she delivers these with brio and the occasional accent does not prevent them from sounding as though they came out of a can. Truer is her contention that our misunderstanding of her motivations has led to her eroding circumstances, a hard thing to deny when you see how she lives: in a cluttered apartment, with her 10-year-old son, a German roommate, Uwe, and a hundred bottles of vitamins and prescription medicines lined up on a cheap wooden bookcase. Laura, to look at, is not a healthy person. She wears a wig, her fingers are gray, and she's had what some might call excessive elective surgery — on her breasts, her nose, and her lips, which this afternoon show the pricks and puffiness of recent injections.
“I think people thought they had to have a reaction. I mean, in a way they were encouraged to by the media,” she says, her hand resting beside 2-foot-high piles of magazines and news clips about her. “They say, this doesn't make sense, and I say, well, when you're done beating me with your stick, maybe you'd like me to explain it, because I can, because it wasn't a hoax. Someone who's doing a hoax can't explain it.”
Before she explains it, Laura goes over some back story, the details of which seem designed, as were JT's, to entice and repel: As a child, Laura believed little girls were not valued enough to be “rescued” and so dreamt of being a little boy. She claims to have suffered repeated episodes of sexual abuse and to have “given my body to my mother's boyfriends.” She says she did not fit in at school, spent months in a psychiatric hospital, lived in a girls' home, became a ward of the state, won writing awards, was a skateboarding proto-punk on New York's Lower East Side, and ran the Mafia's phone-sex line, all by the age of 17.
Above Laura's dining table and watching us have tea is a framed photo of her mother, Carolyn Albert, a former New York City schoolteacher and drama critic who ran Underdogs Inc., the corporation set up to receive payments for JT. It is believed Carolyn signed JT LeRoy's name on the Sarah contract, one of the points on which Antidote hung its lawsuit: no person, no contract.
“They bought a novel, which is fiction,” insists Laura, noting that when Antidote's Jeffrey Levy-Hinte found out there was no JT, he asked Laura to enfold her life rights into the contract in order to make a “meta-movie,” an offer she refused.
“The Washington Post said, 'Her story is more interesting than JT's,'” says Laura. “That's why they want to make a movie of my story, and I dared to say no.” What the Post in fact wrote was, “If you are Laura Albert, you just pulled off something pretty amazing, in its own way.” But an argument can be made for Laura's life being more interesting than her character's. It certainly took deliberation to be Laura, and JT, and Speedie, and Emily. To coach Savannah Knoop, Geoffrey's half sister, in how to talk and act like JT in order to play him in public. To write books, and run a household, and be a mother, and personally answer, by her own estimation, “tens of thousands of e-mails.” To receive only reflected glory; to be treated by people as “the bicycle messenger — they don't even give the time of day,” and to keep this up for a decade — not, as she says, from some “control room where I've got my eye on everything,” but from a small airless den where, today, towers of CDs and books and tchotchkes appear one good kick from crashing down on the computer.
“They talk about 'the enterprise.' Really, when you boil it down, it was done from that little room, okay?” she says. “We didn't have a publicist, so you needed someone who could be the cunt, who could just set the boundaries. And it was great practice for me. I had to be an advocate by proxy for myself.”
She says that JT grew “organically, like a mushroom,” out of her history of sexual abuse, but when I ask if criminal charges were brought, or if her mother ever knew, Laura says, “I told her; she was bringing them in! This was the '70s.” When pressed, she admits she's not sure what her mother did and did not know.
Nevertheless: “I think the books are pretty truthful about how things look. The books don't fetishize abuse; they don't, either, angelicize the abused child. The worst thing anyone does is compare it to A Rock and a Hard Place, which was apparently written by … I don't care who wrote it; I don't care if a zebra wrote it. It's a horrible book.”
The book to which Laura refers was allegedly written by a 15-year-old named Tony Godby Johnson. In it, Tony claimed to have been pimped by his rich parents and raped from a young age by a group of New York City pedophiles. At age 11, he decided to commit suicide, but was rescued, while wandering the streets, by a goodhearted social worker named Vicki Johnson. (In certain versions of JT's biography, a goodhearted couple named Laura Albert and Geoffrey Knoop rescued him off the streets of San Francisco.) Like JT, Tony had a host of health problems, which robbed him of his left leg, his spleen, the sight in one eye and at least one testicle. He also had AIDS and, in 1991, reached out via telephone to the author Paul Monette, himself dying of the disease. Tony sent Monette a copy of his manuscript, which, with the help of Armistead Maupin, would find a publisher in 1993 and catapult Tony to best-seller fame.
Tony and Maupin would speak daily for years. “He was one of the most sparkling personalities I ever encountered, full of irony and goodwill,” said Maupin, in a 2001 New Yorker article. “He called me Dicksmoker, and I thought it was funny.” But Maupin was never able to meet Tony, not for lack of trying; Vicki Johnson did everything to prevent it, though she eventually agreed to meet Maupin herself. While Tony had told Maupin his mother was “a babe,” Maupin found himself embraced by “an extremely heavy blond woman,” a woman whose voice was disturbingly like Tony's. After Newsweek ran an expose claiming there was no Tony, and after the phone calls stopped, Maupin wrote The Night Listener, a novel based on the experience. And yet, “Tony's still more real to me than many people who demonstrably do exist,” said Maupin.
JT had a similar effect on people. Gus Van Sant, who at one point owned the option to Sarah and who gave JT an associate-producer credit on the 2003 film Elephant, last year told Butt magazine, “JT was a superclose friend. There was one year where I would talk to him three hours a day … He became one of my anchors, and then all of a sudden, the anchor wasn't there … And then, when I ended up meeting Laura, she was what I imagined Sarah to be like, kind of demonic and odd.” Van Sant still finds the character “enchanting … and I think I could still talk to JT, because I think he still exists.”
Which speaks to a lot of things: imagination; faith; the frisson that comes with believing that something that sounds too bad to be true actually isn't. That we will save those whom others may not; that we will try — because we are creative and tolerant and sexually progressive — to make the hard ground a little softer for those who walk behind us.
“A lot of these hoaxes, I think it's very common where people have what they call the 'fat-girl personality,'” says Laura. “You develop this personality on the phone because you can't show yourself.” After the birth of her son, Laura weighed “up to 320 pounds”; felt “isolated and disgusting”; and spent her time nursing her baby (“for four years,” she says, pulling up her shirt to show the scars of her breast lift) and writing Sarah. And if she spoke in the voice of a character she sensed would receive support and love, it was not because she wanted to con anyone, but because she was suicidal. By these lights, she feels, it should not matter if the person you're helping is not the person you think he is. “Are you sorry you saved a life?” asks Laura.
Not long after I see Laura, I meet Dave Eggers at a dinner party. Eggers had edited JT's last book, Harold's End, a slender little volume that first appeared in McSweeney's. When I ask him if he's had contact with Laura since she was outed, Eggers says, “I haven't taken her calls in a long time.” Still, he's at ease with having helped someone he thought was a struggling kid. “I teach writing to high school students,” he says, “and every year, I have a kid whose writing is great, and I ask myself, is it really great, or do I think it's great because a 15-year-old wrote it?” He shrugs. “You can never separate it.”
Ira Silverberg, the agent who sold both Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, agrees. “The 'who' and the circumstances of the author absolutely colored my impression of the work,” he says. “I trusted that what I was reading was by a teenage boy who's come through prostitution and drug addiction and AIDS. As a gay man, I've lost many dear friends, many artists and writers, and I think I was vulnerable to this.”
Speaking from his office in New York, as, he says, someone who came through “the culture wars with NEA funding and Jesse Helms,” Silverberg points out that he was “committed to publishing people who'd been marginalized, to get these voices of authenticity out there.”
Would he have represented the work had he known a 35-year-old woman wrote it? “I can't answer that yes or no, but it would have been no had it been Laura Albert,” Silverberg says. “I find her unpleasant, and you know, there's a big difference between helping a young man and someone whose careerism becomes bigger than the work itself. Look, I understand, if you're a kid and you've been shat upon. Then, having the attention of celebrities is okay; this might be your biggest redemption, 'Ooh! I talked to Madonna!' But when it's a 40-year-old adult, no.”
Silverberg admits he did not know there was no JT until the news broke. “I bought [the JT story] lock, stock and barrel,” he says. “And quite honestly, I was transcended by all this stuff; the wig and the hiding and shyness and the ambiguity, it all made sense. I remember, we were in Cannes, and Savannah [Knoop, as JT] took off her glasses, and I saw these sparkling blue eyes, and I had tears in my eyes. It was so … it was as if …”
As if JT were showing himself, naked?
“Yes, revealing himself to me,” Silverberg says. “It was very personal. I devoted so much time to JT on the phone, talking about whatever horrible problem it was that day. We flocked to someone we were proud of, for transcending this horrible life … The work was wed to a persona, there was redemption in it. But as the writer is not the one we thought it was, there is no longer that person to be redeemed. It could be that hers is the last remnant of victim-culture literature, and that we're all armchair psychologists.”
Laura, like some highly skilled Shaolin warrior, has learned to deflect whatever arrows are shot her way. “The more someone puts you on a pedestal and fetishizes you, the more they're going to have to hatchet it,” she says. “I was prepared for it.”
It's early evening, and she is waiting for Ron Turner of Last Gasp press, which published Harold's End. Laura wants me to meet Turner because, she says, unlike most people she dealt with when posing as Speedie, “Ron never treated me like crap.”
Turner, a big-bellied man in overalls, moves boxes of books from the back seat of his minivan to make room for the evening's entourage. As we cruise down Broadway, Laura spots two young guys on a corner.
“Dude!” she calls out the window. “Have you read the e-mails I sent? It's links to the New York Post and some others. You've got to check them out!”
Clearly, Laura is no longer hiding. At a deli-style restaurant, she talks on her cell phone, reminds the server we get 10 percent off, waves to familiar faces, kisses her son, tells Turner he's got sauce on his beard, informs her roommate, Uwe, that he's too thin and needs to order more, and when he insists he's full, orders him a second entree anyway, and some desserts to go. I pick up the tab, which comes to over $100.
“I know how things work,” she says, on the ride home. “These big magazines have these huge budgets; it's a tax write-off. Three years later, they groan, 'Oh! We took out an entourage!' Fuck you. You don't get to enjoy us and complain about it three years later. As if Vanity Fair didn't have the money to buy Savannah and me lunch.”
I wedge the takeout containers in Laura's fridge, atop what appears to be a whole roast turkey, and ask Turner if he knew Savannah was impersonating JT.
“I had just some minor suspicions,” he says. He once hugged JT, for instance, and noticed a bra strap.
(Laura's still in touch with Savannah, who told the San Francisco Chronicle that “it was a relief when it was over.” Savannah now designs a line of organic clothing described by the Chronicle as “somewhat androgynous.”)
Still, Turner says, as he and Laura tuck into some homemade cookies, there were other, credible things. “There was the Winona Ryder story about the opera.”
Laura giggles. What story is that? I ask.
“The story of this street waif loving opera and wanting to go in, and Winona Ryder having two tickets because she broke up with her boyfriend, and inviting the kid in,” he says. “And I know Winona, and her parents. And I'm thinking, if she's saying that happened …”
Did he get the story from Winona?
“She said it onstage,” says Laura. “At the Index Magazine reading.”
Did it happen?
“No. She made it up,” Laura claims. “A lot of people did that. Everyone just added their own chapter, which is what I thought was great about the whole JT thing.”
“The whole JT thing” included Laura herself having some fun. “We went to the New York Post, and we told them that Asia Argento was pregnant with JT LeRoy's baby; we did that with Asia on the phone,” she says, and laughs. “And then, when you lift the curtain, and I'm the one standing there, everyone's like, aghhhh!”
Turner reaches for another cookie. “Asia was certainly part of the adventure,” he says.
“She was, but she also attacked me horribly in this W magazine article,” Laura says, of the topmost clipping among a big stack on the table. “Some people, it surprised me, their hypocrisy. They said, 'We were the bastions of hip, we were the keepers of the gate. You snuck past us: How dare you?' And now they're pissed.”
Maybe, I suggest, they felt betrayed.
“For the people who feel betrayed or whatever, I say: For me, JT was very real,” she says. “We didn't make anyone do anything they didn't want to do. We were there, really, being of service. We were really there, spreading joy and love. Maybe it allowed you to have compassion by proxy.”
It's nearly midnight, and Turner is openly yawning. “I wish,” he says, “I was smart enough to have figured everything out from the beginning.”
Would it have mattered to him?
“Of course,” he says. “I don't know if anything would have changed, but it certainly would have mattered.” He shrugs. “But I wanted Santa Claus to exist, you know?”
I tell Ron he looks a little like Santa.
“Come sit on my face, then,” he says. “Tell me what you want.”
Laura smiles. “Spoken like a true Santa.”
They are quiet as they eat the last of the cookies. If Laura had been able to write the end of her own story, I ask, how would she have done it?
“People ask me, did we ever have an exit plan? And we didn't,” she says. “It's like the Iraq war: There was no exit plan. How do you give an exit plan to your respirator? To your means of life support?”
“One thing led to another thing led to another thing,” says Turner. “We spiraled out.”
Laura agrees. “We got too big. I knew when The New York Times was regularly hiring JT LeRoy to write; when I would sit on the toilet and read a magazine and it would refer to JT LeRoy as a genre, as a style, as a category, I was like, 'Whoa.'”
“I have written in my diary, 'If I lose JT, I will die,'” says Laura. “That was my feeling. He didn't want to go; I didn't want him to go. I would do anything, and he would do anything, to stay.”
It's the next day, and having gleaned that I do not have a Vanity Fair expense account, Laura has set two mini quiches on the table. She eats only the filling, with her fingers.
“I would hear from people, 'JT would call me up, suicidal,'” she says. “It's funny, because JT could articulate it; I couldn't say it — that I was suicidal. I couldn't ask for help, because my greatest fear was, if I had said I wanted to kill myself, people would have said, 'Well, I can understand that.' He could say, 'I'm suicidal,' and someone would say, 'No, don't do that.'” She pauses. “But if there was an added adjunct that they were also getting off on the perversity of a little boy, that is unforgivable.”
Unforgivable, I suggest, is a little strong, considering JT's predilection for initiating sex talk, and the fact that in most of JT's stories, boys are sex objects. But I realize, as Laura makes us more tea, the subject is calculated.
“I read this book Try, by Dennis Cooper, and I was not the healthiest puppy in the world,” she says. The book, about an adolescent boy sexually abused by his two adoptive fathers, appealed, Laura says, “to that sick part of me that understood the loneliness and abuse and the perversity.”
And so she started to write. And then, passing herself off as the homeless, drug-addicted Terminator, had the wherewithal to get her work to Silverberg, who showed it to his client Cooper, who became both a staunch supporter (“Dennis” is one of the people to whom Sarah is dedicated) and a daily phone confidant.
“Having Dennis say to me, 'Keep going, Terminator; keep writing,'” says Laura, her voice thickening with tears. “I was suicidal. I was fucking nuts. I was, like, bouncing off the wall. I don't know how to articulate it. It was like, I was going to that state of just how do I take a knife and slit myself open. Writing was the one time where I was free of that, where there was order, and there was peace. And I needed permission to do it, and I would give anything to have that permission.”
So she sought it from people like Cooper. If he could have so much interest and compassion in JT, even with all of JT's problems, she thought, “then maybe he can have compassion for me, Laura, who felt the most disgusting, or whatever.”
This hopeful assumption proved incorrect. When Cooper found out JT was Laura, he was not understanding, as he wrote on his blog, because Terminator “was constantly threatening to either commit suicide or find some S&M master who would kill him and expected me to spend hours on the phone talking him out of it.” Mostly, he was angry on behalf of the work.
“The fact that his books had serious weaknesses — rampant sentimentality, cliched characters and storylines, uneven writing, etc. — was forgiven due to 'his' youth … 'his' emotional problems, 'his' precarious health,” wrote Cooper. “The books were always in some inspirational way souvenirs of this boy's awful life.”
Laura dismisses Cooper's critique as sour grapes. “[Dennis] told JT that the final straw was that Edmund White, the gay writer, had said to him, 'You know, I like your Dennis Cooper stuff okay, but your JT LeRoy work is brilliant,'” she says. “Everywhere he went, people were asking him more about JT LeRoy than him, and he was getting sick and tired of it … 'cause JT LeRoy had surpassed him.”
Rather than coming clean (“Don't use that expression,” she says) and apologizing to the people she's pissed off, Laura digs in.
“I am not sorry that beautiful work got brought into the world,” she says. “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.” Later she'll tell me, “For me to say I'll never apologize, it's not — there's different kinds of apologies. I mean, 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.”
Looking at the remains of JT around the apartment, “Harold's End” T-shirts and celebrity photos and what Laura says will be “a new JT LeRoy perfume,” it's clear that the writing — fewer than 500 pages in the JT oeuvre — was not the point. The point was the vehicle, and Laura was extraordinarily good at driving it. She used everything at her disposal — flattery, hyperbole, gifts, sexual innuendo, fatal diseases (though Laura insists she never went on record saying JT had AIDS) — to push forward her career. And while it did not bring her wealth (the final book sold to Last Gasp for $4,000), it did bring fame. As she told The Paris Review in 2006, when she learned Madonna was reading Sarah, “I was in Florida, swimming in the pool at my grandma's house, thinking, 'My God, Madonna's in my world … she's in my world, she's in my world.'”
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.'”
Ten years ago?
“Yeah. I didn't know what that meant until you just brought this up,” he says. As for Katrina having a death scene back in 1978, Ray says, it didn't happen. “I remember my mother being beside herself, and calling Laura's mother to say, 'I don't know why this dying girl chose my son to comfort her.'”
I tell Ray Laura's contention that when Katrina died, the whole neighborhood was in mourning. “She's full of shit,” he says. “Katrina just went back to Europe or faded away or something. She'd told me she was in America because the medical treatment was better, which is pretty clever. But for everyone to suffer and wonder what happened, that is fucked up.”
Ray calls me back later, concerned that I'll get sucked in.
“Laura is probably more wicked now than she was,” he says. “She's very intelligent and has a very good imagination, and I can see how people would admire her, but she caused a lot of hurt from this. She made a lot of people worry.”
I repeat Laura's assertions, about abuse and having no choice but to create characters who would be loved. And also, perhaps, that the only way she knew how to hurt people was to make the people they loved disappear.
“Yeah, I see it,” he says. “She wanted everyone to feel as bad as she did.”
The Life and Death of JT LeRoy
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.
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 cafe; 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.