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Who is the Real JT LeRoy?

Throughout the nineties, JT rarely appeared in public. Then in 2001, he began to attend readings and events—almost always in disguise.  

Then in 2001, a person claiming to be LeRoy began appearing in public, usually decked out in wig and sunglasses. But the rumors persisted. Editor Ian Philips of Suspect Thoughts Press says, “Every time I’m alone with another San Francisco publisher, editor, author, reviewer, bookseller, I get asked one of three questions: Who does your distribution? What do you think of Dave Eggers? And who writes as JT LeRoy really? And no matter which question we start with, we always end up on the third—and the conspiracy theories fly.”

These suspicions were bolstered by the precociousness of both JT’s networking skills and his confessional fiction. LeRoy claimed to have bounced around truck stops, through youth shelters and rehab, and to be a junkie. In interviews, JT would claim to be spreading the rumors himself that Dennis Cooper or the director Gus Van Sant was the real JT LeRoy; he suggested that this was the defense mechanism of an abused child, a web of arrows pointing in multiple directions to protect the writer from public exposure. The one irrefutable aspect of his story was that he had an incredible knack for self-promotion.

Every other aspect, a mounting pile of evidence suggests, is part of an elaborately wrought fiction.

The literary hoax is an ancient form, dating back at least to the 1700s, when teenage poet Thomas Chatterton got his work published as that of a fifteenth-century monk. A good hoax is like a good con. Though a con liberates the mark from some of his material things, it also teaches him how easily he was tricked, how ready he was to believe certain stories. To “wizen the mark” is to send him back into the world a little less wide-eyed, a little more jaded, his vision now penetrating beyond the surfaces of things. But to enlighten us, a good hoax or a good con must eventually be revealed. In the early days, the mid-nineties, LeRoy built a core of literary supporters—Cooper and Benderson and Olds, Mary Karr and Mary Gaitskill, among others—engaging in lengthy, intimate phone conversations and correspondence with them. His biography seemed tailor-made for their interests. Like Olds, he had a strict family background; like Cooper’s characters, he was a boy who had fantasies of being beaten up; like Benderson’s characters, he was a hustler; like Gaitskill’s characters, he was involved in S&M and prostitution. Eventually, he moved on in his affections to music and movie stars. Those who spoke to him in the beginning affirm that he certainly came across as a disturbed teenager, and they didn’t doubt that aspect of the story. JT used to break into other personalities on the phone, Cooper says. Over time, his publishing friends experienced his transformation from a stammering, freaked-out child to a “cocky, sassy, ambition-driven megalomaniac,” as one literary contact put it. But how had a homeless teen developed both the writing skills and that endless ambition? How could somebody so pathologically shy be working as a prostitute? And how did he manage to send those faxes?

It seems LeRoy himself is keenly aware of the implausibility of some of his claims and in interviews goes to some pains to explain, for instance, how he picked up his literary tastes from his Polk Street johns. He explains how he was given a fax machine by a trick and how he managed to send faxes from public restrooms—the rare restrooms where junkies fix but that also have phone jacks hidden in the corners. His defenders have sometimes suggested that it is simply the inability to accept the disturbing truth of his stories that prompted some to call him a hoax, but there are other reasons. Apparently, along with his multiple personalities, the disfiguring Kaposi’s sarcoma he’d used as an excuse to stay hidden cleared up, and he stopped mentioning his HIV infection. And in both his interviews and his books he seems always to be suggesting that nothing he says should be believed.

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things is, after all, the title of his second book. In one interview, JT said, “When I wrote Sarah, I was male-identified, and now I’m not. I don’t know what I am. So it’s easier if people decide it’s not me, then I won’t be held down. So many people have claimed me as their own, so I guess the best thing is to confuse them all.” It might also confuse some of the people who were closest to him. Said Gaitskill in one interview, “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. And a hoax that exposes things about 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.”