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Who is the Real JT LeRoy?

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I have a certain respect for extreme answers to life’s questions; for shape-shifters and for any artist who can elevate a hustle into a decade-long joyride. But I suspect that part of the point of hiding is the inevitable pleasure of being found. When I spoke to JT a second time, however, our exchange didn’t begin so friendly. JT had been doing some research, s/he said, and found that I was a jealous and less successful writer. S/he’d discovered I had a book that came out the same year as Sarah now “selling for a nickel on Amazon.com.”

“We are a Von Trapp kind of family. We create together in many, many ways, and that is our right.”

S/he believed that I had an agenda and was lacking in “purity of intent.” I asked JT to meet with me in person, to show me a Social Security card or a passport. “Why?” s/he asked. “This is your issue. I don’t have any burning desire to be proven to be real.” I asked if s/he was born in West Virginia. “I am not doing an interview with you,” s/he replied. S/he did ask me to be aware that there was a child involved. “I do have a child, and that I wanna protect.”

I asked to speak to Laura or Geoffrey, but my request was denied. “Astor and Speedie will not say that they are me,” s/he told me eventually. “We are a Von Trapp kind of family. We are a family and we create together in many, many ways, and that is our right. I reserve the right to grow and change my identity.” S/he spoke of JT as a kind of collective and mentioned Andy Warhol’s Factory. By the end of the interview, we were back on a less confrontational basis; s/he even suggested I could read at a “hoax reading” when my article came out. “I’m not sure hoax is exactly the word,” I said. “I think it’s more like a lifestyle.” S/he wondered if I’d seen Todd Solondz’s film Palindromes, in which the main character is played by seven different actresses and one actor. “I love Palindromes,” s/he said. “That is ideal to me.” S/he said, “I would like for this to be a door for other people to get heard.” On that point, at least, we had come to agreement.

So does it matter? Does it matter if “JT LeRoy” never lived in a squat, if he never tricked on Polk Street, never was a lot lizard, isn’t from West Virginia? Does it matter if he is, more or less, a 39-year-old mother named Laura Albert, originally from Brooklyn? Where’s the harm?

As for Cooper, his emotions concerning JT are complicated. He’d been souring on JT for years already. Even when he believed JT was a boy, he had become disgusted with the fame-mongering. He believes my scenario, he says, but he couldn’t say he’s 100 percent convinced. He feels foolish, he says, but considers it his own fault, and he’s begun a process of reassessing. How good are those books, really? He does express anger, however, about how these revelations might affect JT’s fans. “I know how much this whole JT thing means to some kids,” he says. “He’s their idol. What makes me angry is they used this, played the whole abuse thing. Kids who really are abused, how shocked they’ll be.”

Joel Rose expresses a great deal of skepticism about my version of the JT story, but he says that if it is true, it was certainly a betrayal, not by JT as much as by Dr. Owens. “They took money from publishers under completely fabricated circumstances.” Rose tells me that he is confused and hopeful that his skepticism about my scenario is justified. “If it is the case,” he says, “I have deep mourning for someone who never existed.” Despite his own break with JT several years ago, Rose had felt he’d gained something for himself through participating in the formation of a talent. “I loved him in my own way,” he says. “I always will. Even if it is some sick figment of Laura’s imagination. I still loved that person who presented himself to me in that light.”

There are writers I love who create intricate layers of stories that only imply an unstated psychological reality grounding the dizzying production of narrative; others self-consciously play with the boundary between fiction and non. LeRoy has written about the way prostitutes fulfill other people’s fantasies and about the way the literary world can seem like simply a different form of prostitution. In an early version of one of JT’s stories, he wrote that he sometimes felt like the emperor with no clothes. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that it’s the clothes that don’t have an emperor; it’s just a wig and sunglasses floating around a dizzying production of narrative.


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