In Defense of JT LeRoy

Everyone reading this blog probably already knows the story: a 15-year-old boy named J.T. LeRoy who has suffered a life of physical and sexual abuse, been neglected and deprived, worked as a prostitute, and been on and off drugs, emerges into intense fame after the publication of his collections of short stories, all popularly considered to be semi-autobiographical. A few years and many friendships with celebrities later, it’s revealed that the 15-year-old boy doesn’t really exist. In fact, he’s the alter-ego of a 40-year-old woman named Laura Albert.

Scandal and mud-slinging ensue. Laura Albert is denounced by The New York Times, not to mention the many authors and movie stars who assisted her ascension to literary fame. Many of those people are angry that they were lied to. They feel betrayed – and understandably so.

But what about Laura’s reading public? I admit, I was once amongst the dewy-eyed fans who packed into overpriced bookstores, wine bars, etcetera to hear minor stars read the reclusive author’s work. I trembled with excitement when I saw an androgynous boy in a blond wig and sunglasses sitting on the stairs (J.T. LeRoy was known for showing up at his own readings “in disguise” and watching). Laura Albert’s Warholian combination of shyness and desire for acknowledgement birthed J.T. LeRoy. I longed to be noticed by LeRoy in a similar withdrawn manner (although I adored him, I never once wrote him a fan letter).

Maybe that’s why I’m not upset by Albert’s ruse – I can understand the feeling of “[being] completely ignored and disregarded and disdained.” That total feeling of invisibility and loneliness wells out of some lack of safety deep inside, like a night when the wind is up and no one is outside, like the concrete slab of clouds in the sky will suck you up and trap you. Sounds crazy, right? I suspect that feeling of an internal vacuum drives a lot of people – not just Laura Albert, but also Hans Christian Anderson and the aforementioned Andy Warhol (to name a couple off the top of my head). I’ve felt that way. But I also fear visibility.

This is the sort of catch-22 that seems to have birthed JT LeRoy.

However, it may be unfair to ask you to be sympathetic to Laura Albert’s cause on those grounds. Laura Albert was and is a mess, I agree. But I also think that whether she’s a mess isn’t really my business (much less in my control), so I’ll reiterate what has been said repeatedly, endlessly, not about Laura Albert but about her writing: the books were marketed as fiction. The books were marketed as fiction. The books were marketed as fiction. Fiction fiction fiction! When asked if they were autobiographical, LeRoy would always insist that they drew on his experiences abstractly. He never suggested that the stories were verbatim, or to be taken literally. The public simply inferred it, and LeRoy/Albert never denied the rumors.

The rumors were never denied because there was some truth to them. Whatever Albert may not be (male, young, living on the street), she has obviously been through some kind of hell – enough so to write short stories that can be acutely joyful and painful to read.

However, these arguments may fail to elicit your sympathy. After all, LeRoy/Albert spent years coyly courting celebrity and soliciting fame.

The books have been attacked because writing of the quality Albert produced is (supposedly) less impressive from someone in their forties than it is from a young street kid. However, sidestepping all debate of literary merit, I’d like to suggest that the books had another value: they were, in some ways, for some people, therapeutic. Not for everyone, certainly. Maybe for some people they were triggering. For others, they seemed silly (I have several friends who would roll their eyes at any mention of LeRoy’s work). However, for some people – especially trauma survivors who had experienced a certain inexplicable type of psychological mangling – the books resonated. They made intrinsic, intuitive sense out of the internal feeling that the wall between sanity and nonsense – or sickness – was broken. To me, and some others I talked to, it felt like someone had written about things we knew – the way trauma twists instinct so that it bends away from self-preservation and toward self-destruction. Albert wasn’t writing down our own experiences – the events of the stories were far worse than anything I ever experienced – but the settings, the descriptions of emotions and tastes and personalities – were pitched with an uncanny perfection.

Other authors – Mary Gaitskill, Dennis Cooper – have written about abuse and lasting trauma with delicacy and a similar dark humor, but no one articulated it quite like J.T. No one was quite so good at writing characters who were both sympathetic and sickening. In Laura Albert’s words, “the characters in JT LeRoy’s books…strive for goodness, even in a world where all their experience contradicts this. I feel that this desire is essential to my story as well. When I would reach a point where I wanted to commit suicide, something gave me hope.”

The stories were and are hopeful. They suggested that even from the dregs of the most awful repeated abuse, a writer could emerge. And they still tell that hopeful story – after all, Laura Albert survived – damaged, maybe, but intact enough to get the story out.

The stories also described, subtly, that abuse could be confused with love, and that children and adolescents could mix up their desire to be loved with their willingness to (in Albert’s words) “serve.” They suggested, that these confusions could be overcome, that in time one could make enough sense of them to write them all down using vivid description. The stories reminded traumatized people that their trauma wasn’t unspeakable and that trauma could escape their bodies if they just gave it vent. Moreover, Albert’s writing showed that even the worst events and people could be seen with wryness and humor, even sympathy.

Or at least, that’s how the stories made me feel.

Yes, LeRoy/Albert’s writing was overwrought, but the experiences described were distressing enough to warrant such a literary style. I no longer feel the intense attachment to J.T. LeRoy/Laura Albert’s books that I once did. However, my feelings didn’t change because of an alteration in the author’s identity. My need for the books lessened because I begin to work through my own trauma. LeRoy/Albert’s books helped me to talk about the trauma I experienced, and get it out. Now I know it’s not unspeakable, and I feel safe much more of the time. I don’t long for the acceptance of ephemeral celebrities as much as I once did (although I admit that I have yet to fully overcome the shameful-seeming Warholian urge). I owe a part of my ability to speak about trauma and to let it subside to Laura Albert’s books. For me, and perhaps for some of the other people who her books imprinted, that means quite a lot more than any public identity hoax.

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1 Comment

Filed under controversy, literature, popular culture

One response to “In Defense of JT LeRoy

  1. Pingback: Gregory Orr: “This I Believe: The Making of Poems” « Irreverently

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