Truth is once more stranger than fiction: The odd saga of JT Leroy

It wasn’t enough that James Frey made up sizable parts of his faux memoir, “A Million Little Fibs and a Few Mighty Big Whoppers.” Now we know that young male novelist JT Leroy is not in reality an HIV-positive former teenage truck-stop prostitute and drug addict who turned his nightmarish childhood and adolescence into searing works of fiction. Instead, it has been revealed, Leroy is actually a 40-year-old San Francisco writer named Laura Albert — who, just for the record, should not be confused with the terrific Vermont novelist, Laurie Alberts.
Following so close on the heels of the Frey debacle, I have to ask: How many of my fellow writers have gone completely around-the-bend crazy?
What Albert did is not precisely what Frey did, because Leroy’s books — such as “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things” and “Sarah” — were always presented as fiction. Moreover, lots of established writers use pen names or publish under both their own name and another. For years, for example, Joyce Carol Oates wrote thrillers under the name Rosamond Smith.
But Albert took this ruse a giant step further because Leroy’s work was always considered deeply autobiographic fiction. Leroy was a literary darling not merely because of the quality of the prose and the power of the stories, but because the media presumed he was a young man who had led a horrific life. Leroy was often interviewed by phone, and in voice reminiscent of Truman Capote would talk about life at the truck-stop. (For a time, the 25-year-old half-sister of Albert’s partner, Geoffrey Knoop, even pretended to be Leroy in public.)
A producer of a powerful radio program once told me what an interesting guest she thought Leroy was. She wasn’t sure she believed everything he said, but I don’t think she presumed for a nanosecond that he was Laura Albert. After all, no one had heard of Laura Albert then. Certainly I hadn’t.
This is, perhaps, why Albert created Leroy. Oh, other factors might have been involved, too, including Albert’s desire to create a persona that would allow her to approach a particular gay writer whose work interested her.
But on some level it all goes back to selling books and finding a marketing hook. Beleaguered by an onslaught of digital media that has diminished people’s interest in pulp and ink, some writers are getting a little desperate.
Actually, they’re getting very desperate. Especially fiction writers. As both a novelist and as a reader, I find the degree to which our culture has grown enamored with reality profoundly disturbing. We don’t simply want to see poor suckers on some island eating leeches in their pathetic quest for fortune and fleeting (very fleeting) fame; we want no-holds-barred demeaning, scatological confession. We want to learn all we can about the truck-stop prostitute.
As a result, it’s no longer enough to be moved by fiction. Perhaps we’re no longer even capable of being moved by fiction. We want the hardcore fix of real pain — not the imagined stuff we get in a novel. That’s a big reason why memoirs sell so well (even, apparently, made-up ones) and are in such demand from publishers.
Now, are the books attributed to JT Leroy less accomplished because they were not written by a former teenage male prostitute? Good heavens, they’re more impressive. They’re testimony to what a fine stylist and storyteller Albert is.
But would her books have found a home with a publisher in the current climate if they had not been presented as the work of a writer whose short life had been one demeaning tragedy after another? Hard to say. Would they have achieved a cult status? Probably not. Soon we will see a movie based on the Leroy stories.
I’m sure Albert is embarrassed now. But there’s a fitting lyric in the Broadway musical, “Wicked:” “The most celebrated are the rehabilitated.” And so while we might condemn Albert today, we will read her tomorrow.
And then, no doubt, we will watch a film about her alter ego and the way she duped the publishing industry. I can already see the title: “The Novelist is Deceitful Above All Things.”
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press, February 19 2006.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

2 thoughts on “Truth is once more stranger than fiction: The odd saga of JT Leroy

  1. Bruce Holland Rogers says:

    A related marketing gimmick is the idea of “platform” and using general celebrity to market books. Has Paris Hilton written a children’s book yet? If she does, she’ll sell it. If it’s awful, she’ll get lots of help with making it passable because she has a platform. People will buy it because it’s Paris Hilton’s book, and never mind that she’s famous only for being famous.
    I do feel some sympathy for Laura Albert trying to sell the whole deceitful package, though. Lately, there has been a movement to try to shout down writers who dare to write about characters whose life experience is different from their own. By this logic, you have to be a black Caribbean woman to write a novel about the lives of black Caribbean women. Nonsense. The test of a novel is the text. If the novel convinces and does no ignorant violence to the real experiences of such women, then it’s a success even if the author is a white rancher in Manitoba. From the letters that appear in Poets and Writers every so often, I get the impression that books are often judged by the race or class credentials of the author, not by what’s on the page. So if Albert knew she could not be taken seriously and published without the personna, well, I think it was dishonest, but understandable. It provides a sort of mirror to the dishonesty of those who would say, “How can I tell you what I think of this book before you tell me the race, sexual orientation, age, nationality, and religion of its author?”

  2. Chris Bohjalian says:

    I appreciate what you’re saying, Bruce.
    But I have written novels from the perspective of (among others) a transsexual, a midwife, a midwife’s daughter, and a 10-year-old African-American foster child, and so I have less sympathy for Ms. Albert.
    Still, there certainly have been individuals who have questioned (sometimes in print) whether I had the right to be tackling any of those voices.

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