‘Literature is full of impostors and noms de plume, from George Eliot to “Robert Galbraith” (aka JK Rowling), but JT LeRoy is something else. George Eliot never did high-end fashion shoots, or received backstage passes to U2 gigs, or was sent Kabbalah books by Madonna. Some see Albert/LeRoy as a fraud on the make, a player exploiting the kindness and credulity of celebrities, care workers and fans; others regard her as a complex, postmodern artist, whose literary talent justified the masquerade. Was this one of the greatest literary hoaxes of the modern age? Or a strategic confidence trick?
“It was a fiction that went way off the page,” says Jeff Feuerzeig, director of new documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story. “It raises the question of where does fiction come from? What is fiction? I found that to be interesting.” Having turned down previous approaches, Albert agreed to tell her story to Feuerzeig, partly on the strength of his 2005 music documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, but also, she told him, “Because you’re a Jew and you came out of punk rock.”
On being told by JT that he’d never had a birthday present, one of them sent her a present for every year of his life, another bought her a new computer, another cancelled his own Christmas on hearing that JT was going out turning tricks. “This person made me feel like if I didn’t talk to them, they were going to kill themselves,” one of them says. The Cult Of JT LeRoy also goes deeper into Albert’s 2007 trial and conviction for fraud, having signed a contract in JT LeRoy’s name rather than her own, then set up a company in the name of her alias
Laura Albert does not see what she did as a lie or a hoax or a masquerade. She refers to her unmasking as “the reveal”. She has made various justifications for her actions in interviews over the years. One is that JT LeRoy was a valid artistic device – “art should confuse”. Another, which she explains to me via email, is that the LeRoy persona was her own, unique form of therapy.
“JT was asbestos gloves to handle material I otherwise could not have touched,” she writes…
That’s Albert’s ultimate defence: the work itself. “I was writing Jeremy’s [JT’s] story and publishing it as fiction, and everyone who was interested got a real live book in their hands,” she writes. “Since the reveal, I’ve heard from more people who understand the need to hide that I had then, how it freed my voice to have someone who wasn’t me. They recognise the felt authenticity of my fiction, the emotional truths.”
The question is whether or not those books have changed now that their author’s own convoluted story has all but eclipsed them. Is there a difference between “honest” fiction and “dishonest” fiction? LeRoy’s books are being reissued to coincide with the release of Feuerzeig’s documentary, so perhaps we’ll see. In the mean time, Laura Albert is currently writing her memoirs. As herself.’