In 1994 a teenage boy called JT (or Jeremy "Terminator") LeRoy began to attract attention in the literary community. He published a few short stories, but he also aggressively reached out to other, older writers, communicating with them by phone, email, and fax. He was a sympathetic character a transgendered, homosexual, drug-addicted, pathologically shy teenager who had been living on the streets, forced into a life of truck-stop prostitution by his mother. Writing seemed to offer a means for him to escape that life, and other writers strongly supported his efforts.
In 1999 he published his first novel, Sarah
, which was a critical success. More books followed, as well as celebrity friendships.
Despite his increasing fame, few people had ever actually seen him, and those meetings were always very brief. JT blamed this on his extreme shyness. Around 2001 he began to make more public appearances, though he insisted on wearing a wig, hat, and dark sunglasses to conceal his identity. At his book readings, he would sometimes hide under the table while others read his work for him.
By 2005, when he was in his mid-twenties, his stature as a literary star appeared to be secure. His books were selling well, and one of them, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things
, was being made into a movie. But this stature was shaken when, in October 2005, author Stephen Beachy published an article in New York Magazine
that asked a simple question: Was JT LeRoy a real person?
Doubts About JT
Beachy noted that rumors about JT's identity had circulated for years. People had theorized that novelist Dennis Cooper or even director Gus Van Sant might be the true author of JT's works. Beachy offered another theory. He argued that JT was actually the pseudonym of a thirty-nine-year-old San Francisco woman, Laura Albert.
As Beachy had investigated JT's background, he discovered that "Every trail I followed led me to Laura [Albert]." Albert was the woman who had supposedly rescued JT from the streets, urging him to seek the help of a psychologist. She was also his roommate, having offered to let JT live with her and her husband. She invariably was by his side during his infrequent public appearances. And finally, all of JT's earnings were paid to members of Albert's family.
But if JT was the invention of Albert, who was the person who appeared as JT in public? Beachy didn't know, but argued that he (or she) was probably an actor, noting that in written communication or on the phone JT was witty and intelligent, but in person he seemed different, inarticulate and withdrawn. Often the person who appeared as JT in public didn't seem to know basic details about his own life.
The Real JT
Beachy's article inspired other writers to examine the identity of JT LeRoy, and soon more incriminating details emerged. On January 9, 2006 Warren St. John published an article in the New York Times revealing that the public persona of JT was played by Savannah Knoop, the half-sister of Laura Albert's ex-husband, Geoffrey Knoop.
Gradually, the participants in the hoax confessed. In February 2006, Geoffrey Knoop admitted, ""The jig is up... I do want to apologize to people who were hurt. It got to a level I didn't expect." Later that year, Laura Albert herself confessed. When asked if she felt any remorse for what she had done, she responded, "I bleed, but it's a different kind of shame... If knowing that I'm 15 years older than (LeRoy) devalues the work, then I'm sorry they feel that way."
In 2008 Savannah Knoop wrote a book describing her experience playing JT LeRoy. Laura Albert condemned the book, saying, "I am not in any way connected with this book and it disgusts me. Just because you play a writer doesn't mean you are a writer. I think Savannah is being motivated by money and attention. Now that she's had to go back to being a civilian, this is her way of getting back to it. It's sad and it's sleazy. She's really stepping on my feelings."
In 2007, Antidote International Films, which had contracted with JT LeRoy to make a feature film of Sarah, sued Albert for fraud. A jury found her guilty and ordered her to pay Antidote $110,000 as well as $6500 in punitive damages.
Links and References
- Beachy, Stephen. (Oct 10, 2005). Who is the Real JT LeRoy? New York Magazine.
- (June 2, 2008). "LeRoy Hoaxers in Falling-Out." New York Post.
- Warren St. John. (Jan 9, 2006). "The Unmasking of JT Leroy: In Public, He's a She." The New York Times.