JT Leroy, RIP

Following speculative pieces in New York magazine and other publications, the New York Times published an article this past week definitively exposing former literary it-boy JT Leroy as a figment of fortysomething Laura Albert's imagination. According to the article, Savannah Knoop, half-sister of Albert's associate, Geoffrey Knoop, played JT's familiar public persona — a twentysomething male wearing a bleach-blond wig and sunglasses.

This outing effectively brings to a conclusion one of the most compelling literary deceptions of our generation. According to the former official story, Leroy's malevolent mother Laura forced JT to spend his preadolescence as a transgender prostitute at truck stops in West Virginia. When he finally escaped his mother's grasp as an teen, he drifted to San Francisco, where he contracted HIV before making his storied transition to author.

I first spoke with the person I believed to be JT Leroy in the fall of 2002, while on assignment for Defunkt magazine. JT and I talked from midnight until nearly dawn, and he seemed disheveled and frantic throughout the conversation. He confided he had relapsed into heroin addiction and was trying to go clean — that the withdrawals were so difficult he wanted to kill himself. I spent much of that evening trying to reassure JT that life was worth living, dredging up the sort of positive-thinking platitudes that seem appropriate for such occasions, even if I didn't entirely believe them myself.

Sure, some things JT said didn't quite add up — his voice was uncannily feminine, and some of his recollections were vague and contradictory — but I quickly excused it as a byproduct of severe childhood trauma. If truckers had raped you as a child, parts of your past would be submerged in fantasy and darkness. Certainly Albert must have known that interviewers would treat this subject with kid gloves. And as much as anyone else, I wanted to believe.

JT and I spoke several times after that night, mostly about literature and music. When Black Book magazine needed a West Coast hip-hop writer, JT recommended me — an important first assignment with a New York glossy. If our relationship was merely a means for Albert to solidify JT's persona in the press, she chose a poor target. At the apex of JT's fame, there were profiles of him in Vanity Fair (where he was interviewed by Tom Waits) and Vogue. At the time, I was a lowly music freelancer with few outlets.

My own feelings oscillate from betrayal to amusement and admiration. As a culture, we increasingly seem to gravitate toward tragic icons and live vicariously through their impossible stories. Time and revelation temper our perception of individual figures, though it seems as if we can't help ourselves from dipping into the well of sensationalism and illusion. As it turns out, I am no different.

I met the real JT Leroy once, at the San Francisco premiere of the movie adaptation of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. My name had been left off the press list, and I was arguing with the theater's PR agent. A woman tapped me on the shoulder and asked me who I was. When I identified myself, her face lit up and she exclaimed, "I'm Laura, JT's friend. It's great to finally meet you, Sam!"

In retrospect, the feeling was likewise, JT. I almost wish you could've stuck around a little longer.

 
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