Thursday, January 12, 2006

My emails from JT Leroy

I was just reading JT Leroy's website, where "he" posts pages of emails that his friends--Bruce Benderson, Mary Gaitskill, etc--wrote in response to the early stories that JT doesn't exist. I wonder how they are feeling this week? Still writing letters on his behalf? I doubt it. Yet reading all of their pleas--rather transparently directed offstage by Laura Albert--reminded me of the mercifully brief friendship I had with JT via email. What's remarkable is how quickly I went through the many stages that so many other people have now described: 1) fawning flattery, 2) demands for even more attention, 3) instructions on how to help, 4) straight-up impersonal press releases.

The first of these emails followed a brief note I'd written him after hearing about him for years from Catherine Texier and Bruce Benderson, who both lived across the street. My neighbors two houses down where also big fans, and had emailed him and gotten a response, so I thought I would say hello. JT responds:
I've been wanting to write to you for a long time to thank you for your review. Catherine and Bruce are wonderful and without their support, guidance and love, I sincerely doubt I would ever have a book out. Have you had a chance to read Sarah? I couldn't tell from your review. If not, I'd very much likc to send it to you. If you send me your address I'd like to send you a raccoon penis bone. There will be a reading in NYC on August 22nd at The Fez with Mary Karr and the poet Sharon Olds who I've been writing to since I was 15. I would be honored if you could come to the reading. Sincerely, JT Leroy

I replied that I hadn't read Sarah because I was working on my own book at the time, and that I would tell my neighbors about his reading. Thanks in advance for the penis bone, I said.

Dear Ken, thanks! Lemme know when ya get ya bone. Thanks for spreading the word bout the reading. Ya know, in your review of The Heart you said: "one can't help wishing that the collection displayed more range, or that the darkness was leavened with an occasional light or sense of sincere hope. But, unfortunately, that would be a different life, a different writer, a different book." I really wished you'd read Sarah, coz Sarah is what you are saying, at least I think. I wrote it after The Heart book. I way look forward to hearin what you think of Sarah when you have time. Congrads on working on your book. I miss being in that space.
Yours, JT

We both must have been bored that day, because I responded with my thoughts on "redemption" and how it is something that we might feel we want from a book but it is also hard to convincingly pass off. JT replied:
...I never wrote the part where he gets into therapy and gets a book deal and becomes a rock star and tours with a ressurected Elvis. Next book. :) Just hope the NY TIMES doesnt give ya a rock critic to review yer book, that doesn't even bother to read it. I sound cynical. I hate that. We walk around here goofin on AA coz that's were we all come from and still go to. Like if someone is being whiney, someone else will say, "Boy, you best get you an Attitude of Gratitude." It cracks me up. But man it is true...gotta get me an attitude of gratitude.
yours, jt.

I didn't hear from him again for several months, when I received this touching, personal note:
I'm gonna be interviewed on FRESH AIR TODAY
to find your local station/state
Hope your well,
Yours, JT LeRoy

And then in May 2002 I received my final JT email--and invite to the party at LUSH where Wigs and Sunglasses (Savannah Knoop) made its first appearance. My friends urged me to go into the VIP area and introduce myself. "JT" was sitting with an entourage, which seemed strange for someone who claims to be a recluse. He/she answered my introduction with a freakish giggle and turned away. My friends asked if he seemed to know who I was. I guess even then people were suspicious.

"No," I said. And that was the end.

Monday, January 09, 2006

JT Leroy has a husband and a son and they loved their trip to Disneyland

The New York Times reports today that JT Leroy, the novelist whose identity has been the subject of much debate, is indeed a woman named Laura Albert, and that the odd creature who made public appearances as JT Leroy is the younger sister of Geoffrey Knoop, who is the father of Laura Albert's son. Apparently Albert and Knoop cooked up the JT Leroy scheme together, corresponding with famous rock stars and writers to gain support for the work of an imaginary transgendered, HIV positive, abused boy...who never existed. Earlier this year, the Times gave the non-existant writer a travel assignment: Disneyland in Paris. An odd assignment for a young damaged boy who frequently claimed he couldn't be seen in public. In reviewing the expenses for the trip, the Times found that only three people were traveling: Albert, Knoop and their son. Asked about all of this, "JT Leroy" said, ""As a transgendered human, subject to attacks I use stand-ins to protect my identity."

A few years ago, I reviewed one of Leroy/Albert's books: "The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things." I liked it, although the stories seemed to follow a predictable path, using violence as a way of bringing a sense of closure. After the review appeared, I got an email from JT, who wanted to send me a signed racoon penis bone. I accepted and sent my address, and along with the bone I began to receive really uncomfortable emails from him asking for me to help by attending various events in support of his book. They were needy and selfish--kind of like the emails one might receive from an aspiring rock star. They were all about appearances--how important it was for there to be a crowd at an even, etc.

Eventually, at a party in New York, I met JT. And I thought it was odd that he would be there, since for years he made no appearances. But there was JT, in his weird sunglasses and hat, refusing to speak to people, but cutting a mean rug on the dance floor and squealing like a girl. Turns out he was a girl. Savannah Knoop. Even then, years before all of this came out, there was something about the spectacle of the "reclusive" JT that didn't make sense to me. Psychologically, it didn't add up.

But perhaps even more disappointing are the number of people--including journalists-- who completely bought into it, and who were so convinced of the existance of their "friend" that they refused to entertain any questions about his true identity.