An American Tale...
There is something about the rags to riches success stories that captures the attention of American audiences. From Annie to Barack Obama, stories of those that start with nothing and end up with everything populate Americana much like reality TV shows now dot the televised world. It was of little surprise that a story such as that of the mysterious JT LeRoy won so many people over so quickly.
It's an oddly familiar sounding story. The artist grows up poor and impoverished. If that weren't enough, add heaps of abuse, physical and sexual. Follow with an eventual escape and a transcendence of their circumstances through their art, and you have the life story of many an artist. In LeRoy's case, however, the trials and tribulations suffered seem to be taken to a new level.
The child of a teenage mother, JT LeRoy was put up for adoption and lived his first few years of life as part of functional and happy foster family. Things changed for the far worse when LeRoy's mother, Sarah, came to lay a claim on what was hers. The daughter of a very conservative minister, Sarah chose to rebel in drastic ways and, by the age of 18, lived a transient life of bouncing from man to man, abusing various substances, and occassionally working as a lot lizard. LeRoy was quickly caught up in this world and suffered the abuses of the various men when his mother wasn't. Occasionally, Sarah would dess the young LeRoy in female clothing and pass him off as her younger sister. He ended up alone on the streets of San Fransisco working as a teenage hustler.
He eventually found solace from this life and in the therapy that followed when he was pulled form the streets by Dr. Terrance Owens. Following Dr. Owens' suggestion, JT began to write down his story. It seemed that the young LeRoy had a knack for writing. Ownes happened to live next to an editor, Eric Lewillinski. From there, life became a whirlwind as word of him spread from one person to another in the literary world. JT soon found himself writing for magazines such as Spin, with works in various compilation, and with a book deal that resulted in his first novel, Sarah. And all before the age of 20.
He still is a bit of a literature pop culture phenomenon, egged on by his eccentric behavior. He is incredibly shy and does most of his interviews via phone and rarely makes public appearances. He hasn't been seen in public without Warhol-like wigs and sunglasses. His name graces the author's position on two semi-autobiographical novels, the aforementioned Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. He's written a children's book, Harold's End, and been associate producer on Gus Van Sant's film, Elephant. His second novel was turned into a film in 2004 and he's co-writer for the movie House of Boys, which is in preproduction and slated for a 2006 release.
All too good to be true?
The heart may not be the only thing that's deceitful...
In the October 17, 2005 issue of the New York Magazine, writer Stephen Beachy had an article that submits the case of JT LeRoy being nothing more than a figment cooked up by Laura Albert. With an entourage of willing accomplices, Albert may or may not have made all of it up, having friends play LeRoy in public, hidden behind the eccentric clothing. If this is true, LeRoy may have taken the literary world and even Hollywood for a ride in a way that hasn't been seen in years.
Beachy's claim is not given fact yet. He's presented a case and it's yet to be seen what the verdict is, though if one glances through LeRoy's reviews on amazon.com, fans are starting to feel more than betrayed. If Beachy is right however, and his case is quite strong, LeRoy/Albert's play at fame and fortune meticulously fed off a narrative of abuse and scandal for their own benefit; greed and selfishness in the name of self. But... in the end, isn't that really the true American tale?
Editor's Update: JT LeRoy was indeed a fictional persona created by Laura Albert, who was more than a decade older than her self-proclaimed "avatar" when she began writing as LeRoy. Her own personal history is far different than LeRoy's, although the work itself was published as fiction. Savannah Knoop played the part of LeRoy for interviews and public appearances.
Joy Press. "The Cult of J.T. LeRoy." The Village Voice. June 13-19, 2001: http://www.villagevoice.com/news/0124,press,25519,1.html
JT LeRoy, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things
Stephen Beachy, "Who is JT LeRoy?," New York Magazine, Oct 17, 2005 : http://newyorkmetro.com/nymetro/news/people/features/14718/index5.html