Genre Trouble: Laura Albert on JT LeRoy, Fame, Gender, and Literary Exploitation


 

As a first-time author back in 2007, I was fascinated by the court case of Laura Albert, a San Francisco musician and phone sex operator who dreamed up a genderqueer alter ego by the name of JT LeRoy. LeRoy—who was thought to be a real person, not anyone’s persona—went on to woo everyone from Dennis Cooper and Mary Gaitskill to Asia Argento and Gus Van Sant with his harrowing writing. After LeRoy received much fame and acclaim, Albert was not only outed as the creator of LeRoy, but ultimately she was sued for fraud by Antidote Films, the production company that had optioned the rights to LeRoy’s Sarah.

Now, nearly a decade on, Albert finds herself in a much more positive spotlight as the subject of Jeff Feuerzeig’s Sundance-premiering documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story. Though I’ve corresponded with the often-polarizing writer over the years, we never actually sat down to do a formal interview. With the documentary hitting select theaters today, September 9, I figured it was due time to catch up, reflect, and reconsider the saga of JT LeRoy.


LAUREN WISSOT: You had a remarkable “run,” so to speak, as JT, which began in the ‘90s—i.e., before the internet was ubiquitous, before Google searching, Reddit sleuthing, trolls, and avatars. Do you think JT as a phenomenon could exist in this day and age?

LAURA ALBERT: Sure, that could happen again. What keeps more people from doing it is not the chance of being busted, because that's always possible—anyone who really wants to play Ahab to your whale can eventually sink their harpoon, given enough time, no matter how well you try to cover your tracks. No, most people refrain from doing it because they want the recognition. John Waters once told JT that the most un-American thing he could do was reject fame. Most people are very patriotic.

One of the aspects of the film that most surprised me was that, other than Savannah (who briefly appears at the end), no one but you is featured as a present-day talking head. Was this a conscious decision on the part of you and Jeff, or did no one else choose to participate?

A bunch of people were interviewed, and many of them are in the film. But as Jeff has said, in all his JT LeRoy research, the voice that was glaringly absent was my own. Very few ever bothered to ask me why I had done this, so the shorthand excuse—that I had done it for fame or attention—was sold and bought and joined the echo chamber. Mark Twain said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” So even though, in the JT LeRoy books, I wrote obsessively about gender fluidity, no one thought to ask me about how I might identify. I was just labeled a “bored housewife!" Ten years ago, we did not have the kind of language and understanding about gender, which we can access now. I think JT and those books played a role in generating this more expanded vocabulary, and it's a conversation I intend to take further. Jeff wanted to hear my voice and share it with others through his film, but it did have to come in at under two hours—otherwise you’d be looking at a limited series, which it easily could have been.

The trove of audio recordings from your time as JT is astonishing. Why did you record and then save all those tapes? And didn’t you need permission from those being recorded in order to use their audio in the doc?

My frequent joke about this is to confess that I am a serial tapist. But in fact most of the tapes that are heard in the film are from voicemail recordings. Other tapes are excerpts from longer telephone interviews JT was doing with people. And some I just taped. My mother had won a reel-to-reel recorder when I was a small child, and she would set me up with it. To hear myself back was like seeing something more than my shadow—I was real. I would tell stories, do voices. She would leave me alone to entertain myself for hours. She was a writer and taught me to go to artists as another artist, not as a fan. And she loved musical playwrights and would interview them—she always had her own massive tape deck. Taping was also a way of grounding me. I was both inside and outside of crazy, and with the tapes I could hold on to what I had given myself over to. It was through a tape recording that I first tried to reach out to the world about what life was like in an institution and in a group home. My son had his own Playskool tape recorder as a child, and he records, too—his music.

I have to admit that as a genderqueer chick who worked in the BDSM industry during the reign of JT, I never quite understood the cult surrounding him. (Indeed, my initial reaction, back when you were outed, was basically, “Who cares?”) Honestly, I kind of felt that a lot of the celebrities who attached themselves to him were doing it either because a) it was an acceptable way to be around a hot teenage boy and/or b) they were slumming. Rightly or wrongly, I just had very little sympathy for those who felt they’d been punked. Did it ever feel to you like JT himself was, in a sense, being exploited?

The celebrities who became involved with JT, they had read the books and been deeply affected by them, which meant a great deal to me then and still does. So I have a lot of compassion for people who feel they were punked, because I wasn't trying to punk anyone. And it saddens me that, after the reveal, some people shut down the deep feeling the books opened up in them. Regarding exploitation, you have to remember, that was how JT learned to survive: by accepting exploitation and learning how to anticipate it and navigate with it. Publicity and praise and photo shoots and red carpets are another form of exploitation, another way of commodifying one's self. That was a constant theme in JT's article writing at the time.

It always struck me as rather odd that, as far as I know, no one questioned why JT’s books had been published as fiction rather than as autobiography or memoir. I don’t know if you read author Suki Kim’s article in the New Republic last month, but in it she basically lamented the fact that her work of undercover investigative journalism Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite had been marketed as memoir (and the sexism inherent in her publisher’s decision). Do you have any opinions about the publishing industry, and book marketing in general, after what you went through?

In Author I remark on how I walked away from one book deal because they wanted to release [the JT LeRoy short-story collection] The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things as a memoir, and I refused to go along. They were works of fiction and had to be marketed that way. But a certain eagerness for memoir exists because the publishing industry does more than sell books—it sells writers. In our society, both artwork and artist become commodities in the marketplace. If the book is a memoir, then book equals artist, which simplifies the marketing.

by Lauren Wissot
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Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and festival programmer, and a contributing editor at Filmmaker magazine. Her writing can also be regularly read at Documentary Magazine, Salon, The Rumpus, and Hammer to Nail. Her book Under My Master’s Wings, a memoir about her time spent as the personal slave to a gay-for-pay stripper, is available from Random House sub-imprint Nexus Books.

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