I’m kind of fascinated by scandals, and hoaxes, and the like. And one that has drawn me in in recent years is a scandal from perhaps fifteen years ago, when author JT Leroy was outed as being an incredibly elaborate literary hoax.
As a general explanation, JT Leroy was a famous writer of edgy semi-autobiographical fiction, who became extremely famous and beloved by a lot of people. His unique quality was that he was a former child prostitute who had been a drug addict, who had been homeless, who was gay and genderfluid and HIV-positive. He was this sort of fragile, ethereal artist who produced romanticized tales of his past, being sexually abused by men and emotionally and physically abused by his beautiful mother Sarah. Celebrities loved him, he was a bestseller, he was rich and famous, a movie was made from one of his books.
And then it came out – he didn’t actually exist.
He was a fictionalized persona created by his supposed foster mother (who also faked her own identity by pretending to be a British woman named Emily), Laura Albert, who had a weird habit of calling help lines and pretending to be a boy. The physical presence of JT Leroy was Albert’s boyfriend’s sister Savannah Knoop, who dressed up in androgynous clothes and a bad wig and pretended to be the person in question (Savannah also wrote a memoir about it some years ago, which I recommend).
This is explored a lot more in the documentaries Author: The JT LeRoy Story and The Cult of JT Leroy, both of which I watched recently. These documentaries actually complement each other perfectly, because they tell both sides of the whole hoax. Author is almost exclusively told from the perspective of the hoaxer, Laura Albert, as she tells the whole thing from her perspective and her life story and so on. Cult focuses more on the people who were taken in by it, how they feel and see it. And I don’t mean the customers buying the books – I mean people who thought they knew and had deep, close relationships with JT Leroy.
Author has a big bias. Normally I don’t disbelieve people with stories of abuse, both sexual and physical, and so on. But it becomes very obvious in this documentary that Laura Albert fetishizes child molestation and abuse. She romanticizes it. She wrote literally nothing else in her JT Leroy phase, and it was revealed to be all made up. I don’t feel comfortable believing anything she says about her past that cannot be confirmed by a reliable third-party source.
Remember, this is a woman who literally lied for a living, for a decade. She tries to claim that no, it wasn’t a lie or a hoax, it was “real” and JT Leroy was real to her – but we all know it wasn’t. You literally cannot believe a person like this; you should be skeptical of the things they claim, especially if they try to get your sympathy or argue that their sins and crimes are not that bad.
Always remember: if someone has a motive to lie to you about something, you should question every word that comes from their mouth.
In a way, Cult almost feels like a response to Author. This movie eventually centers on Laura Albert from the perspective of people who met her, including her ex-boyfriend Geoff, who confirmed the hoax after they separated. It’s a lot less flattering – a lot of people in it, including Albert’s psychiatrist, offer their viewpoints on her behavior, and it ranges from “mentally ill” to “she’s just a trained con artist.”
It also deals with the repercussions of the hoax and the lies. Author downplays the actual effects of Albert’s lies, presenting it as not being that bad, or even not being “real” lies at all.
But Cult bluntly presents the effects that those lies had on the many people who admired and followed him. Not the celebrities who latched onto the trendy it-kid of the literary world, but the authors, agents, doctors and fans who spent years conversing with him over the phone and emails, crafting seemingly-deep and emotionally-intimate relationships with him, and sometimes even coaching him through mental crises and suicidal periods. They formed online groups and communities, had readings of his work, and bonded over their love of him.
And it was all a lie – all those people were earnestly devoting their love and energy and time to someone who… wasn’t real. It was just some lady with a fetish for pretending to be a damaged, sexually-abused boy.
It wasn’t just the people who actually “knew” JT Leroy who were hurt. One scene in Cult features LGBTQ teenagers living in a shelter in San Francisco, and many of them are homeless, many have drug addictions, many prostitute themselves, and many have sexually transmitted diseases. I can utterly understand why these people were angry when JT Leroy was revealed as a fake – because their lives are hard and painful and sometimes very short.
And yet this woman used their suffering and their experiences as an “edgy” backstory for her fictional alter ego. It trivializes the reality of what they experience, and that is a terrible thing to do to anyone who is suffering.
For the record, I’m not saying an author can’t represent things they haven’t experienced in their fiction, because I don’t believe anyone should be forced to “stay in their lane” when it comes to writing. Write whatever characters with whatever backstory – do it sensitively and with respect if the experiences are something that others have had, but don’t let people tell you “it’s not your story to tell.”
But that isn’t what Laura Albert did. She basically played pretend with these serious issues, and presented this as reality – and that was a lot of what JT Leroy was. It made him stand out, it made people empathize with him, and it made up his fiction.
I know I’ve spent most of this blog post ranting about Albert and her lies, and how she hurt other people, but I really do recommend watching both Author and Cult. Watch them in that order – get Laura Albert’s side of the story, then flip around the narrative and listen to the thoughts, feelings and experiences of the people she hurt.
It’s a fascinating story, and I really wish someone would write an in-depth, all-the-nuts-and-bolts, every-possible-perspective chronicle of the entire ten-year saga. If you enjoy reading about stranger-than-fiction escapades, it might be fun.