[Editor’s Note: Idol Chatter was so confused by news of scandal within the literary world–whom to believe? how to tell fact from fiction?–that we turned to guest blogger Ariana Speyer, a freelance writer with a personal connection to one of these authorial dramas, to help us make sense of it all.]
In case you’ve been under a rock this week, there is a fake-writer epidemic going around. There’s Oprah sweetheart James Frey, whose bestselling “memoir” “A Million Little Pieces” was shown to have substantial exaggerations and fabrications. Then there’s JT Leroy–the wunderkind author of gay-truckstop-hooker redemption books including “Sarah” and “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things”–who was definitively outed as a hoax by Warren St. John in the New York Times. I say “definitively” because there have been plenty of stories about this over the years, but St. John found a photo of the woman who was enlisted to play “JT Leroy” (stay with me here, the author was known for only appearing in public wearing a blonde wig and sunglasses), identified her as one Savannah Knoop, and just put all the strange pieces together in such a way as to not leave any doubt.
I know “JT,” or thought I did, until a few days ago. He wrote travel pieces for index, a magazine I edited from 2002 to 2004. We talked on the phone. A lot. We emailed. A lot. I even helped organize a benefit reading of his work –that “he” attended with all his famous friends, including Winona Ryder and Shirley Manson–with the money going to something called the McAuley Foundation, a charity for troubled kids that “he” helped start. So I did feel like I knew the guy.
True, I never heard that “he” had AIDS, which apparently “he” went around telling other people “he” had. I knew about the sex-change hormone therapy, the deathly fear of public scrutiny, the late-night panic attacks, the money worries. All in that unmistakable, Southern-tinged voice that said, “We are together now. It’s you and I against the world.” This voice was full of kindness and self-absorption. It could be whiny, playful, or demanding. It had a wheedle that could move mountains. So who did this voice actually belong to? Who wrote those affecting sentences that made you cheer for the tenacity of the human spirit? One Laura Albert, who I always knew as Speedie, one half of the couple that had saved “JT” from the mean streets and with whom “he” lived in San Francisco. (The other half of the couple is Geoffrey Knoop, yes, Savannah’s brother, and he was in on the whole deal.)
So, now that we’re all up to date in this twisted plot, what happens next? First of all, while it’s hurtful and manipulative and a personal bummer, and probably immoral and a lot of other bad things that a lot of people have already commented on, I’m going to say cheers to Laura and Geoff for pulling it off for so long. You know it wasn’t easy to concoct a person out of thin air year after year. Didn’t they ever get “JT” fatigue? Did Laura ever think, “Christ, I’ve got to pretend to be this needy, off-kilter, genius-in-the-rough loser again, and I really just want to read a magazine?” I’m also going to say that, scam or no, someone is still responsible for writing those books, stories, and magazine pieces, and that person has a huge, valid talent. (I read “Sarah” and was genuinely moved; I’m now happy to confess that I never got around to reading “The Heart.”) So what if they’re not based on really being a gay street kid? The work has power and truth in its own right, and for that, again, kudos to the writer, who seems to also be Laura.
The $64,000 question is, if Laura had all this talent from the get-go, why the elaborate ruse? Turns out, she always had her heart set on being a rock star but never quite made the grade, or so said Stephen Beachy in a New York magazine article last year. Hmmm, a failed rocker turned plotting deceiver, why does that sound so familiar? Maybe because both Charles Manson and David Koresh got jilted by the music world before they decided to focus on the activities for which they ultimately became famous.
While some people might put Laura into the textbook psycho category along with those other guys, I prefer to think of her as a Brooklyn gal with chutzpah to spare. When I met her and “JT” while they were in New York for the benefit, I remember feeling strangely put off and disappointed by the face-to-face encounter with this person who I felt so close to on the phone and in cyberspace. When “JT” and I were introduced I was met with a gentle blankness. That’s because I was looking into Savannah’s eyes, and she had no idea who on earth I was. Because, SHE HAD NEVER SPOKEN TO ME BEFORE. Afterwards, I rationalized the strangeness of the meeting by telling myself that of course it would be strange: JT has a rather large fear of being seen in public. So even the cracks in the “JT” façade somehow managed to substantiate the façade itself. And that’s a kind of genius. Evil genius, perhaps, but genius all the same.
Laura, if you’re out there reading this, and I know you are (“JT” obsessively tracked his press mentions, so I imagine Laura has been pretty much glued to her monitor, probably alternating between the thrill of so much ink being spilled on her account and the agony of what the ink is spelling out), I say you deserve some kind of prize. You’ve turned in a tour de force performance on so many levels that it’s a bit hard to fully fathom. Do they give out awards for psychological acuity? If they ever do start giving out “Sigmunds,” you should definitely be shortlisted. Brava! (And please seek treatment immediately. You are a very sick person. Maybe you and James Frey can find a nice quiet truth spa in which to recuperate.)