Author Laura Albert famously pulled off a decade-long literary hoax by inventing an endearing, abused Appalachian hustler ingénue—revealing the way we build brands on suffering.
Midway through Author: The JT LeRoy Story, Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary out this month about Laura Albert, originator of the truck-stop ingénue turned boy-king of the literati, Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy, Albert is on the phone with David Milch, the auteur of the HBO Western Deadwood. Milch, who’s hip to the fact that LeRoy is, in fact, a twinned performance between Albert and her sister-in-law Savannah Knoop, is still assigning the actual Laura Albert, and not “JT,” script duties. He warns her, however, that writing is not therapy. The audience I sat with laughed, some in snorts of disbelief, others with a wry, head-shaking kind of chuckle: A key part of the Terminator mythos is that he is an artistic savant coaxed by a sympathetic therapist into turning the horrors of his life—being kidnapped and raped before age 5; forced by his fundamentalist grandparents to bathe in bleach; shuttling from truck stop to truck stop with his spiteful yet charismatic addict mother, Sarah; turning tricks on his 13th birthday before blowing out the candles on his cake; getting hooked on heroin, infected with AIDS, and enduring genital mutilation—into Southern-fried baroque literature.
And a key part of the documentary, which is less a piece of cinematic journalism than a two-hour endeavor to at least explain, if not redeem, Albert, is positioning her as a victim—of parental abandonment and neglect, body-shaming, and of sexual abuse. Feuerzeig cuts between JT’s heights as a literary luminary and confidant to the hipster elite with home movies and photos of Albert as a lowly, awkward child and teenager. In a tear-thickened voice, Albert recounts being institutionalized by her volatile mother before she is finally made a ward of the state—equating her own suffering with her creative powers. She describes the LeRoy persona as some bewigged Athena springing fully formed out of her head. Writing and performing as JT LeRoy, the film suggests, was Albert’s own therapy. Troublingly, though, Feuerzeig doesn’t interrogate the actual quality of this work, allowing Bono and David Milch (among others) to refer to it as “genius” and “Shakespearean,” even though it is a revelry of adolescent cliché: images of our hero taunted by a devil with bloody-red talons or freed by a heroin high that turns into balloons, lifting him up and away from the ugly, ignorant masses; characters who are either hookers with the faces of angels or beer-bellied brutes who make Stanley Kowalski look like the president of Men Against Rape. There is no effort, no real art, just tragedy porn. In his review of Author, critic A.O. Scott rightly called the LeRoy oeuvre “pornographic … with greeting card sentimentality,” suggesting that “its appeal was based largely on the ‘facts’ of his miserable, magical life.”
The LeRoy phenomenon was, in large part, about building a personal brand on suffering and surviving; certainly, one could argue that the celebrities who cozied up to LeRoy were stoking the bonfires of their vanity by showing such “kindness,” such “compassion,” such “nurturing,” to such a fragile, tragic figure: The film opens with Winona Ryder gushing that she’s “known JT for years,” even though, technically, JT’s whole appeal is that he came out of nowhere. Albert, as JT, records phone calls with Mary Karr, Courtney Love, and Tom Waits, and one senses that they are responding to the LeRoy persona, as much as (or perhaps more so) than the work itself. And the work itself is awkward and shallow; the first chapter of Sarah teems with lines like: “She would do my makeup … It always reminded me of those nature films of a mother bird regurgitating food into its baby’s mouth and left me feeling as full as if she had,” or “I showed enough to make them interested in who this mysterious girl could be. I thought no one ever saw me enough to know it was me. I convinced myself I was like a comic book hero, hiding in the shadows, my magic stiletto heels clicking away all evil. I watched the lizards climb in the trucks and I giggled to myself as the cab suddenly started arockin’ and a-rollin’ till the lizard would just as abruptly leap from the truck stuffing dollars in her boot.” The writing doesn’t just each hit trope on the Tic-Tac-Toe board of tragic queer stereotypes; it’s hideously elitist to boot, treating Appalachia as a pit-stop between Deliverance country and Never-never Land. At one point, Waits seems to struggle in articulating exactly what he likes so much about the writing, finally concluding that it’s “uh, wet.”
We can mock the celebrities and fashionistas who were taken in by Albert-as-LeRoy as being caught up in a culture that often rewards youth and beauty before talent. But the literary establishment proved itself no more discerning: Sarah received many rave reviews, including from the New York Times, the very publication that would ultimately unmask JT as a hoax. These reviews, much like LeRoy’s celebrity admirers, have been engrossed by the pathos of his life story, and mistaken that pathos for profundity. Take, for instance, the ending of the Kirkus review: “The gory details of how Sarah is abused by this monster and his cohorts will come as no surprise to those familiar with Leroy’s journalistic pieces (in Spin, Nerve, New York Press) under the pseudonym Terminator, some of which dealt with his own experiences. It’s disturbing to encounter a 20-year-old who knows this much about life’s seamy side, but LeRoy depicts his damaged, degraded characters with considerable tenderness.” And yet, as Allison McCarthy argues in an essay for Roger Ebert, Albert could only publish in these elite venues, and hold this kind of sway, while writing as JT, and not as herself—a middle-aged woman in a body that the fashion world would scorn—because JT’s pretty-boy pain was seen as inherently more compelling. There seems to be a fine line between being genuinely vulnerable on the page, and intelligent about that vulnerability, with merely turning suffering into a commodity.
This description of LeRoy’s appeal—a slim-hipped, chic-looking “Other” given an exotic appeal by the depth of his suffering—haunts any writer who has excavated the worst moments of her own life for a deeper meaning, even if that meaning is simply giving voice to a past self who was smothered in shame, silenced by fear. At least, as someone who’s written about her experiences with domestic violence and molestation, it haunts me. When I compiled a list of publications for my agent, I felt a pang of chagrin at how many essays had titles referencing victimhood or abuse, how many headers contained the words “my father”—because I aspire to be a serious writer, one noted for versatility and technique, not a Hannah Horvath spiraling into my own navel, or a Laura Albert type, so enamored of suffering that it alone remains my muse. But my father has been, and may always be, the subterranean throb of my heart—even as, in time, I get a little tired of writing about him in such overt terms; even as I find my attention drifting toward election politics and body politics, toward film and TV criticism. I find myself trying to prove that I can be, to paraphrase the great Lidia Yuknavitch, “more than the story they made of me,” or, more than the story I made of myself.
I remember a conversation with a fellow writer who told me that my work resonated because I “write about abuse.” I wanted to dismiss her insight into my byline as merely master-class Shade, but my inbox was a Day-Glo testament to how correct she might be: People wrote to thank me or express solidarity, or to tell me I was a whiny little bitch who needed to “get over it.” But even these emails were, at times, far easier to deal with than the messages where people shared their own graphic, horrific stories of abuse that made my father’s penchant for the belt seem like an outtake from A Very Brady Bunch Christmas. I couldn’t delete these emails, and yet I couldn’t answer them—I’m not a licensed therapist listening on a telephone line, I’m just a woman who has been scraped raw and callused over by the daily calamities of her own upbringing.
Yet my writing can be—despite the admonitions of the David Milches of the world—therapeutic for me. But catharsis at the keyboard doesn’t feel like the glorious purge of the ugly-cry behind a therapist’s closed doors: Engineering memories that had been damp and thrumming with terror into illustrative points or connections with something in politics or culture that was still removed from me dried them out, made them still. The craft of writing is integral to my ongoing redemption. And curiously, toward the very end of Author, Feuerzeig includes a piece of information that seems to contradict his earlier depictions of Albert as an embattled naïf who conjures the LeRoy persona and calls child abuse helplines in a desperate need for connection: Albert has taken creative writing classes at the Eugene Lang College at the New School, dropping out when a professor forced her to write the abuse narratives she’d been attaching to young boys in a woman’s voice. She’s not some intuitive “genius,” a lotus of letters rising from the mud of her sad, sordid life.
I’m not at all arguing that Albert didn’t make those calls out of a real human need, or that putting those stories in her own voice was genuinely traumatic for her (my own mind still has storm cellars that will forever remain latched), and this doesn’t in any way make the LeRoy writings any more palatable (three words: raccoon penis bones)—but it does suggest, however subconsciously, a certain degree of craft and calculation in how deep the LeRoy mythos would ultimately go. And even though it may not work as literature, it’s a helluva piece of performance art, one that, however unwittingly, illustrates our cultural skittishness against real and substantive conversations about violence and sexual abuse—unless, of course, that degradation is cloaked in something chic and shimmery; after all, the JT LeRoy package is an epitome of 1990s heroin-glam, far prettier, at least superficially, than the real-life “lot lizard” who has been battered and aged every time he’s turned out.
The LeRoy “hoax” shows that we care about abuse when it allows us to indulge our most lurid curiosities in the guise of compassion: When it’s grand-scale grotesquerie, like the Cleveland abductions, or when the perpetrators are famous men. This, if anything else, makes truly thoughtful, reflective writing about survivorship so vital. We need brilliant, transcendent work like Yuknavitch’s Chronology of Water, which creates a poetics of raw flame; or the elegance and intelligence of Roxane Gay and Zoe Zolbrod interrogating sexual violence by contextualizing it in politics, history, or pop culture. We need shows like Jessica Jones, Rectify, and yes, even Game of Thrones, to offer nuanced, complicated visions of survivorship. This work goes much deeper and further than Author, or its subject, would ever dare; work that does not reduce victims to Albert’s Barbie dolls, stripped naked and bruised with purple crayons, cheap plastic avatars for real-world suffering.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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