Because I am interested in the use of archetypes in art and in life, I find the JT LeRoy/Laura Albert dichotomy endlessly fascinating.
If you’re not familiar with the story, just Google it and enjoy the fall down the rabbit hole.
In brief, JT LeRoy, a teenager hustler from West Virginia who landed in San Francisco after being abandoned by his mother (a truck stop prostitute named Sarah), was rescued off the streets by an English woman named Speedy and a former trick named Astor. A therapist whom JT contacted by phone during a suicidal crisis encouraged him to write. Impressed with the youngster’s prose, the therapist passed the work around to some friends and the rest is literary history/infamy.
The revelation that the genius writer behind such bestsellers as Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (prophetic title?) was not the beautiful, blond, blue-eyed teenage street hustler prodigy from Appalachia, but a middle-aged Jewish woman with a weight problem from Brooklyn, shook the literati and legions of fans, including many celebrities.
As a former telephone sex worker, the real JT LeRoy Laura Albert, knew how to find and push people’s buttons. Her net widened to include famous and influential people in the arts, alternately kissing their butts and picking their pockets for favors during hours long phone conversations (with her tape recorder running unbeknownst to the person on the other end).
Is Albert the greatest hustler ever born or a poor little abuse victim herself who needed the invention of JT as an artistic voice? What kind of doors would have opened for her among the velvet mafia cognoscenti if she had presented herself as she was: one of many failed artists pushing middle age and an unattractive woman to boot? Would Gus Van Sant have given her the time of day if she hadn’t used a witch’s glamour spell to become the filmmaker’s ideal muse?
In Camille Paglia’s great book Sexual Personae, she writes about the archetype of the beautiful boy, the homme fatale, and how he often destroys the powerful older men who become obsessed with him (Death in Venice, Dorian Gray and the real life Lord Alfred Douglas). He’s a powerful muse—eternally young, often blond, feminine, gender fluid, and passively destructive.
In one documentary, Albert (obese at the time) is seen attending one of JT’s early public readings. As celebrities swoon over JT’s genius, she is just part of the crowd, the ultimate invisible woman. Some of the men she hustled describe being repulsed when they met “witchy” Albert (as Speedy) in the flesh. Later, many of the people she duped felt rightfully betrayed and enraged that the beautiful boy they thought they were helping out (and occasionally having phone sex with) was actually Albert, the witch behind the scenes. I guess she showed them. Wahahahahahah!!!!
After watching two documentaries, reading many articles, and listening to Marc Maron’s podcast with Laura Albert, it’s obvious that she is a complex person (God help her psychiatrist). It’s hard to accept her stance now that the hoax (she hates that description) was some kind of punk rock prank or the result of her own childhood abuse as one documentary suggests. Both of these explanations seem too pat. Human beings, especially the crazily talented ones, are multi-faceted creatures, and who the hell cares enough to fully deconstruct the personality of grifter, pathological liar, and emotionally needy ball-buster like Ms. Albert? In her phone conversations as JT, she pathetically tries to swing attention back toward herself as Speedy, but no one is biting. Her neediness is palpable and frankly sad. She just couldn’t get the love she craved. Even her own mother had her committed to a mental hospital when she was a teen. But as JT, the beautiful boy, she was revered and desired.
In all of this insanity, it’s easy to forget about the work that LeRoy/Albert produced. Many writers take a pen name; few pull off the greatest literary hoax of all time. For all the Sturm und Drang however, her contribution to the canon is rather thin. Many who were ready to accept the fiction as the work of a teenage prodigy now dismiss it as fluff. I haven’t read all of her work, but I did just read Sarah for the first time, and I was impressed and moved by the story. Laura Albert is a talented writer, but without JT would anyone even have cared? Probably not.
Even after weight loss and plastic surgery, Albert can’t quite shake off her witchy persona. She writes under her own name, but to much less acclaim. JT LeRoy has vanished forever, but the beautiful boy is looking for his next incarnation.