The True Story Behind An Epic ’90s Literary Hoax: BUST Interview

by Patty Affriol

The JT LeRoy saga is a confusing and many-layered one. Back in the mid-’90s, JT LeRoy became a darling of the literary world.  But then, in the mid-200s, the truth came out: LeRoy was a fictional persona created by Laura Albert after ten years of near silence, Laura Albert is now resurfacing, telling her story in the documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story, directed by Jeff Feuerzeig. This time, she comes as herself, without her armor.

The story of Laura Albert and JT LeRoy is convoluted, with many twists and turns that spiral into a psychological alluring and at times bizarre narrative. The saga begins with a gender-neutral adolescent, a boy-girl named Jeremiah “Terminator” (JT), who was raised by his beloved prostitute mother in the truck-stops of rural West Virginia.

2Savannah Knoop in AUTHOR: THE JT LeRoy STORY, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures.

JT is an HIV-positive heroin addict — a young adult that mixes love and brutality. He finds a family with a couple, Laura Albert and Geoffrey Knoop, in San Francisco. And there he becomes an adored author and public figure who builds strong friendships with singers Bono, Courtney Love, and Billy Corgan. His stories of a childhood filled with sexual abuse and abandonment are harrowing, but also captivating. The world falls in love with JT’s innocence and vulnerability, yet in many ways also eroticizes his suffering.

6Savannah Knoop and Bono in AUTHOR: THE JT LeRoy STORY, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures.

However, the story takes a shocking twist was when it was discovered in 2006, after ten years of fame, that JT LeRoy was a persona — a figure of Albert’s mind. That is, JT LeRoy’s voice — both in print and the phone — was Albert, and the public figure was her sister-in-law, Savannah Koop.

The fans were outraged and many felt betrayed. The scandal was labeled as a literary hoax and Albert was fired and painted as a bored, middle-aged housewife, a hustler that fooled the world. After the outing, she more or less disappeared until Feuerzeig picked up her story, depicting her with raw compassion and detailing the multiple layers of the narrative that have yet to be explored.

7A scene from AUTHOR: THE JT LeRoy STORY, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures.

What is missing from the saga is the story of Albert and what lead her to create JT. Many have been quick to dismiss the documentary, as her word was previously found to be faulty. Yet “truth” often has many layers and it changes based on the perspective of the narrator. After meeting Albert and watching the documentary, I discovered there is much more to explore about the story — it is a narrative that crosses through issues of body image, sexual abuse, and the vulnerability of identity.

Albert is a victim of childhood sexual abuse and suffered from feelings of worthlessness because of her weight (at the time of JT’s creation). Growing up, Albert would often call abuse hotlines to discuss her trauma, always under a male pseudonym. JT grew from that addiction. He is painted as a fragment of her, sharing her experiences; a body for her to relive and process her trauma.

Here’s what Albert and I talked about:

4Savannah Knoop and Laura Albert in AUTHOR: THE JT LeRoy STORY, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures.

Did you feel over the years that writing through JT was healing for you?

I had an addiction to calling hotlines. I had no way to talk about what happened to me when I was in a group home and hospital. I couldn’t tell people why I was there. I’d say I couldn’t stop eating. My family is fucked up. But I had so much shame. I never talked about what happened.

Back then, people weren’t really talking about sexual abuse. People didn’t really know about it. It was either this satanic cult, recovered memory kind-of-thing or just like that one British paper called it—'”dreary everyday sexual abuse'”*

Which is what! What are you talking about?! Dreary sexual abuse! I’m sorry, is being three years old and having a man put his fingers inside you — is that dreary for you? But you know what, the truth is — that’s what I felt. My level of pain did not match what was being said. If I have this level of pain and suffering than I must have been raised in a satanic cult. I would see a therapist and they would say you were obliviously multiply raped and I was like — I know what I know — I know what I remember! Can’t what happen to me be enough? No, it’s not enough. Well, here, let me make my pain and my fiction match what I am feeling.

Did you subconsciously create someone that you knew would get the help you needed?

Yes. The act of writing knitted it together. The calls would never do the healing — just like if you have an addiction to food and alcohol. It soothes it for a moment, but it doesn’t actually heal it. But the act of writing and taking the experience and going into the subconscious and turning it upside down in this other West Virginian world really allowed me to integrate and heal. That’s why when Doctor Owens (the hotline doctor she called as JT) suggested writing — it changed something and that became the addiction.

Did you create this skinny boy/girl that you knew would be loved and adored?

You know what’s interesting? In the ’70s, it was illegal to run away from home until 1974. Illegal. So if a child ran away from home, it wasn’t even acknowledged that sometimes home wasn’t safe. And you were arrested. Put in juvie or brought back home. When they first started talking about child abuse — it was always in the after-school special, a blonde hair, blue-eyed cute little boy.

It’s so important that we begin to tell stories of the other. Of not the blonde hair, blue-eyed sanctified character that is always the archetype that is allowed to tell stories.

Did you feel you wouldn’t have been taken seriously as a writer because of your weight at the time?

It wasn’t even as a writer. It was as a human being. I wouldn’t have even tried. I felt such shame. I had a writing teacher in college and she insisted that girls write as girls and boys as boys. I said to her — you don’t understand. But she insisted I write as a girl. And I couldn’t — I wrote this whole piece about sexual abuse and she wouldn’t let me switch over, and I ended up being hospitalized. I dropped out. I just couldn’t do it. So there was no other option. It wasn’t just being taken seriously as a writer. It was being taken seriously as a human being.

Did you relive trauma at that point writing as yourself?

Yeah, it was too close. Too close to the bone. I was too exposed.

Now that you are writing as yourself, how does it feel?

It’s hard. But I feel ready. I feel like the process of making the film, ten years since. If you had asked me right after I would have — I wanted Jeff right after the reveal or outing happened. But I wasn’t ready. God or spirit or ancestors they knew that. And now the gift is I can sit with people who have gone through trauma. I get to talk to a lot of women and men, who come in and tell me about what the work means to them. And they understand the hiding. They completely get it. If you speak the language you understand.

The documentary adds much more depth to the JT LeRoy narrative. Hearing her story, I understand Albert’s need at the time to live through an “avatar.” Personas can offer people an escape from their selves and allow them to experience things that cut too close to home. Or, as in Albert’s case, live through a body that is deemed valuable.

While I support her right to create another identity, I also understand the betrayal many people feel, who held intimate and detailed relationships with the “public” JT LeRoy. However, from that angle, one can also see that JT was real. He was a persona, who experienced many of the same abuses as Albert. After all, he was a part of her.

We only ever show fragments of our identities to others, especially in celebrities relationships with their fans and other figures. The truth takes on many forms in this saga, and yet the complexity is something we can learn from. It’s important to increase the narratives that are available to people.

There is no denying that JT’s magic lives on through his beloved, and beautifully crafted novels.


Check out the trailer for the AUTHOR: THE JT LeRoy STORY  below:



Top Photo: Laura Albert in AUTHOR: THE JT LeRoy STORY, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures.

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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