An Interview with 'JT LeRoy': Behind the 21st Century's Greatest Literary Scam
Anna Delvey who?
Photo via IMDb.
The new film JT LeRoy, a stylish movie starring Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart, opens with an 1895 quote from Oscar Wilde. “The truth,” he wrote in The Importance of Being Earnest. “Is rarely pure and never simple.” It’s an on-the-nose selection for a story about a literary hoax. It’s also true, and it works. A few frames later, the words “based on a true story” appear on-screen, drawn in loopy letters that seem to make a joke of the concept of sincerity.
JT LeRoy, directed by Justin Kelly, was written by both Kelly and the artist Savannah Knoop, who spent about six years in the early 2000s appearing as bestselling author Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy, a literary wünderkind who wrote extensively about his horrifically abusive childhood. But, as has been exhaustively covered, LeRoy didn’t really exist.
“[JT] wasn’t my fictional character,” Knoop told GARAGE. “I was playing this role to the best of my ability. It's like a choreographer and a dancer. You want to dance as well as you can. But the performance of it brings up these interesting questions. Like, can you write off the page?”
The biography JT LeRoy shared with the world, and used to swindle celebrities and the public alike, goes like this: Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy said he was the son of a West Virginia prostitute who took him along to Southern truck stops, eventually conscripting him into sex work. He was rescued at thirteen by a couple, Laura Albert and Geoffrey Knoop, who put him through therapy, encouraging him to share his stories. A few years later, in the mid-90s, he ended up addicted to heroin, living on the streets of San Francisco. But literary celebrity would soon follow–LeRoy was mentored by authors like Dennis Cooper and Mary Gaitskill, wrote for publications like Spin and Nerve, and by 17 he had a book deal and eventually published three largely critically and commercially successful works of fiction ( Sarah, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, and Harold’s End), all said to be informed by a traumatic childhood. He cultivated celebrity friends like Courtney Love, Gus Van Sant, and Winona Ryder, and refined a famous crippling shyness, preferring to speak for hours over the phone or email. The author didn’t like to introduce himself publicly until around 2001, when he began making appearances in an obvious blonde wig and sunglasses.
There were always rumors, conflicting reports–JT told stories that didn’t quite line up. He developed intimate relationships over the phone, then treated close friends with strange distance in person. He claimed to have HIV, then dropped it; he told some people that he was transitioning, others that his puberty was delayed. As a supposed homeless junkie in 1990s San Francisco, he managed to send a lot of faxes to a lot of literary luminaries. But the LeRoy ruse kept up until October of 2005, when Stephen Beachy wrote an article for New York Magazine unmasking one Laura Albert, a Brooklyn-born, San Francisco-based musician, as the true author behind JT LeRoy’s works. In January of 2006, the New York Times revealed Albert’s husband’s sibling Savannah Knoop as the face of LeRoy–or as Beachy nicknamed them, “Wigs and Sunglasses.”
Many, many articles followed, and there was a documentary, Author: The JT LeRoy Story, told mostly from Albert’s perspective (Barthes would have a field day). But JT LeRoy is Knoop’s effort (adapted from a memoir, Girl Boy Girl) to share their own take on a story filled with countless overlapping identities–there’s an ensemble, but the film often feels like a two-hander, with Dern as a manic, kind of enchanting Albert, and Stewart as the sensitive, quiet Knoop (Stewart is brilliant with discomfort–Savannah’s fear when playing JT gives the actress the perfect vehicle to do her Bella Swan thing, where she avoids eye contact like its her job).
It’s been “very strange” for Knoop, an artist whose practice understandably plays with concepts of identity, to stick with a story that began nearly twenty years ago; in order to convey any distance between real life and the character, everyone on set referred to Knoop’s onscreen alter-ego as “Sav” (Knoop uses they/them pronouns, while the Stewart character is referred to as “she”). “Through the distance,” they said. “Sometimes you come closer, which is kind of an appropriate thing to say in terms of a film.”
It took them about nine years to adapt the book for the screen (ten, if you count the year until its release), finding a niche after meeting Kelly, saying that “that little bunny was the right fit.” Knoop and Kelly also had support from Van Sant, who read several drafts of the script, and Love, who appears in the film–”Celebrity Skin” even plays over the end credits, the rock star howling to “make me over”–both of whom Knoop called “so generous,” “amazing artists,” and “really open.”
“I think it gets at this point where when you're on the phone with someone, or you are friends with someone and you're relating to each other, to me, with Courtney it's that pure moment of connection where she's sort of like, I don't care who's on the other line. I don't care who wrote the books. I don't care who you are now,’” said Knoop. “It's sort of like this generosity and openness, and non-judgment.”
The generosity extends to Knoop’s film, which feels both honest and kind to Albert (Knoop said that the work still stands on its own, that the inconvenient fact that JT didn’t exist doesn’t “matter for the books. I think the books are fueled within themselves, and they are what they are”). Dern speaks with a gravy-thick accent when on the phone playing JT; her Albert is intensely manipulative, fame-hungry, charming, tragic (the film asserts that while JT LeRoy may not have been real, Albert’s abuse was). The character can be laughable–after Albert explodes in a jealousy-fueled temper tantrum, she tells Sav to “stop being such a drama queen.” But after every humiliation there is a moment of benevolence; Albert will compliment Sav, praise her art and her beauty, primally express love.
But not everyone was quite so magnanimous. There was backlash when JT’s true identity was revealed, especially from readers who had strongly identified with tales of sexual abuse. "To present yourself as a person who is dying of AIDS in a culture which has lost so many writers and voices of great meaning, to take advantage of that sympathy and empathy, is the most unfortunate part of all of this,” literary agent Ira Silverberg told the New York Times in the 2006 article that unveiled Knoop. “A lot of people believed they were supporting not only a good and innovative and adventurous voice, but that we were supporting a person."
Asia Argento, who adapted The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things into a 2004 film, was “very angry” when she found out, in 2016, that Albert had recorded their intimate conversations and used them in the documentary; in California, it is illegal to record without two-party consent. A thinly veiled take on Argento, named Eva, is played by Diane Kruger in JT Leroy; she begins a relationship with the bewigged Sav/JT, and decides to play his mother in a film. Eva describes her as “character obsessed with her own downfall,” saying she “always just related to that kind of woman;” in real life, after revealing her multiple sexual assaults by Harvey Weinstein, Argento was accused of statutory rape by Jimmy Bennett, her young co-star in The Heart.
Knoop was shaken by the experience of being JT LeRoy; when I asked them what it felt like to be unmasked, they asked to refer back to the film instead of giving an answer, saying it was too much for a “soundbite in an interview,” and adding that working on the clothing line they had at the time was the thing that kept them sane. And so in the film’s pivotal scene, Sav cries softly after the reveal. “I figured I’d feel some kind of relief,” she nearly whispers. “But I’m just at a loss.”
Albert and Knoop are no longer “directly” in touch. But Knoop has no interest in animosity. “Part of the feminism of this story is unearthing all of the power dynamics, the complicated nature of these two people's relationship,” they said. “And not having it be a cat fight, or that it's about one story being in opposition to the other. One telling of the story doesn't actually negate the other. They're not the same story, and everyone has a right to their own story.”
“It’s occurred to me that the whole thing with [JT] is a hoax, but I felt that even if it turned out to be a hoax, it’s a very enjoyable one,” Mary Gaitskill told New York. “And a hoax that exposes things about people, the confusion between love and art and publicity. A hoax that would be delightful and if people are made fools of, it would be okay—in fact, it would be useful.”