The woman at the heart of literary sensation JT LeRoy opens up.
In the 90’s and the aughts, JT LeRoy was the IT kid of the literary world. He was the hot topic, a fashion icon, a bestselling author, friend and confident to every celebrity. Then, in a whirlwind of events, a reporter from the New York Times revealed, not that JT didn’t exist, but that he was not quite who he seemed. At the end of the day, JT was always real, and the books were always real, but words were put down on paper by an entirely different person named Laura Albert.
Albert is the truly literary genius behind breakthrough novel Sarah and short story collection The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. She is also the subject of a gorgeously made tell-all documentary by Jeff Feuerzeig. In the film, Albert explains the whole saga of JT from start to finish, as well as her own personal life story. Below, she opens up to us about her experience making the film and some of the healing that it’s helped her do.
What made you want to say ‘yes’ and tell your story when Jeff came to you about this movie?
Laura Albert: I saw what he did with The Devil and Daniel Johnston and it was so organic. Here you have someone that’s almost killed people, ok? That attacked this old lady! And yet, you care! And I thought, ‘well I haven’t done anything like that, but I wrote fiction’. So I think it’s really important that I tried to write characters that are not just these angels. It’s very important to me that we can care about people who’re not black and white. And I thought, this is someone that allows people to rest transparently on the grace that gave them rise. And if he can hold that story, that complexity, and invite you to have a generosity of spirit, then perhaps he can do that for me. Because I had so much shame and a lot of self-hate. And if I’m gonna reveal that, it’s not a game, it can’t be a joke. I needed someone who can explore the gender issues, the sexual abuse, and the weight. And not make it a joke. Because we think of fat people as a joke, you know? And not the celebrity exploitation either. I mean, that’s a part of the story, but it’s, meh, you know?
So you trusted him enough.
Albert: Yes. I can’t filter myself. Like with interviews, I either say everything or I – well that’s why I created him. I was honest with his life. Just like how I have the roadmap to my crazy. Everyone had their turn, is it that scary to ask me? Because nobody ever asked me! It’s like, ‘Well why did I do it? To meet celebrities?’ Ok, well now do you want to hear from me?
What’s your personal experience been since you’ve worked on the film? How has it impacted you?
Albert: I think being able to sit with what I did, and understand it, take responsibility for all of it… I think we can do things out of our damage and hurt other people whether we mean to or not. I feel sad that people felt betrayed and all I can say is he was real and then when I called feeling suicidal, that was real. I feel grateful that today people have words like gender variant and gender fluid, that if I want to use the pronoun they, I can. I wanted to be a gay boy. I think he did a beautiful job. I turned over everything. And how to weave the story, he did such a beautiful job. I shake when I watch the movie. And people don’t pay attention to the craft of it. It’s amazing. And the books are out again, which is phenomenal to me.
I’ve heard you say that nowadays young people have so many avatars that this kind of story wouldn’t be unusual today. How do you feel things would have played out differently today? Would this never have happened?
Albert: So many people today don’t use their real name. To use your real name is insane. People have multiple genders and sexualities and it’s ok to have a full form lives. But people did it before. I mean Warhol sent out other people to do his speeches. And maybe I did do my Reese’s peanut butter cup, getting my chocolate and my peanut butter for the literary world, but I don’t think it’s anything new. But today, kids, when you ask millenials they’re like, “and the big deal is…?” There’s a line in Moneyball, the movie, where they say to Billy, “The first one through the door takes it in the teeth.” So maybe I was the first one who did it in this way. I didn’t ask permission and I’m a woman. I didn’t say, ‘wink wink, I’m doing this’. But that’s because it was real for me. It wasn’t a stunt. When people ask me, ‘how do you do it?’ It’s like well first start with a healthy dose of shame and mental illness. It was both being inside and outside crazy. But the thing is people come and I’m available now to talk to them, which is wonderful. Kids come. People understand that especially if you’ve gone through sexual abuse or bullying and you have shame. If you hate yourself, you know? The things we’ll do… I tell people to just hang on, hang on, get through the day. I get so many people. I get so many kids, all ages, really a lot of older women… Just hold on, do the next indicated thing, and make it through the fucking day. You have to be available to spirit and revelation because you never know what’s there for you.
Following the screening guests made their way over to The Library at The Public Theater for cocktails and canapes.
Photo credits: Ham&High