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Strange, strange story
on February 3, 2014
Because I live in the very area where the fictitious author of tales of abuse and child prostitition, "JT LeRoy", was supposed to have arrived in to become a street hustler & author, and because the unmasking of LeRoy as Laura Albert was a big story in my town, I was so excited to get the behind-the-scenes story. Unfortunately, I was left wanting more information about Laura Albert, but I guess that's fair since the focus is on Savannah Knoop, the public impersonator of LeRoy. And it does say so in the title outright...so... I guess I can't fault Knoop for that. However, she isn't really that interesting! She does at least write pretty well, if at times overwrought. Her description of Asia Argento lying in bed was a bit purple-prosey, but since Argento is the object of much desire, I suppose that's ok. I suppose many people who would bed Argento would gush a bit.
The book mainly discusses the evolution of Knoop impersonating JT, appearing in a makeshift costume for interviews, photoshoots and any public appearances, with Albert as her sidekick/handler, "Speedie", as JT rises in the literary world and becomes a media darling, culiminating in a filmed version of one of the books. (Albert would handle extensive phone calling, while Knoop would be the public face of JT.)
The thing that first jumped out to me was: "How in the hell did people buy their shtick?!" Especially Albert as "Speedie"-- a cockney (yes -- cockney!!)street urchin (I actually laughed out loud picturing her going "'Ello, matey! Oim Speeday, and this 'ere's JayTeaa, doncha know!" Ridiculous!), and LeRoy as as homeless southerner, a truckstop hustler. Funny, but those are such stereotypical literary ideas of street urchins (think "Oliver Twist") and "White Trash" (an offensive slur) or "Southern Gothic" characters (think Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and practically any movie made about the South) that it just seems preposterous that so many high profile people bought it all and indulged them in the charade. It's not to say that the original literary depictions had no element of truth, but to see people personifying the "undercaste" in such a cartoonish way is pretty unbelievable. I guess it was the transgender angle that really sold it for the hipster crowd; otherwise it probably would've screamed "Midnight Cowboy" to anybody who was paying closer attention. The sex-worker/addict/writer thing was such a ubiquitous trend in the late '80s -90s underground literary scene, it's hard not to be reflexively suspicious of anyone who claimed to be 'authentic' (whatever that meant).
Yet, in a way, I can also understand how a listener gets put on the spot: you're either a sucker or potentially accusing a very traumatized and vulnerable person of lying, which is one of the worst things you can say to a victim of abuse and rape. Probably no one wanted to say, "You're lying!" even if they suspected it. I experienced a similar thing when a former friend said she had multiple personalities and was a ritual abuse survivor (it was a peculiarly trendy phenomenon in the 1980s). While I think that kind of outrageous thing can and does happen, I really didn't see any evidence of it whatsoever- not even mild depression- and while I doubted her, I just didn't have the heart to question it. Then she asked me to testify in court for her to receive disability for her MPD (basically, I'd be committing perjury) and I just didn't return the call. I tell this anecdote because it seems Albert & Knoop put many people in similar corners ethically and emotionally - apparently, a few people were told that LeRoy had AIDS and therefore didn't have time for a rewrite, as his time was limited...yikes.
While Albert now says having a pen-name is no big deal, and she refers to JT as her avatar, I still have my doubts about this second round of stories (and what do you know, Albert says she used to have multiple personalities! Maybe it's true, but that disorder seems like a perennial favorite of malingerers for its dramatic appeal). So yeah...my verdict is a big old "Whatever" on this current web of stories. Who knows? Many say the backstory is irrelevant to the work, so you'll have to judge that for yourself...but what a backstory! This backstory says a lot about how society views the underclass and the marginalized and how the media tends to eat all in its path and commodifies just about anything.
But there are some really insightful (perhaps unintentionally) snapshots of the JT LeRoy publicity machine, how s/he was an underground darling respected by luminaries like Tom Waits and Lou Reed and encouraged by authors Dennis Cooper and Mary Gaitskill. Gaitskill later claimed that the hoax could be revealing about our notions of abused people, prostitution and so on- and I think she was dead right. This is a very problematic, sticky territory; bringing these tragedies to light is very important --- but how it's done, how it's presented, is also very important to sidestep the freakshow factor, and I wish Knoop had really spent more time exploring these themes here. She's not really insightful enough to do that, I don't think. She doesn't ask enough of the right questions as this is mainly a really bizarre, Warholish coming of age story instead.
This is basically a decently-written sort-of tell-all that unfortunately doesn't give much insight into Albert's motives, which is probably what many people want to know. It doesn't really align with Albert's current stance that she created JT to process her own issues (and the shared stories of other institutionalized youths) that she claims she had growing up as a ward of the state.
I believe Knoop's book came out first, before the 'new' Laura Albert story, and so Knoop doesn't address these claims. Albert did publicly deride Knoop for writing this book, however, so I think she had something to hide, most likely. Knoop basically paints Albert as someone who grew up as a "fat girt", an ugly duckling, and she sympathizes with this as they both have eating disorders. (There is also a very weird passage in the book about Albert making a 'crying loon in flight' sound by rapidly jiggling her loose flab-- Whaaaaaaaat???? While I guess it's supposed to be poetic, perhaps symbolic of Laura's deep longing and crying out, it just comes off as thoroughly bizarre, risible and off-putting).
So this sort of reads like a tale of two middle/upper-middle class 'lost girls' who have talents that they don't quite know how to present to the world that may not be welcoming to them. It doesn't really seem as poignant as it seems to have been intended. The more interesting parts are the interactions with Knoop as JT dealing with celebrities and interviewers who often want to promote a questionable "product" of a supposedly downtrodden person. Meta-Warholian? I don't know... but I wish I'd borrowed this book instead of paying for it.