By Phoebe Neidl
In 2006 the literary world was rocked by the revelation that the San Francisco-based author JT LeRoy was not who he said he was. He wasnâ€™t even a he. He was a she, named Laura Albert. Authors have long used pen names, but in this case the inventions purported to be factually autobiographical. There was even a JT LeRoy impersonator offered as evidence of â€śhisâ€ť existence. Not even her own literary agent or publishers were aware of the authorâ€™s true identity, though they thought they were.
Presented to them, and to countless other members of the literary establishment as a troubled young man who had spent his childhood in the truck stops of West Virginia where his mother prostituted herself, and him, â€śJ.T.â€ť authored three critically acclaimed books â€” Sarah (2000), The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (2001) and Haroldâ€™s End (2004).
When The New York Times unmasked Laura Albert three and a half years ago, the backlash to her â€śhoaxâ€ť was swift. Critics accused her of fabricating JT and his sad story only to further her career and gain entrĂ©e to the literary elite, and she was sued for fraud for signing a contract as JT LeRoy with a film company that optioned the rights for Sarah.
Albert has always maintained that JT was a â€śrespiratorâ€ť that allowed her to breathe and to explore a painful childhood â€” actually spent in Brooklyn, not West Virginia â€” that she was unable to directly confront in her art as herself.
Albert, who grew up in Brooklyn Heights, will be at this yearâ€™s Brooklyn Book Festival on September 13, participating in a panel discussion titled â€śFaux Society,â€ť which will discuss the blurring of reality and fiction within literature.
â€śShe seems like someone well equipped to have great insight into how people structure their reality,â€ť said Johnny Temple, chair of the Brooklyn Literary Council, which organizes the book festival. â€śWe like people that can provide a certain intellectual firepower and Laura certainly can do that.â€ť
The Eagle was able to talk with Laura about her memories of Brooklyn, life after JT and what sheâ€™s working on now.
You grew up in Brooklyn. Where did you live when you were here?
I grew up in Cadman Plaza in a Mitchell-Lama building. Mitchell-Lama was housing for the lower middle class. You had a lot of teachers â€“ thatâ€™s what my parents were â€” and blue-collar workers and civil servants. Brooklyn Heights was not the chi-chi place it has become. There were the wealthier families in the brownstones, but most of Brooklyn Heights was working class.
There were a lot of abandoned historic buildings that we would
explore. Itâ€™s a neighborhood where itâ€™s very easy to see the past
mingled with the present. With the cobblestone streets worn through and the broken slate sidewalks and the lines of abandoned buildings, I had free rein for my imagination. The Mason Mint factory on Henry Street was abandoned, as were so many buildings on Poplar. But I knew the ghosts of John Adams and George Washington came and watched us, that they visited the place they had left behind.
Some streets looked like tunnels with their overgrown willows and
maples. Brooklyn Heights had a wild unexplored urgency to it. Just
going into the Hotel Saint George, which was an SRO at the time, you never knew who or what was going to pop out at you. There was a strip club on the first floor. As 12-year-olds we would go inside the vestibule and dance to the music from the strip club. Nobody ever asked us to leave. Occasionally customers would leave and give us money, too. It never occurred to us that this was strange.
There was a big street culture on Monroe Street, kids hanging out or running around on the street. Every now and then Iâ€™d hang out there.
Punk was taking root in Brooklyn Heights. One day I walked by and saw the Speedies shooting one of their first videos on the promenade. There used to be gang fights between the Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights gangs. Alphabet City was no manâ€™s land back in the day. It was a very different world.
I sang in the choir at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, which was a
station on the Underground Railroad. There were all these secret
tunnels. I knew it had been part of the Underground Railroad, and I
was obsessed with finding the tunnel where the train pulled in. There was a bowling alley in there, too, very similar to the one in the movie â€śThere Will Be Blood.â€ť
I went to another church, on Cranberry Street: the Church of the
Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They just called it
â€śAssumption.â€ť And I had friends who went to St. Charles. I must have visited every church in Brooklyn Heights. I was a Jew, but I was more culturally Jewish. I think I went to synagogue once. I also had friends who were Jehovahâ€™s Witnesses, and after one of them told me that the world was ending in two years, I begged my mother to let me join.
Now thereâ€™s not much left to develop in Brooklyn Heights. Everything has been staked out and claimed. Back in the '70s, there were alleys and abandoned buildings to explore, spaces between the buildings that you could squeeze through. We used to squeeze through a small space between the firehouse across the street and the building next door and watch the firemen. We had gone on school tours of the firehouse, and we would always go back there and watch them. There were our heroes, hanging out, eating. They knew we were there. Sometimes they would ignore us. Sometimes they would invite us in for a tour, or just to sit with them and tell stories. They had an actual firepole. They felt like family. I remember when I heard that they had lost eight men on
September 11, it was such a depth of pain. My motherâ€™s view was of the Twin Towers. I had watched them being built.
That was Brooklyn Heights. People staying over at our house for the night would ask, â€śDon't the fire engine sirens bother you?â€ť And I would answer, "What sirens?" They would ask how we could stand the air or the soot or the constant roar of the Brooklyn Bridge. We were directly across from the bridge. We played under the bridge. There were tunnels you could get in, just magical worlds. Brooklyn Heights had an air of danger then. It wasn't the sanitized place that it is today.
What has life been like since the â€śtruthâ€ť about JT LeRoy was unveiled in 2006? How has it been creatively and personally for you?
Itâ€™s been the best of times and the worst of times, you know? I have a piece of Kafkaâ€™s house that David Milch [creator of the television shows â€śNYPD Blueâ€ť and â€śDeadwoodâ€ť] gave to me. When I found myself in federal court being accused of fraud for presenting a work of fiction through a fictional author, I thought, â€śI AM in Kafkaâ€™s house.â€ť The lawyers for the Authors Guild and PEN were equally shocked. It took an exorbitant amount of energy, and for no good reason. It was absolutely useless. And, as PEN and the Authors Guild argued in the amicus brief that they filed, it was dangerous to writers and to free expression, in principle and in practice.
I got to see the bottomfeeders, where everyone came out thinking they were going to get a book or movie deal. But there were also people who came out of nowhere to support me. I got so much support from folks I didn't know and who were fans of my work â€” they came forward and offered me so much love.
While all the hoopla of the reveal was going on, I was on the set of
â€śDeadwood,â€ť feeling very protected, very supported. At the height of the craziness, David Milch literally took off his coat and gave it to me, as a protective cloak. In the following year, there were many times when I took it out to wrap myself in it, like a child in a baby blanket.
I did an interview for the Paris Review with the wonderful Brooklynite Nathaniel Rich, and they put a picture of me on the cover. Itâ€™s my school photo from third grade at P.S. 8, and I'm wearing a T-shirt that says, â€śI want to be me.â€ť My mom had bought it at MAYS department store in downtown Brooklyn, and I remember thinking, â€śNo, I do not.â€ť
It took me a long time to learn how to move into myself. It was
something that I had to do by not knowing I was doing it. Itâ€™s like a
nerve regenerating. I had to regenerate that connection by not knowing what it was that I was doing.
Itâ€™s all worth it. Itâ€™s wonderful to use all the artistic gestures
available within the playground of fiction to create a dialogue about the topics on which our culture has maintained a silence â€” to create new archetypes, so some of us can recognize our stories being told.
David Milch said something that helped me understand my own work better: â€śYou know, people say that my writing is dark. And for me itâ€™s quite the opposite. It sees light in darkness and it doesn't try to distort darkness. The essential thing is that the seeing itself is
For me, doing it in my own voice was too painful. JT LeRoy was
asbestos gloves to handle material that I otherwise couldn't stand to
touch. I wrote about what I knew, the topics that I was familiar with.
The wilds of Brooklyn Heights in the '70s became the wilds of West Virginia. Believe me, they translate.
What are you working on now?
I have several projects going on. There will be another JT Leroy book, continuing the Haroldâ€™s End series, with paintings by Cherry Hood. I have another book planned as well. And I do quite a bit of journalistic writing.
Iâ€™m also participating in a documentary that follows the lives of the
women I grew up with. When I was a teenager, I became a ward of New York City and was placed in a group home. We were lucky: they encouraged us to be artists, to use art as a way to work through our pain. Janice Erlbaum, the writer, was my roommate. As a group, weâ€™ve done really well. Usually, the prognosis for our population would be drugs, jails, institutions, death.
The funding isn't there today for this kind of approach. I think it's
important that people understand what that costs. It saved my life â€” at least, it was one of many things that did. I couldn't return home,
I had dropped out of school, and I wouldn't have made it on the
streets for that long. The group home was a place where you could be an artist, where it was safe. It was a way station. I mean, eight
girls, one bathroom. But it was also a creative refuge, an island
populated with interesting minds.
How was it that you left the group home?
You could leave at 18, but they let you stay longer. If you spent the
first part of your life in survival mode, there were things you didnâ€™t
learn. We didnâ€™t have normal teen years. When youâ€™re fending off a motherâ€™s boyfriend, you arenâ€™t going on innocent teenage dates. Youâ€™re frozen.
I left when I was 20. It was time. I lived on Atlantic Avenue in
Brooklyn, between Hoyt and Bond. It was above an antique store. The guy still owns the building. I loved the freedom of having my own bathroom, turning the TV on and off, having my own keys. At the group home, if the house parent was sick, they closed the house. Day or night, it didn't matter: you had to leave. I loved having my own fridge and not worrying that someone was going to accuse me of dogging something. It took me a while to realize that if I bought something, it wasn't going to disappear.
Do you feel the controversy over JT has overshadowed your ability and accomplishments?
No. The books are still there. Iâ€™m very resourceful. Iâ€™m a street punk -- with my love, my joy and my humor very much intact. I still have my craft, too. Nobody can take that away. And I have a lot of support, people who understand what I do and believe in me. They didnâ€™t need to jump out in front of the media to get attention. They were there and knew the truth. My fiction has the sense of authenticity â€” at least, for people who actually read it.
Overshadowed? I was invisible before. I had worked hard to be
invisible. It wasnâ€™t difficult being in the background; I was used to
that. I was used to not getting the attention. Itâ€™s strange having
people know my name. What I don't like is when people come up and treat me as a celebrity. Thatâ€™s why I liked punk: the idea that we are all equal. Iâ€™m just another shmuck on the bus â€” just a writer. That glazed look, that hero worship â€” I encounter that sometimes and it makes me very uncomfortable.
Is there a sense that JT is behind you now? Or still with you?
Heâ€™ll never be behind me. Heâ€™ll always be a part of me.
Is he with you the way he was before?
No. Before, he was running the show. Not anymore.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
When you get damaged as a child, you have diminished capacity.
Overcoming that is like learning to walk after an injury, and getting the sensation back. Itâ€™s going to be messy. Youâ€™re going to knock over chairs and bump into stuff. This was me reconnecting with myself in a very messy way. It was art as survival. If I could have done it another way, I would have.
I am saddened by how disconnected I was with myself. JT was real to me. I had others before him. They werenâ€™t writing, but I always had that avenue of escape. Iâ€™m grateful that creativity gave me an escape. I wish it had been more direct, but I couldnâ€™t allow myself to take responsibility for the stories I needed to tell.
I needed practice being in the world. It took me a long time. I never would have let go of JT. It had to be done for me. I never would have had faith that I could do it. It was like being one of a pair of Siamese twins. I was the one who was atrophied. Slowly that changed. I became the stronger. But it took me a long time. I couldnâ€™t tolerate talking about certain things.
Sometimes I still canâ€™t. But I've made my peace with it.
Was it a relief when the JT phase ended?
No, it was horrible. I was sure I would plunge to earth and be
destroyed. I was a kid riding a bicycle for the first time: "Daddy,
don't let go. I'll plunge to earth and die." That was in my diary: If
you take away JT, I will die. There was no question in my mind.
JT felt like my breathing apparatus. I felt I would drown without him. Like in fairy tales when a man follows a mermaid under the sea â€“ he is wearing a respirator to breathe. Then some magic goes down and the mermaid says, "OK, now you can breathe water." Heâ€™s like, â€śGet outta here!â€ť and so she grabs his respirator off him. His first reaction is fear, the gasping and panting, then a slow intake of breath -- and the realization that his lungs are working. The magic worked. Then there is swimming, and joy.
I know now that my lungs can make oxygen out of water. But to get there was an act of faith. And this might sound ridiculously obvious, but it is a poignant understanding I had to come to: It was me all along.
What I'm really grateful for is the humor and the hope and the buoyant spirit and the compassion. The relief is knowing thatâ€™s with me. It took me a long time to recognize that.
There was a lawsuit over a film contract for Sarah. Were there other legal problems in the aftermath of the reveal?
No. That lawsuit was brought about by me refusing to give up my life rights. I was told that if I gave them my life rights, there would be no lawsuit. In this day and age, Hollywood doesn't like to be said "No" to.
The Authors Guild wrote a wonderful amicus brief explaining how
phenomenally important this lawsuit was for artists, how important it is that artists retain the right to use pseudonyms. The use of
pseudonyms -- for political reasons, for performance art, as a
creative or literary strategy -- has a long history. They understand
that in France. In Paris, people don't get what all the fuss was
For me, it wasn't a question of money. It was a question of
definition, of allowing someone else to define you. I've never sold my life rights to anyone. Believe me, I've been approached. I don't need to be authenticated by Hollywood. It was a big enough fight for me to authenticate myself. I wasn't ready to turn that over to someone else.
I reserved the right to take my time, to name myself, to define
myself. I've been pitched reality shows. I don't need a reality show.
I'll tell my story. And I'll tell it with the divine tool of fiction.
And I'll tell a deeper truth.
Now that the lawsuit has been resolved, how does it feel to have Sarah back?
Itâ€™s a special time. My children -- my books -- are not going to be
taken from me.
I have a son. Heâ€™s 11. I also have my books. I gave birth to Sarah
right after my son was born. I would literally nurse him while I was writing Sarah. I'm very proud of my son, and I'm proud of Sarah.
I didn't realize how much the lawsuit was affecting me. My life rights were demanded. There was a threat that if I didn't agree, all my work would be taken from me. If I wrote something new, it would be taken.
Thatâ€™s a horrifying state for a writer to work in. But I didnâ€™t
realize how much it was impinging on me until it was lifted.
The artist Banksy did a sculpture of a TV that reads: â€śIn the future,
everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes.â€ť I fought hard for my
anonymity. I fought a long time to be able to move into my own skin. It was a very long process. And itâ€™s not for anyone else to define me.
Now there are no more threats. I have had parts of myself taken from me without my permission. That's one of the reasons I choose to tuck my being far away. They can't threaten me with taking my babies anymore.
How does it feel to write under your own name?
It feels new.
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