“The Importance Of Being JT LeRoy”
by Nicole V. Gagné
(c) copyright Nicole V. Gagné 2012
In 1889 Oscar Wilde offered a compelling defense for the then-controversial medieval texts that had actually been written by the 18th-century poet Thomas Chatterton:
I insisted that his so-called forgeries were merely the result of an artistic desire for perfect representation; that we had no right to quarrel with an artist for the conditions under which he chooses to present his work; and that all Art being to a certain degree a mode of acting, an attempt to realize one’s own personality on some imaginative plane out of reach of the trammeling accidents and limitations of real life, to censure an artist for a forgery was to confuse an ethical with an aesthetical problem.
It may seem disconcerting for an essay on Laura Albert to begin by invoking Oscar Wilde: a writer of genius, abandoned by most of his admirers, whose career and life were annihilated by the press and the courts. But the man plainly understood the value of art, and the vital importance of protecting our artists and affording them the widest possible latitude in the creation of their work.
Such values are as unpopular in 21st-century America as they were in Victorian England, and there remain critics and journalists who dismiss the JT LeRoy books written by Laura Albert as a “hoax.” Yet Albert’s fiction had always sought to prepare readers to accept the facts behind the myth of JT LeRoy. The central trauma in her books is the exposure of the narrator as an imposter: Saint Sarah is really a boy in Sarah; that sweet little kid is really a shoplifter in The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. You get to empathize with the narrator when his sufferings impel him to take a protective covering, and you share in his desperation and anguish at being exposed; you also experience with him how it feels to be abandoned -- and punished, always far in excess of his actual misdeeds. Readers of these books are led to a visceral understanding of some dimension of that trauma, and yet the revelation of JT LeRoy as a persona created by Laura Albert has elicited from too many former enthusiasts something ugly, cruel, and self-righteous. These attacks only testify to the truthfulness and accuracy of her books: When assured of their superiority -- moral, social, or merely physical -- plenty of people are ready to swing a belt at you.
Written in the first person and the present tense, the JT LeRoy books take on the extremity and immediacy of war correspondence -- they’re dispatches, reports from the front, detailing abuse, abandonment, exploitation, poverty, homelessness. Readers are given an explicit understanding of what it means to live in the world with nothing, as nothing. Yet the narrator sees his chaotic, predatory environment as a true innocent would see it, without judgment or expectation. The books and the persona of JT LeRoy express an archetype of the transcendence of suffering, and they emerged when they did and in the way that they did in response to a desperate need. By 2001, the year The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things was published, there were over 1.3 million homeless kids in the U.S., with 13 of them, on average, dying each day. The JT LeRoy books were a creative attempt to bring healing to an intolerable situation, as though this strain of human misery had reached a critical mass and taken voice and form in JT. The books’ uncompromising attention to the experience of this pain generates a cumulative effect of compassion in its purest form, and so they also describe an epic gesture of forgiveness, without excuses or explanations. The narrator never averts his eyes, yet there is no hatred. No one is judged, no one is condemned.
How then to comprehend the spectacle of Laura Albert as the object of hate and judgment and condemnation, by the very people who read and praised her books? Granted, their ranks must have always included people who long to ignore the awful truths about American life exposed in these books, and who were quick to denounce the messenger so they could disregard the message. Granted too, we live in a consumer society where packaging is not simply confused with content, but consumed as content -- so if JT LeRoy is taken away, then of course his books must disappear with him. These conditions, however, still don’t explain seemingly intelligent people having learned nothing and understood nothing from the work that had so moved and impressed them. All of which is not very encouraging for the prospective author -- no matter what you write, its commodification will turn it into entertainment and sentimentality; your writing won’t be appreciated and can’t be expected to free up the way anyone thinks or behaves. And if people won’t pay attention to a work of art and aren’t open to being changed by it, then what value does art have?
One more dangerous question posed by the writings of Laura Albert -- an especially dangerous question in this consumer society, where the work of a genuine artist is processed in four distinct phases. Phase One is Fascination: The new girl on the street always attracts the johns. Phase Two is Vilification, best defined by the immortal lyric of John Lennon: “Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe.” Phase Three is Vindication: The work endures. Phase Four is Veneration: People previously reviled as has-beens or hacks or lunatics or fakes have their faces celebrated on postage stamps, get streets and university buildings named after them, and have their birthplaces and workspaces converted into museums -- in some cases, into shrines. Attendant upon this fourth and final phase is one of life’s not-so-little ironies: These artists are venerated for precisely those activities for which they were vilified during Phase Two. Thus, Oscar Wilde is today revered as an icon of queer liberation, and people are now grateful that Truman Capote betrayed the confidences of the rich and wrote a masterpiece such as “La Cote Basque.”
Laura Albert is one of the most truthful writers this country has ever produced, and so the JT LeRoy books will endure. And for deconstructing identity and gender in American literature, and short-circuiting the corporate machinery of huckstering personalities, which defines itself as the publishing industry, she will be venerated, just as much as for the poetry and honesty and compassion of her writing. The catch is, Phase Two can go on for years, and not every artist survives the firestorm. Look at the names I’ve dropped: Lennon, Poe, Wilde, Capote. Quite the martyrology, isn’t it? Laura Albert’s attackers have spewed real and poisonous venom at her, blind to the value in her writing, which they’d previously seen -- like children saying that their Christmas gifts stink because Santa Claus was actually Mommy. Does it matter that the JT LeRoy books were clearly designated “Fiction”? Not at all. Does it matter that the books cast much needed light upon the abuse and exploitation of women and children, or that they explore the ways in which those horrors are systemic to American society? Uh-uh. Does it matter that everything that was good in these books yesterday is also good today? Nope. What then does matter? The fear that one has been played.
Within a corporate-based consumer-driven society, such a fear is completely legitimate. After all, the government lies to you each day and seeks to manipulate you with its every utterance; also lying to you 24/7 are the manufacturers and marketers of all the products you consume, from toothpaste to novel; and then there are the organized religions... When a population is continuously being played from all sides, you have to expect that some people will turn mean if they think they suddenly stand out as having been played. Of course, they seldom risk their comforts by turning their rage against the Big Liars; but in the realm of art and culture, this fear of being played becomes primal. How could it be otherwise? When artwork and artist are both commodities for purchase, buyers must consider their investments with care. Their commodities are recognizable to them only when regarded through the prism of commerce, and so there were readers of JT LeRoy who came to feel that they’d been had. But if you regard art not as a thing you obtain but as an opportunity to change the way you think, then you cannot be conned -- or to quote Gertrude Stein, another great American Jewish woman writer who was called a con artist, “If you enjoy it, you understand it, and lots of people have enjoyed it, so lots of people have understood it.”
Never forget: A con artist is someone who takes things away from people. In the first years of the 21st century, when the myth of JT LeRoy walked among us, all it did was bring out good things in people: furthered compassion and empathy, inspired creativity, encouraged queer pride, raised awareness of homelessness and the abuse and exploitation of children and women, and offered a deeper understanding of ourselves as human beings. Once journalists dismantled the myth, all that came in their wake was cynicism, arrogance, mistrust, and malice.
JT LeRoy is lost to us, like the spent jets of a rocket, which have crashed back to Earth. Their payload, however, is now beyond the crush of our gravity and the trammeling accidents and limitations of real life, and has found its home in the stars. If you want to see JT for yourself, look up.
Nicole V. Gagné is the co-author of Soundpieces: Interviews With American Composers (1982) and author of Sonic Transports: New Frontiers In Our Music (1990), Soundpieces 2 (1994), and Historical Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Music (2012). She has also written on film for Film Journal International, Cineaste, Brutarian, www.allmovie.com, and www.fandor.com.