A couple years ago everyone was saying "You gotta read Sarah." This was a novel by one J.T. LeRoy. I looked into it. J.T. LeRoy was a formerly homeless, waifish cross-dresser who hauled around a fax machine and exuded the introverted weirdness/hipness of Warhol. Sarah was about his own experiences as the son of a Southern truck-stop hooker who regularly pimped out her son (sometimes dressed as a girl). J.T. LeRoy seemed just a little too offbeat (and his knack for self promotion too well-developed); he just didn't come across as anything like the horribly mixed-up and exploited kid of his stories. I didn't buy it. I figured either J.T. LeRoy invented his story and his kooky image, or someone invented J.T. LeRoy.
This has happened before. Several years ago, the memoirs of a super-intelligent 14-year-old boy named Anthony Godby Johnson broke people's hearts. Anthony had been horrifically neglected and abused by his dad, a New York City cop, before being adopted by the social worker who rescued him. But by that time he had contracted AIDS from one of the many men who had sexually assaulted him. The amazing thing was, his spirit and humour and intelligence had survived intact. His book, A Rock and a Hard Place, was truly inspiring. Mr. Rogers even wrote a promotional blurb for it.
Like J.T. LeRoy, Anthony cultivated special friendships with older, established writers by writing fan letters. He spent hours talking on the phone with Armistead Maupin, author of Tales of the City. It was Maupin's boyfriend who first raised the red flag. "What do you actually know about this kid?" he asked Maupin. "Has anyone ever seen him?" Maupin asked around and discovered that, no, no one really had seen Anthony. His adoptive mom, Vicki, was very protective of him and didn't allow visitors. When Maupin arranged a trip to the Midwest to meet his protege, Vicki Johnson canceled at the last moment because Anthony had to be readmitted to hospital. After a painful period of investigation and reflection, Maupin had to admit that Anthony and Vicki Johnson were probably one and the same. The 12-year-old voice he heard on the phone was undeniably that of a woman. Ms. Johnson denies it - but to this day, no one has met her adopted son. Maupin's novel The Night Listener (2000) is a thinly fictionalized version of this experience.
Before Anthony Johnson, there was Kaycee Nicole Swenson. Kaycee was a 14-year-old cancer patient whose resilience and strength inspired everyone who visited her website. She and her mother kept fans up-to-date on her progress via chatrooms and forums for over a year before some suspicious readers uncovered the fact that "Kaycee" was really a 30-something mother who had never had cancer. Kaycee was an invention of her own teenage daughter, but for some off-the-wall reason, the woman decided to take over the persona and pretend she was dying.
I have my doubts about the "real life" story of writer Augusten Burrows, Running with Scissors. Burrows claims his neurotic, alchoholic mother dumped him off on her shrink, a man who over-medicated his entire family and let a pedophile live in a shed in his backyard. I'm not saying that couldn't happen - hell, it probably happens every other week somewhere in the world - but the way Burrows tells it, the tale doesn't ring true. Neither did A Rock and a Hard Place. What straight 14-year-old boy likes Armistead Maupin stories?
Now, an article in New York Times Magazine contends that J.T. LeRoy is probably a woman named Laura Albert. His early paychecks were sent to relatives of Ms. Albert, and J.T. (according to his website, jtleroy.com) is the lyricist for Thistle, the San Francisco punk band that Laura Albert and her husband started many years ago. When J.T. makes his rare public appeareances, he wears a variety of blonde wigs and shades. The hoax possibility has been raised numerous times, even by one of LeRoy's friends and mentors, Mary Gaitskill: "It's occurred to me that the whole thing with Jeremy [J.T.] is a hoax, but I felt that even if it turned out to be a hoax, it's a very enjoyable one. 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 OK—in fact, it would be useful." ("The Cult of J.T. LeRoy" by Joy Press, The Village Voice June 13 - 19, 2001)
I'm not certain that these kinds of hoaxes are instructional, much less "delightful". I felt genuine sympathy for poor Armistead Maupin, who thought he was mentoring a dying boy and even let that "boy" call him Dad sometimes. But I have to admit I wouldn't feel too sorry for Gaitskill, Dennis Cooper, Gus van Sant, Dave Eggars, Courtney Love, or any other J.T. groupies if he turns out to be a crazy chick. To them, he's just a cool weirdo du jour.