Saturday, October 25, 2008

JT Leroy: Autobiography As Set Piece

JT Leroy, the subject of the book GIRLBOYGIRL, was a literary phenomenon who turned out never to have existed beyond the imagination of Laura Albert, a middle-aged San Franciscan. A small time James Frey, Leroy began his brief existence through phone calls to various writers whose work might be said to have been sympathetic, if not catalytic, creating imaginative back-story and relationships which provided legitimate worker bees for the propagation of the JT storyline. Writers got JT published. Publication got JT celebrity friends. A movie adaptation of his story followed, with trips to Cannes and Italy and the offices of several producers eager as ever to visualize the emperor's new clothes. Ultimately, JT was exposed in a series of magazine and newspaper articles, the most interesting of them written by Stephen Beachy. Until now, Laura and crew had been relatively silent.

GIRLBOYGIRL is ostensibly the story of Savannah Knoop, Albert's sister-in-law,who was commissioned by Laura to impersonate JT after journalists and others grew impatient with the photo Dennis Cooper had loaned to Leroy for use as himself. The first autobiography to emerge from the JT Leroy conglomerate, GIRLBOYGIRL makes for a nice extension of the JT mythos, showing how adaptable the basic story is, even now that JT Leroy has been exposed as the creation of Laura Albert.

It isn't a bad book. The JT novels themselves weren't either, though many people changed their minds about them once the scam was exposed. GIRLBOYGIRL operates within the same format as SARAH and THE HEART IS DECEITFUL ABOVE ALL THINGS, trading in tell-all vernacular. Like JT, who was said to have been pimped out by his mother to her johns until a therapist saved him by encouraging him to write, Savannah essentially "finds herself" through the course of the story. Like JT, she arranges events like a film, presenting a collection of cinematic vignettes which eschew the mundane in favor of the memorable. These involve her acquaintance with various celebrities: dinner with Gus Van Sant and Mike Pitt, girlboygirl crush on Asia Argento, residence in Carrie Fisher's guest house.

The JT story was something of an ad-lib. Readers completed it using a subtext provided by magazine articles, interviews, and the recommendations and endorsements of other authors and a motley assortment of public figures. The novels were essentially sets upon which JT's fans could play out their fantasies of him; they were endlessly adaptable this way, and their merit was based on the extent of imagination brought to them by their audience and by an awareness of the work their texts evoked: Dennis Cooper, Bruce Benderson, Mary Gaitskill, and others did more than half of JT's work for Albert, providing dimension to an otherwise fairly dimensionless narrative. JT was a familiar character, if one with no real-life analog, recognizable from the figures who populated other novels and stories. The subtext provided texture, reinforcing the idea that Sarah and Heart were poetic representations of a much more complicated, inarticulate universe. They lent a sort of credence and cohesion to the work of the authors they borrowed from as well, encouraging readers to see them as a bigger picture.

GIRLBOYGIRL presents Savannah as a repentant transgressor. Like JT, who hid behind sunglasses and wigs to protect his true identity, Knoop lived vicariously through the disguise. She played out a fantasy of herself, allowing for projection. Like JT, she got lost in the performance, felt trapped, was debased, controlled, and now, freed through writing, might be saved and start over. The book characterizes her situation as an addiction: she suffers not just from the impersonation, but from an eating disorder and aggressive self-hatred. Fittingly, she has body issues to go with her persona dysmorphia. Both are out of her control. The last line of the book compares well against those in other, better known autobiographical tell-alls: I will survive, I have learned, I have been to hell and back, etc.

The hell in question, of course, remains an attractive one, which is, after all, the book's reason for being. Savannah is no less enamored with the celebrities JT met than JT himself was. Whatever the stresses of a double life, she was able to travel, see the world, make some cash, and feel the love, if only for a while. A while is more than most people get, and the accomplishment of the book is its ability to make mountains out of these molehills. Toward this end, it uses the same language JT's own story did: Knoop is humble, she accepts responsibility, she knows what she did was wrong, she can't believe little ole her is actually sitting across from the one and only Gus Van Sant! Her simpleminded adoration of Asia Argento reads as endearing aw-shucks naivete, and Asia's eventual exposure as a selfish, ego-maniacal princess with feelings for no one save herself actually elicits sympathy, as if this would come as a big surprise to anyone who has watched TV in the last twenty years and knows how this very predictable plot operates. Like JT, Savannah is able to present herself as a simple soul so removed from her element, class-wise and otherwise, that the reader would have to be cold-hearted not to pardon her obvious gullibility.

To her credit, she resists the temptation and pressure to demonize Albert, with whom she seems to have remained friends. She touches on some of Albert's controlling qualities, as well as her own personal issues with weight and a chronic sense of inadequacy. Such is the book's achievement that even after reading it you could be excused for failing to see Laura as the manipulator she would truly have to be. The book is reasonably successful in making the whole thing seem more like an ordeal that was over its participants' heads than a juggling act single-handedly kept air borne by Albert for a number of years, through careful, even obsessive plotting, fanatical strategic advances and retreats, hours and hours of phone calls wherein she portrayed another person for hours and months on end, total, tireless vigilance over an assortment of related media, contract negotiations which required, given her assumed name, all kinds of subterfuge and, one would think, legal counsel, a sustained charade with a therapist who never met JT in person. This wasn't something which happened to Albert or Knoop. It was something they worked at. Consider a day in the life of Albert at the time: chocolates to Dennis Cooper, emails to various writers who'd received press and might be able to hook JT up, phone calls to Mary Gaitskill and Bruce Benderson, solicitation of blurbs and endorsements, coaching Savannah on voice and gesture and back story, and the writing, which, given such necessary distractions, must certainly have been like wrestling with a pit bull, as JT once said.

Once you consider how much was left out, you start looking at where room might have been made, and you see that what mattered to Savannah, the celebrities and the attention, matters even more so now. They fuel the book, reactivating the story in alternate combinations. They remain useful magnets, as ever. Had she wanted you to understand, she might have written an account detailing how all this worked and was sustained; a sort of technical manual for a specific kind of publicity machine. Doing so would have sacrificed her bid for sympathy, in which case there would be little point in writing her story in the first place. You begin to see her position only if you break the pattern of imaginative participation and suspended disbelief required by the JT novels themselves. What interests Savannah is continuing the story. This is the next chapter in the franchise, to be followed by documents from Albert and Knoop's half brother and Albert's one-time romantic partner, Geoff Knoop. JT's narrative was always a series, an interactive soap, with installments which didn't always fit but were made to. The characters were and still are Albert, Geoff, Asia, Gus, Cooper, Benderson, Ira Silverberg, et al. The possibilities for elaboration are endless.

The above photo shows Laura Albert (left) after various surgical procedures, and Savannah Knoop (right) as JT Leroy.

The article by Stephen Beachy detailing the "hoax" can be found here:

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