Hillbilly Lit

The JT LeRoy literary hoax raises hackles in Appalachia

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A note fromUtne Reader's Editors: Last year, author 'JT LeRoy' was unmasked as a hoax. Purportedly an HIV-positive former drug addict and male prostitute who had been sexually abused as a child, LeRoy turned out to be a character played by two women. His books had in fact been written by Laura Albert, a 40-year-old San Francisco resident, and he was represented in public by Savannah Knoop, the half-sister of Albert's ex-partner. The author of this story is an actress from West Virginia.

I first heard of JT LeRoy through a musician friend organizing a reading of stories from JT's new book, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, at a hipster bookstore in Los Angeles in 2001. Since JT rarely traveled and was too pathologically shy to read his own work in public, would I read an excerpt?

I knew very little of LeRoy's work, but the more I heard about the reclusive author the more intrigued I became. Part of the allure was that LeRoy was from my home state of West Virginia. Most of his writing was either about or set in the place where I grew up (and often return to). I don't meet many teenage hustlers from West Virginia, at least not ones who are lighting the literary world on fire.

I dove into JT's first novel, the highly acclaimed Sarah. It's a Flannery O'Connor-style saga of a teenage hillbilly prostitute, or 'lot lizard,' who services truckers at truckstops. He's forced to masquerade as a young girl by his pimpin' ho of a mother in the fashionably fucked up, postmodern purgatory known as West Virginia. Hollywood was already buzzing with word that Gus Van Sant (who specializes in the fashionably fucked up) was slated to direct the feature film version.

I must admit, in the back of my mind I thought it would be nice to try to get a part in the movie. I always dreamed of playing a hooker with a heart of coal.

Sarah was surrealistically tweaked yet seemed a bit far-fetched to me. While I never knew any teenage prostitutes when I was growing up in West Virginia, I did hang out with some pretty wild folks in high school in Charleston. Back in the '70s, if you smoked you were automatically part of a club that crossed economic barriers. We all stood side by side in the George Washington High School smoking area. And if you smoked pot, well, then, those barriers were completely obliterated.

I'd seen the tapes of Jesco White, the 'Dancin' Outlaw' of Boone County, that circulated around Hollywood some years back, among the same kind of folks who would later be titillated by JT's transgressions. So, heck, wasn't anything possible in the place that also brought the world Hasil Adkins and the Amazing Delores?

JT's mom, Sarah, was probably the worst mother ever to have birthed a baby outside of a Charles Dickens novel. I don't think I've read anything that made me want more to rescue a young child from his primary caregiver than JT's awful tale of abuse. I think it was this instinct to mother the poor little hillbilly waif that sucked a lot of people in.

I was impressed that this severely damaged child had managed to put two words together, let alone write a novel! And I was outraged at what his mother had done to him. I wanted to help in any way I could.

JT was excited I was doing the reading. And I was anxious to meet him. But you didn't meet JT. You could, however, e-mail him. Which I did. At the beginning there was no reason to believe JT wasn't who he said he was. He even wrote back in hillbilly vernacular.

At the time, I was doing reshoots of Panic Room with Jodie Foster. JT seemed obsessed with the actress, especially Jodie Foster as a child prostitute in Taxi Driver. Looking back, perhaps it was that movie that informed the JT character the most. I also wonder if the deceiver studied Foster's West Virginia accent in The Silence of the Lambs before doing an interview with Terry Gross on the National Public Radio show Fresh Air. A not wholly convincing accent, but then again, the poor child had been dragged all over the place-how could one expect him to have a consistent accent?

I ended up getting The Heart Is Deceitful to Jodie Foster, telling her it was 'Southern Gothic in nature, with what seems like more than a little magical realism. Not nearly as good as something by Flannery O'Connor but interesting, given how young the author is.'

Hooked by the West Virginia connection, I continued corresponding, sharing with JT some of the Appalachian memories his books were evoking. Some of his responses confused me. Since my grandfather was a Swedish evangelist and JT's pappy was supposedly a Bible thumper, I wrote asking him to tell me more.
JT told me he used to 'street preach in Charleston.' That's strange, I thought. I never saw any kids, or adults for that matter, 'street preaching' in all the years I was growing up in West Virginia's capital city. Maybe it was a part of town I missed.

Then he e-mailed saying he used to 'street preach in Charlestown.' Didn't he know Charleston and Charles Town are two separate places in two separate parts of the state? Anyone who grew up in West Virginia knows that. Oh well, probably a typo.

Eventually it got too weird even for me. I finally told JT I needed to see who I was talking to. The picture that came back waylaid some of my suspicions. It sure looked like a boy. A girly boy. Trés femme. A not-that-unusual type I'd encountered many times before in the arty circles I travel in. He was wearing big aviator sunglasses and what seemed to be a wig. Whatever. At least I now had a sense that this was, indeed, a flesh and blood person.

JT said he enjoyed hearing about our shared home state, but most of the e-mails were about all the press he was getting and his new famous friends. The press whoremongering and name dropping got annoying. But then again, I thought, he's young, impressionable. We must make allowances. We've all been there. He'll grow out of it.

After the L.A. reading there were few e-mails from JT. But there were plenty of media stories about this wondrous new literary star and all the fabulous celebrities who were reading his stories in public.

I pretty much forgot about JT and went on with my life. Every now and then I'd read about another star-studded reading or see another photo spread in a trendy mag like Interview or Vanity Fair.

'That is so bogus,' my husband said. 'There is no way that person is for real.' No, no, no, I assured him. JT is just a really damaged kid.

But I wasn't so sure. I remembered running into someone I knew who was working with Italian film actress and director Asia Argento on the film adaptation of The Heart Is Deceitful. She was directing and starring in it. I was rather antagonistic to the idea since I felt this bunch was not the right crew for the job. There was no way they were going to capture the West Virginia milieu. It's gonna end up like some Interview magazine spread, I thought to myself-all pose and no heart. But this Italian fellow who worked with Argento was friendly and excited to find out that I was from West Virginia.

'Oh, Vir-geen-ee-a!' he blurted out. 'That is where our film takes place! Tell me about it! What does it look like? We want to put it in the script.' I thought, wait a minute! You're about to film this thing, and you don't know what the place even looks like? And it's not Virginia, for cryin' out loud! It's West Virginia! We're a separate fuckin' state! We seceded in 1863! We fought against slavery!'

Finally, the New York Times pulled the wig and sunglasses off the woman pretending to be JT.

The real disservice of this hoax is to the real people who have real stories of real abuse to tell. People who don't get the seal of approval from the likes of Oprah and the New York Times and a literary world that operates not too differently than Hollywood does. Having lost many friends as well as my only brother to AIDS, I felt the hoax was amoral and sadistic.

Less dire, but no less annoying, was the way West Virginia was used. Once again, the Mountain State was anointed as the source of debauched white trash dysfunction.

Excerpted from the Gazz (Feb. 2006, www.thegazz.com), the online feature magazine of the Charleston Gazette in Charleston, West Virginia. This version of the article also appeared in Appalachia Journal (Spring/Summer 2006). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (4 issues) from Belk Library, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC 28608; www.appjournal.appstate.edu.