Hillbilly Lit

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.

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