Duped: Rob Arnold on JT LeRoy

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Memorious reached out to Rob Arnold, one of the magazine’s cofounders who left the magazine in 2008,  to weigh in on the controversy surrounding JT LeRoy, an author who purported to be—among many other things—a queer H.I.V. positive former child sex worker from West Virginia, but was later revealed to be Laura Albert, a 30-something woman from Brooklyn. This story has generated much attention, as LeRoy amassed a great deal of fame and a collection of celebrity admirers in the early 2000’s. The first issue of Memorious contains what we now believe is the last short story Albert published as LeRoy; Albert had also published stories as Leroy in The Oxford American, Zoetrope: All-Story, and McSweeney’s. In the wake of renewed interest following the release of the documentary film Author: The JT LeRoy Story, and the earlier documentary The Cult of JT LeroyRob Arnold shares his experience working with JT LeRoy. (The editors of Memorious would like to note that while the original story remains online, due to our policy of archiving all of our issues as they were published, we would not have published this story had we known of the deception behind it.)

Duped. That was the word on my mind the morning of November 9th, when I and millions of people like me around the world woke up to a new America. Which turned out to be the same, sad, disappointing America it had always been—the same dangerous America, self-destructive America, the same damaged and demonized America—with a horrible twist. The twist is you were living in half a country all along. The twist is you wake in the night convinced it was all a horrible dream. And then the stomach sinks, the realization dawns. Bubbles burst.

I know something about duplicity. Thirteen years ago, I answered a Craigslist ad for a writer who needed help with his website. He sounded young on the phone, frail and effeminate. Was his Appalachian accent real or feigned? I thought feigned, but over time I came not to care, taken in by the cult of celebrity that swirled around him. The feverish, almost maniacal loyalty of his fans. The writer was JT LeRoy, and his devotees included Courtney Love, Winona Ryder, Billy Corgan, Gus Van Sant and many others. At a SoHo launch party for LeRoy’s third book, I stood next to David Byrne and Jerry Harrison. I turned around and saw Shirley Manson lost in conversation with Lou Reed.

Eventually, LeRoy himself appeared, a quivering slip of a man, barely five feet tall, it seemed. When he read from his novella, he was either too shy or too wounded to project, his voice barely a whisper. The audience loved him anyway.

LeRoy was a genius at gathering people to his cause, and I was no different. People admired the prose, but they swooned for his back story. At varying points, LeRoy had claimed to be a homeless abuse survivor, a truck stop prostitute, an HIV-infected drug addicted transsexual. The adjectives piled up. He was a teenaged prodigy who escaped life on the streets, who turned to writing as a form of therapy, an unbelievable demonstration of resilience over trauma.

Unbelievable.

I met LeRoy later that night, at an afterparty in a hotel bar. It was the only time we would meet in person. I had been his web master for a year, had redesigned the site from the ground up and registered his domain name, linking the database record to my own name and contact info. As payment for my services, LeRoy told me to take credit for some photographs that COLORS Magazine was planning to use in an issue featuring LeRoy. Whatever COLORS paid for the photos, I could accept as payment. Hesitantly I agreed, worried the real photographer would somehow find me out.

COLORS never called, and I never did get paid for my time. LeRoy and I parted ways shortly after the launch party, and I moved on to other projects. But not before convincing him to contribute a story to the first issue of an online magazine I was starting with my then-girlfriend. Long after the story appeared, we would occasionally still receive unsolicited submissions from LeRoy’s fans. As an ambitious young editor, I brushed off these submissions as the price I had to pay for scoring what would become the last story LeRoy would ever publish.

Unbelievable.

Sometime in the summer of 2006, I got a strange phone call from a man who’d found my number from a WhoIs search on JT LeRoy’s domain name. He asked if I’d met LeRoy, if I knew him in person, if I was in fact JT LeRoy himself. I don’t remember now whether he gave his name or not. I answered as truthfully as I could and hung up, perplexed but convinced it was one of LeRoy’s fans, playing a prank or just trying to get close to LeRoy. Later that year, New York Magazine published an exposé on JT LeRoy, claiming LeRoy was a literary hoax invented by a middle-aged woman in San Francisco named Laura Albert. Was it Stephen Beachy who had contacted me, the reporter who finally broke through JT LeRoy’s deception? It seems likely, though what if anything he might have gleaned from me remains unclear.

The details of LeRoy’s unraveling are well known by now, infamous in literary circles. The story of how Laura Albert duped the entire celebrity establishment into believing in a figment named Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy—how she faked her voice, how she hired her partner’s sister to play the physical manifestation of LeRoy—is now the subject two separate documentaries. It will soon be a major motion picture starring Kristen Stewart, Helena Bonham Carter, and James Franco, based on the memoir of the young woman who played LeRoy in public appearances. The second documentary was released earlier this year, on the tenth anniversary of Albert’s outing. Of the two, it is the more affectionate portrait, simultaneously blaming Albert’s deceit on her own history of abuse yet somehow lauding her brilliant charade. Like clockwork, new editions of LeRoy’s books have been reissued. Laura Albert seems positioned for some kind of unbelievable comeback. Nowhere in the documentary do we hear from the kinds of fans who had looked to JT LeRoy for strength and inspiration, who had written and submitted their own stories of trauma to editors like myself, hoping they too could escape their destinies and rub elbows with rock stars, have flings with movie directors. Like many voices, theirs have been lost to time.

And where does that leave me? Is it strange to wake up in November of 2016 and feel nostalgia for past times marked by Albert’s duplicity? Real harm was done. And under the banner of this new presidency, I fear more harm is yet to come. Tangible harm. Harm that will mark and implicate us all. How do we judge somebody like Laura Albert now, knowing what else is at stake?

Maybe we don’t need to. Many years have passed, and some people loosen over time, becoming different expressions of themselves under different circumstances. In the age of Donald Trump, soon to be known as the Age of Misinformation, who are we to know one truth from another truth? Who is Laura Albert now? Who am I now? Who are we all?

rsa

Rob Arnold cofounded Memorious and was coeditor from 2004-2008. His poems, essays, and interviews have appeared in PloughsharesHyphenNatural Bridge, and elsewhere. He lives in Boston where he works at Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary Agency and coedits Grid Books.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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