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Jeremiah "Terminator" LeRoy is a literary persona created by American writer Laura Albert. The name was used from 1996 on for publication in magazines such as Nerve and Shout NY. After his first novel Sarah was published, "LeRoy" started making public appearances. In a January 2006 article in The New York Times, LeRoy's agent, manager, movie producer, as well as several journalists, declared that the person acting as LeRoy in public was Savannah Knoop, the half-sister of Albert's then partner, Geoffrey Knoop.
LeRoy was supposedly born October 31, 1980 in West Virginia. His backstory was one of prostitution, drug addiction, and vagrancy in California, prior to the publication of his first novel in 1999. However, an exposé in October 2005 revealed that JT LeRoy was Laura Albert. In a February 2006 interview with The New York Times, Geoffrey Knoop stated that Laura Albert was the author of the LeRoy books, which Albert later confirmed.
Albert described LeRoy as an "avatar", and said that she was able to write things as LeRoy that she could not have said as Laura Albert, comparing it to "the way an oyster creates a pearl: out of irritation and suffering. It was an attempt to try to heal something." In 2007 Albert was found liable in monetary damages for the tort of fraud for having signed legal papers in the name of her fictional character. After the reveal, elements of JT LeRoy went on to inspire "Sweetie", a 2008 episode of Law & Order. Albert and JT are the subjects of the hit Brazilian rock musical JT, Um Conto de Fadas Punk ("JT, A Punk Fairy Tale"). "The Dramaturg", a 2013 episode of "Smash", had two composers pitching their musical as "A Star Is Born meets Hamlet meets Romeo and Juliet. And Moulin Rouge, Gaga, JT LeRoy," with the director responding, "It feels quite current."
Albert originally published as Terminator and later JT LeRoy.
LeRoy's work was also published in literary journals such as Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope: All-Story, McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Memorious, and Oxford American magazine's Seventh Annual Music Issue. LeRoy was listed as a contributing editor to BlackBook magazine, i-D and 7x7 magazines, and is credited with writing reviews all of which include the character Justin Wayne Dennis, articles and interviews for The New York Times, The Times of London, Spin, Film Comment, Filmmaker, Flaunt, Shout NY, Index Magazine, Interview, and Vogue, among others.
LeRoy's work has also appeared in such anthologies as The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2003, MTV's Lit Riffs, XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits, Nadav Kander's Beauty's Nothing, and The Fourth Sex: Adolescent Extremes. LeRoy is also listed as guest editor for Da Capo's Best Music Writing 2005.
Additionally, LeRoy was credited with liner notes and biographies for musicians Billy Corgan, Liz Phair, Conor Oberst, Ash, Bryan Adams, Marilyn Manson, Nancy Sinatra and Courtney Love and profiled award-winner Juergen Teller.
The original screenplay for Gus Van Sant's Elephant (2003) was credited to LeRoy. Van Sant began making Gerry, a largely improvisational, non-narrative film. He decided to continue that approach with Elephant while retaining some of LeRoy's contributions. LeRoy was also listed as that film's associate producer.
LeRoy was credited as associate producer for the 2004 film adaptation of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, directed by and starring Asia Argento. It was released in spring 2006. LeRoy made a few appearances at promotional events.
JT was a contributing scriptwriter for House of Boys (2009), a love story set in Amsterdam in 1984, starring Layke Anderson, Stephen Fry and Udo Kier and produced by Delux Productions (Girl with a Pearl Earring).
In 1994, LeRoy got in touch with novelist Dennis Cooper by faxing a request through Cooper's agent, Ira Silverberg. He struck up a telephone friendship with Cooper, who introduced him to the writer Bruce Benderson, through whom he contacted novelist Joel Rose, writer Laurie Stone, editor Karen Rinaldi, and agent Henry Dunow. He also got in touch with poet Sharon Olds, Mary Karr and Mary Gaitskill, among others.
LeRoy thus built a core of literary supporters, engaging in lengthy, intimate phone conversations and correspondence with them. Throughout the 1990s, LeRoy rarely appeared in public. Then in 2001, a person claiming to be LeRoy began appearing in public, usually decked out in wig and sunglasses
Peter Carlson wrote in The Washington Post, "The San Francisco Chronicle called the LeRoy affair 'the greatest literary hoax in a generation'. But this fascinating interview reveals that the real story was far more complex and interesting." In Lemon Magazine, head writer Robert Bundy wrote an editorial entitled "Yes Virginia, There Is A JT LeRoy", in the style of Francis P. Church's classic 1897 newspaper editorial defending the belief in Santa Claus. Bundy argued that LeRoy exists "because a touching expression of longing, suffering, love, and endurance is not disqualified simply because it issues from a construct. He exists because if words and stories resonate and move the reader, then it matters not that the hand writing them signed another's name."
In early 2001, Garbage singer Shirley Manson mentioned reading Sarah in her band's online journal. Manson then received LeRoy's manuscript for The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things and they became friends. At the time, Manson was writing and recording the band's third album, beautifulgarbage, and wrote a song about LeRoy called "Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!)". Manson later referenced LeRoy and his friend Speedie in the title song from the band's fourth effort, Bleed Like Me. Lou Reed, another supporter of JT LeRoy's, once advised JT to do what Andy Warhol did: avoid public appearances and have an impersonator appear in his place.
The controversial subject matter in LeRoy's work created substantial journalistic interest in the author, and various reporters and book critics sought out his identity. LeRoy, citing extreme shyness, refused to appear in public without being disguised in a wig, hat, and sunglasses. LeRoy would infrequently speak in public and once in Milan he hid under the table during his own book reading.
In an interview with The Guardian on January 4, 2006, LeRoy noted that he was "Twenty-three, er ... 24", when he would have been 25 years old. JT also asked something about Wiffleball, even though his author's bios claimed that he enjoyed playing it. The writer of the article, Laura Barton, quickly received an email from the LeRoy camp attempting to reposition his remarks.
The exposure of Laura Albert's fiction developed during 2005 and 2006 as a series of journalist-published accounts that cast doubt on the credibility of the author's claims.
Author Stephen Beachy wrote in the October 10, 2005 issue of New York magazine suggesting that LeRoy and his associate, Speedie, were personas adopted by musician Laura Albert. The following year, Laura Albert gave an extensive cover-story interview—her first—with Nathaniel Rich of The Paris Review detailing her own troubled history and her personal experiences with abuse, abandonment, institutionalization, sex work, gender identity, and her need, since childhood, to create alternate personae (chiefly over the telephone) as a psychological survival mechanism, through which she could articulate her own ideas and feelings. In November 2010, Laura Albert appeared at The Moth to tell her story on video.
The Washington Post's David Segal picked up the New York magazine story and wrote, "[LeRoy] appears to be one of the great literary hoaxes of our day, and it fooled a whole lot of people as well as the media, including The New York Times, which last year ran a lengthy profile of LeRoy".
Hans Eisenbeis, in the Minneapolis–Saint Paul newspaper The Rake, wrote, "I don't know what all the fuss is about. In the business, it's called a pseudonym, and the fact that J.T. LeRoy has been writing and publishing under that name for more than a decade ought to be track record enough to establish his (or her) credentials... It's an interesting mystery, but seems to me sort of irrelevant to whether the work written by that person is publishable or not."
On January 6, 2006 JT LeRoy posted a blog entry titled "the Hoax edition" which cited an article in The Guardian that took a kind stance over the hoax issue stating that "identity is irrelevant". Also included were T-shirt prints which made light of the hoax, reading "I am the real JT LeRoy" and including an artistic image of the author's blonde wig and sunglasses. Also on the blog entry were promotional references to the film The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, DVD cover art and opening dates, and a Sundance Film Festival viewing.
Three days after the blog entry, a New York Times article by Warren St. John, published on January 9, 2006, gave evidence that the person appearing in public as JT LeRoy was Savannah Knoop, half-sister of Geoffrey Knoop.
St. John's follow-up article, published by the Times on February 7, 2006, carried the headline, "Figure In JT LeRoy Case Says Partner Is Culprit", an investigative interview with Geoffrey Knoop. In this article, Knoop stated of Albert, "For her, it's very personal. It's not a hoax. It's a part of her." He further stated that he and Albert had separated in December 2005 and were then involved in a custody dispute over their son; however, their case has never entered the courts and no request has been filed by Knoop for sole custody. Knoop also expressed his belief that Albert would never publicly admit to writing as LeRoy.
The November 29, 2007 Rolling Stone (#1040) featured an article about JT LeRoy by Guy Lawson in which it was stated that the guitarist Billy Corgan had been privy to what Laura Albert was doing since 2002 and that this felt to him "... like being inside the Magic Kingdom".
In 2008, Savannah Knoop published Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy, a memoir about the six years she spent as LeRoy.
While many authors have taken pen names for various reasons (anonymity, protection of privacy), the persona that Albert and her friends created raised criticism from those who took her novels to be autobiographical, though the works were published as fiction.
Knoop's personal appearances presented LeRoy's public with a glimpse of the object of their interest. Albert has been criticized for allegedly calling for attention to JT LeRoy by associating the character with HIV, but there is no evidence that HIV was significant in LeRoy's public persona. As Knoop explained, the ongoing HIV-positive storyline was deleted at the time that she entered the picture as a physical LeRoy-impersonator. In a September, 2008 interview, Knoop recalled the change in storyline to Gavin Gavin Browning of The Village Voice:
Browning: "There were inconsistencies. In the late '90s, HIV was part of JT's story. But that got dropped. Were you ever challenged about that?"
Knoop: "No. I think that HIV was dropped right around the time I started impersonating him. HIV wasn't part of the story that I was playing, but there were little details. I would wear long sleeves, and there were scars. HIV was part of the trajectory, and then it was just dropped."
Although Laura Albert initially maintained her silence about her own personal history, a negative backlash nevertheless tarnished LeRoy's reputation early in 2006. The attacks focused on Albert's credibility to speak on the issues which had supposedly impacted LeRoy, such as being transgender, a victim of child abuse, a prostitute, and formerly homeless.
Dr. Terrence Owens, a therapist at the McAuley Adolescent Unit of St. Mary's Medical Center in San Francisco, was credited by LeRoy for motivating him to write. LeRoy claimed Owens encouraged writing between sessions to maintain continuity of thought, saying that LeRoy's accounts would help to train a class of prospective social workers. Those writings eventually made their way into the collection of short stories in 1998.
Owens has refused to confirm his involvement with any of the real or fictitious characters in the case, citing ethical considerations. But in an article in The New York Times, he said that he did not know Knoop. Not until Laura Albert's interview in The Paris Review did she reveal that in fact she herself has been a regular patient of Owens's for many years. That cannot be confirmed.
The LeRoy case has been frequently compared with the contemporaneous controversy involving the author James Frey, despite the difference that Frey's work was published as a memoir while Albert's work under the pseudonym JT LeRoy was published as fiction. Considering that her work was always labeled and marketed as fiction, the case of French novelist Romain Gary (1914–1980) is more pertinent to JT's trajectory than any correlation with authors who published under memoir, such as Armistead Maupin's The Night Listener, who were revealed to be different than their book's personas.
Laura Albert is not the first female author to use a male or gender-neutral pseudonym. The three Brontë sisters initially wrote their books under male pseudonyms, and Mary Ann Evans wrote as "George Eliot". Alice Sheldon wrote science fiction to great acclaim as "James Tiptree Jr."
Antidote International Films, Inc., and its president Jeffrey Levy-Hinte announced plans for a film adaptation of Sarah to be directed by Steven Shainberg. According to The New York Times, when Shainberg "learned who had truly written 'Sarah' an inspiration came to him to make a 'meta-film', a triple-layered movie that would blend the novel with the lives of its real and purported authors in a project he took to calling 'Sarah Plus'." The New York Times also reported that this new project "required the rights to Laura Albert's story, rights that she in no uncertain terms refused to grant."
In June 2007 Antidote sued Laura Albert for fraud, claiming that a contract signed with JT LeRoy to make a feature film of Sarah was null and void. ABC News questioned whether Antidote's lawyer "may have misfired by comparing Albert to Shakespeare in an attempt to claim that authorship matters. 'You think Shakespeare would be Shakespeare if he didn't write it — whoever Shakespeare really is?' he asked." On June 22 a Manhattan jury found Albert liable in monetary damages for the tort of fraud because she had signed her nom de plume to the movie contract. She was ordered to pay $110,000 to Antidote, covering the option contract, as well as an extra $6,500 in punitive damages. In reporting the verdict on June 23, Alan Feuer noted in The New York Times, "He [Jeffrey Levy-Hinte] went on to say that if Ms. Albert, who never made a fortune from her literary works, could not afford to pay the judgment, he might have to consider laying claim to the rights to her past and future books." On July 31, 2007, the court ordered Albert to pay an additional $350,000 in legal fees to Antidote. After having appealed, the damages awarded were reduced by settlement with Antidote in 2009, and Laura Albert retained the rights to her books and her life story.
In August 2008, the Authors Guild released an amicus brief in regard to the trial verdict, supporting Laura and opposing the jury's decision, stating that the decision "will have negative repercussions extending into the future for many authors. The right to free speech, and the right to speak and write anonymously are rights protected by our Constitution, and the district court's decision which holds that Laura Albert's use of pseudonym breached the Option and Purchase Agreement, is one that will have a chilling effect upon authors wishing to exercise their right to write anonymously". They went on to request that the court reverse the decision in regards to a breach of contract.
Since the reveal, references to JT LeRoy and the books have continued to turn up in popular culture, such as the episodes of Law & Order and Smash mentioned above, and the Brazilian rock musical JT, Um Conto de Fadas Punk ("JT, A Punk Fairy Tale"). New York magazine said of singer Antony Hegarty, “His relationship to his audience recalls that of Nina Simone and JT LeRoy.” Filmmaker Michael Arias claimed JT LeRoy for his inspiration in translating Taiyo Matsumoto’s manga Sunny. At a 2013 symposium with filmmaker J. J. Abrams in New York, actress and writer Lena Dunham said that JT LeRoy “co-opted my imagination for a full year of my life. [...] It was pretty remarkable. And then you also go, ‘This person isn't who they claim to be, but they still wrote this book that captured all of our imaginations, so then why does the identity of the author even matter when you're reading fiction and engaging with it in a really personal way?’” That same year, Laura Albert told Interview magazine, “You know, JT LeRoy does not exist. But he lives. That’s what a famous film historian once said about Bugs Bunny.” Another interviewer insisted, "Albert had ingeniously hacked the literary establishment." In March 2014 the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the Academy of Friends Oscar Party in San Francisco invited JT LeRoy – played by gender-fluid fashion model Rain Dove Dubilewski – to walk the runway as part of its HIV/AIDS fundraiser.