Did we kill art? Laura Albert on her traumas, her creative voice and the end of JT LeRoy

The Bridge - A series of interviews connecting students to remarkable figures of the Bay Area.

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Laura Albert/Courtesy

I am walking up Hayes Street. With the characteristically steep incline of the San Franciscan road, I’ve had my eyes glued to the pavement, but as I approach #963, I look up. I see a collection of eccentrically dressed and warmly smiling people pooling at the foot of a staircase leading up to an old Victorian home-turned-art-gallery.

I follow them through the front door and pass through the home: In the front room, a cool gallery featuring a collection of driftwood pieces, then a narrow hallway leading to a small living room with a towering bookshelf. The pages of the books face outward and the spines touch the wall, and I am even more tempted to pick one off the shelf. In the back, I see a patio covered in Persian rugs, with monstera plants and philodendrons in the corners.

It takes about 15 minutes before I spot Laura Albert. She is wearing a sheer, black top with long chiffon sleeves and a dramatic black skirt. With combat boots, rings on every finger and her silver raccoon penis bone necklace hanging around her neck, Albert oozes originality. Before we say one word to one another, I know that the interview I will be conducting with her later that night is going to be fascinating.

couple of hours later, we had noted the timeless and imperfectly beautiful art in the gallery and discussed cinema and astrological signs in a small Indian restaurant a couple of blocks away. Around 10 p.m., we really begin to talk.   

Stranger than fiction

Laura Albert is a critically acclaimed author who has been based in San Francisco since moving there in 1989. It’s been nearly 20 years since she rose to fame, and the presence of her work is still influencing more art. Later this year, a movie about Albert’s life is coming out. In it, Laura Dern plays Albert and Kristen Stewart plays the persona that Albert embodied when writing her first three best-selling books:  JT LeRoy.

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Kristen Stewart as JT LeRoy. Laura Albert / Courtesy

Albert has been writing since she was a schoolgirl, but in the late ‘90s, when she started writing about the subject matter that was to become the content of her two first novels, Albert began to write as someone else — someone she called “Terminator.”

As her art evolved, so did this literary persona. Ultimately, Albert channeled the persona of Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy, JT for short, when she wrote her stories. When Albert’s first work of fiction was published in 2000, it was under JT’s name.

“I really got the message that if you want to talk about (being abused), you have to look a certain way if anyone’s going to care …” — Laura Albert

JT was a woven tapestry of things real and imagined. He was a transvestite child prostitute, or “lot lizard,” who started turning tricks as a kid in West Virginia truck stops. He had his first sexual experience at age 5. By 13 years old, he was a heroin junkie and was self-harming. By 19, he had escaped to San Francisco and was writing fiction.

Much of the identity of this literary persona came from things Albert had picked up from the edges of society. But the need to invent him came from another, much more personal place. JT was an alternate identity Albert could use to write about sexual and physical abuse, things she had experienced firsthand as a young girl.

“(He) was like a pair of asbestos gloves I’d wear to protect my own skin when I’d write,” Albert said.  

JT was a mode of expression that allowed Albert to write about difficult and personal content: how she had been molested and shamed as a child, the discomfort she felt in her own body and the lack of clarity she felt about whether she wanted to be a boy or a girl. “Girls were either really good or they were like beautiful whores. And I wanted to be the boy,” Albert said.

When she was growing up in the ‘70s, Albert recalled how the after-school specials were just starting to talk about child abuse and how they exclusively featured blond-haired, blue-eyed boys as the victim.

Albert remembers that she “didn’t see fat, Jewish, tall girls.”

“I really got the message that if you want to talk about (being abused), you have to look a certain way if anyone’s going to care. … It’s like knowing who has the power, who gets help, … so I became that.” Albert added.

Through JT, Albert found the space to explore each and every facet of these traumas, which manifested into electric stories punctuated by a creative and poignant authorial voice. In 2000, JT LeRoy published his first novel, “Sarah.” The book was an absolute hit, and critics were calling JT the literary sensation of our generation.

“Sarah” talks about gender fluidity and abuse of every kind — topics well before their time. Albert recalls distinctly that, when she was growing up, devious sexual inclinations and patterns of addiction that were the result of abuse went unacknowledged. Similarly, even later in her life as she was writing, “gender fluidity” hadn’t become a term yet. JT wrote unapologetically about these topics, moving mass audiences in an unprecedented way for his time.

Meanwhile, Albert watched from behind her veil. JT allowed her to make a cathartic piece of art, and with that, the linchpin in Albert’s mode of creative expression had been hammered in. Albert didn’t put JT’s name on the cover of her books because she wanted to sound edgy, and she didn’t do it to preserve her own anonymity.

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Laura Albert / Courtesy

One of the reasons humans love art is because of its healing powers. Writers and painters, directors and musicians all use their art to heal themselves, and through their creative process, we too can find relief. Should it matter what the artist needs to do in their creative process in order to heal?  

Albert recalled how in a Rolling Stone article she did with lead singer of the Smashing Pumpkins Billy Corgan, he said of her, “Ya know, if she wants to wear a bunny suit, I don’t care. I love the work. Whatever you need to do.”

It is with this very mentality, one that cares deeply for the work itself and nothing else, that art becomes most accessible and most transformative.

Albert slipped into the persona of JT in order to dig into the things she was writing about. And what she was writing about was rocking a whole generation.

From lot lizard to “it boy”

When the reviews came back strong, and the demand for more JT books began to boom, Albert published a set of cohesive short stories, still under LeRoy’s name. It was called “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things,” and it was every bit as good as “Sarah. The set of works became a dogma, lending literary credence to the notion that individuals living in the social fray are real and important. People wanted to believe in the books, and they really wanted to believe in JT.

But this was becoming more and more difficult, as no one had ever really seen JT. The epitome of elusive appeal, JT’s identity was blurred by ambiguity and an elaborate effort to remain faceless. Albert couldn’t yet show herself to her ever-growing fan base when she still faced demons gutting her of any desire to be the person she was. To write, she still needed to be somebody else.  

One night, seeing a perfect opportunity to keep her own face veiled, Albert made a decision that would change the trajectory of her career. She made a deal with her sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop: Savannah would go out sporting a blond, androgynous wig, some dark shades, sometimes a wide-brimmed hat, and always a shy grin — Savannah would be JT LeRoy.  

In the interviews and the public readings of the two books, it was Savannah who dressed in the mysterious get-up of JT and did all the talking. When “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things” was turned into a movie, it was Savannah who walked the red carpet and made the speeches at the Cannes Film Festival.  And the story got far more complicated than that. There was a web of interconnected characters, real and unreal, that all stemmed from the mind of Albert. But at the forefront of them all was JT, and just like that, the once bodiless literary sensation who coalbert_laura-albert_courtesy3uld be found nowhere was popping up everywhere.

Everybody who was anybody wanted to meet JT. Many celebrities and artistic peers, including Winona Ryder, Bono, Lou Reed, Gus Van Sant, Calvin Klein, Courtney Love, Billy Corgan and David Milch (just to name a handful) formed a posse of adoring admirers and loyal friends; they all wanted to connect with JT. Suddenly, he found himself in the hottest circles in the music, film and literary worlds.

JT was the “it boy” because he had something interesting to say. His message was shamelessly honest, bold and powerful, and everyone wanted some.

And then one day, they wanted more. They wanted a front row seat to the unveiling.

In 2006, the New York Times published a piece called “The Unmasking of JT LeRoy: In Public, He’s a She.” The article included images of Savannah without her blonde wig and vindictively deemed Albert’s entire career a hoax. With that, the auteur du jour was suddenly facing her de facto end.

“The hard thing was the New York Times felt punked and (Warren St. John’s) ego was on the line,” Albert said. Albert explained how the leak of her story came at the time of a perfect storm for the New York Times, in which the credibility of the newspaper was at risk. They sacrificed JT’s credibility to redeem their own.

This is not to say the article didn’t bring up some important topics. In the concluding passage, JT’s agent at the time, Ira Silverberg, is quoted: “A lot of people believed they were supporting not only a good and innovative and adventurous voice, but that we were supporting a person.”

And then one day, they wanted more. They wanted a front row seat to the unveiling.

But instead of launching a vendetta against JT, the paper should have used the situation as an opportunity to investigate the bounds of artistry, the moral component of creating something that can impact the mass public, and the role of personal identity in public work. Instead, the media fought to take JT down. And in doing so, they stripped Albert of her veil: one that she had depended on, not for the purpose of deceit, but rather for the purpose of protection.

Albert went to pretty extreme lengths to protect her own vulnerable identity. But what does that have to do with the art she created? Her work should stand on its own, because it can and it does.

JT LeRoy went from being called the biggest literary sensation of our generation to the biggest literary hoax ever. Did his words mean nothing now that people knew he wasn’t real? Did his stories cease to exist when his own existence was denounced?  Did the meaning between the covers of JT’s books disappear when he did?

Today, Albert continues to write, spending her days working on her memoir. But it could never be the same as writing through the voice of JT.

“The thing about losing him,” Albert explained, is that JT was very much a part of her own being. “It was like conjoined twins: often one is stronger than the other –– it felt like he was the strong one and I was the appendage.”

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Gary Lipman / Courtesy

If JT provided Laura Albert another means of finding strength, of expressing herself so that she could make her art and reap the relief that comes with cathartic expression, is anyone really in the position to take that away from her?

The éclat fades, but the art remains the same

What Albert could never have anticipated was that the manifestation of JT was to become the very thing that would eclipse her own vocation –– preclude her from ever writing with her asbestos gloves again. In the dog days of her career, there was a reckoning. And an ugly, inimical end. The glare of her scandal blinded the people from the real purpose of JT –– it all went right over their heads, landing in the trash with the day-old tabloids.

Those who actually take the time to read Albert’s books and judge the works for themselves have continued to be moved by the stories. And as the constellation of characters comes together, those real and those unreal, the power in the stories is actually amplified. A lot has been said and a lot has been denied, but there is one undeniable thing in Albert’s writing: “The felt authenticity is there in the work, and people respond to it.”

Artists have always tested the limits and augmented their fame by throwing caution to the wind. The Rolling Stones went to jail, and so did Johnny Cash. We didn’t become infatuated with Bob Dylan because he was always direct with the media, we didn’t love Basquiat because we were always “comfortable” with the images he drew, and we certainly didn’t crave Tarantino because he made wholesome films.

In the dog days of her career, there was a reckoning. And an ugly, inimical end.

The one thing these artists have in common is that they don’t subscribe to conformity; they embrace their imperfections and make art with them instead. It’s the imperfections that breed creativity and often result in work that can change a generation. Imperfections make our favorite artists real and human and interesting. The JT story was imperfect, indeed. Doesn’t that make it more human than anything?

As our interview concluded, Albert pointed out in earnest the parallels between her own life and the life of the young crossdressing boy who is the protagonist in her first book, “Sarah.”

“Everything in ‘Sarah’ has come true,” she explained. “He’s revealed to people what he’s not. They worshipped him, they’ve turned him into this saint, and then (they hunt) him in the woods. … (In that moment) he says, ‘I never meant for any of this to happen,’ and when I wrote that, I started crying … because I knew I was writing the future.”  

Contact Jacqueline Moran at [email protected]