Non-Fiction: Little Lies and Literati
Savannah Knoop, Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy (Seven Stories, 2008)
In late 2005, the world learned that JT LeRoy—the former teenage prostitute who as a young transgendered novelist living in San Francisco had transformed himself into a minor celebrity and “darling of the avant-garde”—was actually a forty-year-old woman named Laura Albert. A few months later, in January of 2006, James Frey was outed as a fraud for having exaggerated or fully fabricated details of his bestselling memoir, A Million Little Pieces. In the roar that followed the Frey scandal, made more deafening by the scorn of thousands of betrayed Oprah disciples who had followed her lead in embracing his book, few people noticed when the LeRoy hubbub settled with comparative quiet. The New York Times uncovered the identity of the woman who had been playing the public character of JT LeRoy since 1996: Savannah Knoop, the twenty-five-year-old half-sister of Albert’s off-again partner Geoffrey Knoop, was the “real” JT LeRoy, the one who had made awkward appearances at dozens of literary events, palled around with Asia Argento during the making of the film adaptation of JT’s second novel, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, and, with her campy costumes and over-the-top wig and sunglasses, improbably fooled both JT’s celebrity admirers and prominent members of the press.
Now Knoop has written a book about her experiences. Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy is a short but tedious read, punctuated by frequent mentions of famous admirers and friends whose soulless clinging to JT for the “authenticity” he provided is only matched by Knoop’s and Albert’s unapologetic exploitation of their need. Between the name-dropping and the pointless anecdotes, Knoop struggles to find the right balance of emotional honesty and edginess throughout the book, but the result is a disingenuous-seeming jumble. For all of her obvious desire to liken the seductive glamour of playing JT to an addiction and herself the victim, she seems unable to fully admit that what she participated in was a deception and—to many who related to JT’s mythical back-story—a betrayal. Instead she slides between justification, self-obsessed questioning of her identity, and examination of her and Albert’s neurotic relationship. In the last few pages of the book she comes closer to untangling her feelings, finally admitting that she was both relieved to be getting on with life without the JT LeRoy ruse and sad to see it go, but the self-reflection is too little, too late.
In the aftermath of the Frey and LeRoy scandals, all kinds of theses have been trotted out examining the nature of fiction vs. nonfiction, subjective truth vs. objective truth, the limits of creative license and the ways both the publishing industry and the public read books differently if they believe that they are “true stories” rather than made up. Savannah Knoop’s personal contribution to this dialogue is slight—for one thing, like Frey and Albert, she is too far inside of it to be able to rationally analyze the mess she’s helped to make. What is interesting about the LeRoy scandal is not Savannah Knoop, or even Laura Albert, but the way that the whole mess casts aspersions on the rest of us.
Within the literary world, the JT LeRoy character never really fooled anyone—his/her agents may have feigned shock after the big reveal, but rumors had been circulating for years. In private circles, JT/Knoop, so clearly without an Adam’s apple and with such small hands, was commonly referred to as “it,” and the difference between the ebullient, forthright personality of Albert playing JT on the phone and the bewildering public reticence of JT/Knoop was noted by many. But people played along anyway, because the familiar story of innocence hitting the skids and then coming out the other side to finally find redemption through Art, was irresistible—and profitable. However unlikely or even brazenly fishy, people wanted to believe, even to just pretend to believe, the JT LeRoy story. When those same people were exposed as pawns in Albert’s game, their anger might have been more appropriately aimed at themselves.
And what about Frey? Why did James Frey, for all of his blustering and blame and fake apologies, still manage to come out on top, while Albert has faded into relative obscurity? After all, the novels of JT LeRoy were never marketed as anything but fiction, and Albert’s writing is in many ways stronger and more deserving of literary merit than Frey’s. Is it because Frey wrote a simple, “straightforward” memoir, without any of the wink-wink knowingness and layering of the truth that LeRoy’s novels contained, that people allowed themselves to feel a brief, clean sort of anger and then move on? Or is it that Frey’s contrition has added just a little bit to his sad, sad story—he’s become the haunted literary figure of scandal, persecuted and battered but never destroyed, managing to get through yet another of life’s trials and living to tell the story. Maybe we can forgive him because unlike Albert, who cleverly spoon-fed us exactly what we wanted until the moment we realized what it was, Frey only got himself dirty. JT LeRoy smeared the dirt over all of our faces.