The heart, it seems, is deceitful. JT LeRoy does not exist.
When he/she/it burst onto the scene, it was all biography. Street kid, lot lizard, West Virginia hustler. He bounced onto the streets of San Francisco, where a psychologist is said to have encouraged him to write. He started corresponding by e-mail with established writers (Mary Gaitskill, Dennis Cooper) and eventually saw his first book, Sarah, published. It was followed by the short story collection The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things and the illustrated novella Harold's End . The books are all supposed to be based on LeRoy's own experiences of sexual and physical abuse and drug use.
At first, questions arose because he only ever seemed to communicate by internet and fax. Eventually, this wig-wearing creature started appearing at public events, claiming to be LeRoy.
Journalists told stories of strange late-night interviews, shifting accents on the telephone, and long-winded evasive answers to questions of identity.
Then in October, an investigative piece in New York magazine actually put some shoe leather into it, the author going down to Polk Street, where JT supposedly hustled when he first landed in SF, and interviewing folks in the underworld down there, including social workers who specialized in helping hustlers. None of them could remember JT.
The journalist, Stephan Beachy, postulated that JT was actually the creation of a couple, Laura Albert and Geoffrey Knoop, with whom he supposedly lived. They were a couple of San Francisco hipsters, with a band and artistic ambitions.
The only real mystery left was who was the person who appeared as JT LeRoy. Well, that mystery is solved. It turns out that it's Knoop's younger sister Savannah.
So that's the deal. A couple of middle-class twats from San Francisco pull off a pretentious "performance art" hoax, When it takes a surprising turn and actually succeeds, they continue the lie and cash in on it. They trick the lit world rubes, and make off, trailing laughter in their wake.
But it's far worse then that.
I read The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. It was a sad little collection of stories that derived its emotional power from raw shock, one brutality after another. While the writing wasn't particularly memorial, the sympathy you felt for the narrator overwhelmed your better senses at times. Even when I doubted the story, as I did during the over-the-top scenes of abuse the young queer boy suffers at the hands of his strict fundamentalist grandparents (all kinds of bible-reading and steel wool, you get the picture) I assumed that I was dealing with the exaggeration of a mind prodded by a glimpse into hell.
But it was all bullshit. Despite the fact that LeRoy had become a celebrity, a kind if avatar for child abuse, they continued the lies. Albert would often speak for "JT", confirming some incidents from the books as being based in fact, dismissing others, often changing the story from one hour to the next.
Thousands of people believed, extending to this wounded animal that most precious of modern commodities, empathy. Albert and Knoop and their accomplices soaked it up and fed all that care and tenderness to their wan Golem; they let it be known that JT was HIV positive, they played up his gender confusion, they filled Harold's End with sad-faced portraits of battered young boys.
They must have thought so little of us, those earnest readers who actually cared about their creation, who found a scrap of hope in the story of a battered child who made it out, who let ourselves be moved a little in the age of the constant insincere come-on. To do so, they went to a new low of ugliness to shock us out of our modern cynicism. But now, even that particularly hideous pain that JT was said to have been subjected to, even that has been commodified.
They were clever San Franciscans, bubbling with contempt for everyone outside of their small circle of the eternally enlightened, their little elite, better than others because of their special knowledge, their unique grasp of the truth. Laura Albert and Geoffrey Knoop, they were so much better than the rest of us.
But in the end, they were just another pair of hustlers with a different marketing pitch. No wonder they fit in so well into San Francisco during the late, great age of hype.