The Mind is Deceitful Above All Things. The JT Leroy Story.
04/08/2016 § Leave a comment
JT LeRoy (Savannah Knoop) and Speedie (Laura Albert) at a reading of LeRoy’s The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things in 2003. Photograph: Matthew Peyton/Getty Images
The first JT Leroy novel, Sarah, was published in 2000. The second, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, followed a year later in 2001. Both of them were stories of an abused child who grew into a trans adolescent who scraped by in life by working as a prostitute at truck stops in the more remote, culturally isolated and socially deprived parts of America.
In one sense, the books were in keeping with the trend for misery lit that was popular at the turn of the millenium. Starting in the mid-90s with Dave Pelzer’s A Child called It, misery lit was the publisher-led trend for books by people who had truly awful childhoods. What made JT Leroy’s novels different, though, was firstly that they had a literary bent that was largely absent from the recovery narrative of others in the genre, and secondly, that there was actually nothing autobiographical about them. They were works of fiction. But because, very often, people can not, or will not, differentiate between author and protagonist, any more than they can differentiate between actors and characters – witness the hassle an actor gets in the supermarket when the soap opera bad guy he plays is involved in a particularly scurrilous storyline – the desire to believe that JT Leroy was a real person, and that Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful were at least partially “true” stories, became a phenomenon.
The author of the books was Laura Albert, a mother and author from Brooklyn. She roped her sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, in to play JT Leroy to a media and film industry that wanted to believe in JT Leroy so badly that they were prepared to set aside the dodgy wigs and the bound breasts in order to believe that Savannah was JT, and that they really were talking to that most exotic of creatures – a trans hooker who could write. Among those taken in were Winona Ryder, Asia Argento (who directed and starred in the film of The Heart in Deceitful) and Gus Van Sant, plus journalists, film executives, and countless others.
The two novels do not just tell a story. They recreate the dull, thudding reality of profound trauma, where there can be no creative symbolism or imagery to describe life events – just the “it happened” matter-of-factness of someone so damaged by the actions of others that their language, the way they interpret and express their world, is beyond repair. They have lost the use of metaphor, interpretation and process have become impossible, and can only repeat in deadened, literal terms what occurred. It is a testament to the power of writing, and in this case, the power of Laura Albert’s writing in particular, that it can convince people to see what their eyes do not.
Savannah Knoop later told her side of the story in Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT Leroy, published in 2008, and, in a mirror of the trajectory of the books, the story was later made into a film Author: The JT Leroy Story, that was released in March 2016.
Author: The JT Leroy Story is the film of the story of the novels that became the literary controversy of the last twenty years or more. But what is more interesting, in my view, is the stories themselves. If the novels hadn’t been so credible, no-one would have even wanted to believe in JT Leroy. But everyone who read the books really wanted to believe, and so they did. This belief meant that a whole host of narratives, real and unreal, would circulate in and through books, and films, and newspapers and journals, for years. The story is still going strong now, because writing made the stories strong to start with, to the point where the question of which story, whose story, has become largely irrelevant. Authenticity is demolished both by the non/traumatic novels and by their in/determinate author and the subsequent circulation of all of these things, and ultimately it is not the heart that is deceitful above all things, but in fact the mind.