Can Laura Albert Be Forgiven?

“Something about ‘Mark Twain’ has also attracted pyschobiographical analysis the way deep water attracts a dowsing rod. Justin Kaplan has pointed out that twinship was one of Twain’s favorite subjects, and proposed that Sam took refuge in the ‘Mark Twain’ persona as a conduit to literary independence — it helped free him from his temptations toward bourgeois respectability and blandness — and, as bereavements piled up in his life, as a means of protecting his sanity.”
— Ron Powers, ‘Mark Twain: A Life’

I can’t figure out how this works. Lee Siegel, an Ivy League-educated critic who has written for the New Yorker, the New York Times and the New Republic, was caught impersonating an enthusiastic Lee Siegel fan on the New Republic website. His punishment? He was temporarily suspended from the New Republic and mocked on a few blogs, but has otherwise returned to respectability. His latest book got a generous review from Janet Maslin last week in the New York Times.

James Frey wrote a “memoir” about his addiction recovery, A Million Little Pieces, which earned several million little dollars, and then it turned out that he had sold a fictionalized story as truth. Two years later, he has returned to respectability, and his new book was signed by Harper Collins, in a very, very good deal, for publication this summer.

Both of these writers lied to their readers, and so did Laura Albert when she created a persona called J. T. LeRoy to publish a novel called Sarah and a book of stories called The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. But when the truth came out in 2005 that J. T. LeRoy was not a 25 year old man but a 40 year old woman, the author faced a barrage of anger and criticism that seemed to me disproportionate to the crime. Siegel and Frey also faced similar barrages, of course, but J. T. LeRoy had always been a fiction writer while Siegel and Frey billed themselves as non-fiction writers. The idea that a fiction writer cannot employ a pseudonymous identity without facing legal nightmares should concern anybody who cares about literature.

I’ve also noticed that criticism of Laura Albert tends to take on a strangely emotional and personal pitch. I read many articles at the time of the exposure and had several conversations with literary-minded friends about it and was constantly surprised to find that so many people hoped or believed that J. T. LeRoy/Laura Albert was now forever destroyed. Destroyed? A fiction writer? What’s that about?

And yet there is an overriding belief within the publishing community that Laura Albert should be treated as a pariah, despite the fact that she wrote books many of them once cared about. As the review quotes on the paperback copies of Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things reveal, many publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Bookforum, the New York Times Book Review and the Village Voice gave these books positive reviews when they were published.

But here’s the strange thing about the J. T. LeRoy scandal: the character was never believable from the beginning. I knew J. T. LeRoy was a fake persona from day one, and so did many others. How many people do you know with names like “Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy”? How many young writers do you know who don’t want to be photographed? (Answer: zero.)

I recognized much of the persona of “J. T. LeRoy” as loosely inspired by Warhol Factory denizen drag queen Candy Darling (real name: James Francis Slattery), a fabulously trashy and tragic 60’s transvestite who has been immortalized in not one but two great Lou Reed songs, “Candy Says” and “Walk on the Wild Side”. Because I know my Andy Warhol and I know my Velvet Underground, I always sensed that “J. T. LeRoy” was some kind of updated homage to Warhol/Factory subculture, and I also figured the name “Jeremiah” was inspired by Candy Darling’s best friend Jeremiah Newton (I also figured that whoever was creating this J. T. LeRoy character must be a big fan of the 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol, in which Jeremiah Newton and Candy Darling are two of the main characters, and that this person might have seen the film one too many times.)

But you don’t have to be into Andy Warhol to appreciate the wider literary tradition of fake identities. How easily we forget that Bob Dylan tried very hard to make people believe he was a drifting hobo from the prairies until journalists exposed a well-educated Jewish kid from Minnesota named Robert Zimmerman. George Eliot, George Sand, the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen all used pseudonyms, and in all cases their careers would not have been possible without the use of pseudonyms. Certainly these facts are Literature 101.

So why the utter outrage? Why can Lee Siegel and James Frey be published again if Laura Albert cannot? Lee Siegel never intended for his deception to be exposed; his IP address betrayed him (and it’s no wonder that he’s now writing books about the evils of internet culture). James Frey also intended to keep his deceptions secret, and I think this points to a more insidious kind of dishonesty. So why are they allowed back in, and Laura Albert not?

I have some theories. I think that a large percentage of the publishing community always hated this trashy and over-hyped underground upstart, and many of those who never liked J. T. LeRoy are now engaging in a bit of triumphalism in declaring Laura Albert an utter outcast.

There may be some ageism involved in the outrage directed at the woman who shaved 15 years off her lifespan without a care in the world. Also, comically, there’s a mistaken impression that Laura Albert “got rich” by being J. T. LeRoy (anybody who believes this must think that underground fiction sells a whole lot better than it does), and this adds to the backlash.

In fact, speaking of money, Laura Albert lost a very harsh legal judgement last year to a film production company, and is now facing the very common American problem known as financial ruin. And this probably adds to her current unpopularity; everybody hates a loser.

I’ve argued elsewhere that her legal team badly bungled the defense at this trial, and I hope Laura will earn an appeal (she and her representatives are trying). I spoke to Laura on the phone last week, and found myself interacting with a warm and vulnerable person, a down-to-earth mother of a ten year old boy, an intellectual whose favorite recent book is Foreskin’s Lament by Shalom Auslander and who cites Mary Gaitskill, James Joyce and Flannery O’Connor as influences.

Here’s what I told her: Laura, please find a way to get back in the game. You are a writer, and a writer must write. Don’t let the bastards get you down.

Can Laura Albert ever be forgiven? I daresay she’s not the only fiction writer who ever told a lie. That’s why they call them fiction writers.

* * * * *

The photo at the top of this page is by Trevor Traynor.

22 Responses

  1. Nobody gives Mason Weems a
    Nobody gives Mason Weems a hard time.

    Parson Mason Weems, harbinger of deceitful journalism! Ordained in the Anglican Church in 1784. Served as a pastor in Maryland. Went around the country peddling books for a publisher named Mathew Carey. Made up the story about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree after the President died! Why, if I were making a film about Washington and found out Weems’ story was bogus, I would sue his colonial ass! Ruin him like they ruined Columbus. Or was it Leif Ericson? Or Americus Vespucius?

    As The Firesign Theatre once said, “Everything you know is wrong.”

  2. I was just reading about this
    I was just reading about this a little while ago, and I completely agree with you. It is sick how all of the celebrity fans who leeched onto the J.T. Leroy persona have all acted so hurt and disgusted now that the “truth” has come out. Supposedly Billy Corgan was pretty much the only one who stood by Laura during her hard times since this fiasco. It just goes to show how little people actually care anymore about the content of the work. Appearence is everything even in the literary world now.

  3. Good for you for sticking up
    Good for you for sticking up for an artist! But the real question is, Will Laura Albert be able to forgive her readers? To have such gifts as SARAH and THE HEART thrown back in your face by unthinking former readers is pretty darn nasty! Far from dangling forgiveness out to her, I only feel gratitude for her writing, and hope she does not let these evil pockets of reaction scar or embitter her.

  4. Well said! Another possible
    Well said! Another possible theory: When writers like Frey, who supposedly write nonfiction, are shown to be “wrong,” they’re simply wrong–they deceived us about what we claimed to care about in the first place, that is, the truth of their stories. On the other hand, when a fiction writer turns out to have been a construct, it exposes how much of our literary tastes are influenced by sensationalism rather than aesthetics. It should not matter whether the author has been abused, if he/she can write about it well–any more than a pop diva’s personal life should influence our opinion of her music. The fact that much of literary criticism shares the same strange fascination with artists’ personal lives as tabloids do with pop stars’ is saddening–and one can understand, if not exactly sympathize with, critics’ fury towards an author whose situation so clearly demonstrates their own misplaced priorities.

  5. My thought on these various
    My thought on these various events and their very public naysayers is:

    They’re all pissed because 1) they were totally and completely duped themselves, and no one likes being made a fool of; and 2) jealousy abounds because no one else had the cojones to think up such wonderful misdirection themselves.

    I say: let them write books! And eat cake! And write books about eating cake!

  6. Is it just me or do I detect
    Is it just me or do I detect a whiff of implied sexism in this rant? Wait, don’t answer that, of course that’s what’s being implied here, and, perhaps, you’re not too far off here, but I doubt it. Frey, for instance, was blackballed pretty publicly before he landed a new book deal. I don’t know about Siegel, but I think your outrage is off of the mark a bit. Who is to say that Albert won’t weather the storm and land a book deal elsewhere? The outrage is fresh in the minds of everyone involved right now, so I think it’s too early to seal her fate.

    As for the ruse itself, sure it seemed pretty transparent and utterly false from the outset, but the fact of the matter is that, false or not, the characters garnered a lot of sympathy from readers. It’s a bit hard to generate sympathy for a drug addled, well to do, white male telling a run of the mill tale of depravity and addiction. The hell with him, I would say.

  7. I have read your notes with
    I have read your notes with interest. I am the lead attorney on her appeal and, without a doubt, the appeal will be difficult because the system is disinclined to reverse jury findings. While I believe that there are significant valid basis for this appeal, that is the simple reality.

    I took on handling this appeal on a pro bono basis because I believed a great wrong had been done; not only to Laura, but to the literary world.

    There is simply something wrong with a self-proclaimed fiction writer, who has written a novel, who is then punished because the backstory of the author is untrue.

    There is simply something wrong with the fact that people, and apparently some members of the jury, want to punish that same author for statements she never made, but which others placed in commerce. I have even seen one person who originally claimed that Laura had alleged that JT was HIV+, retreat when asked for a source, finally resting on the argument that she had the duty to affirmatively deny such statements.

    That authors who write fiction who must now censor themselves or risk “financial ruin,” is of great concern to me — and it should be to others also.

  8. You know, Levi, I am
    You know, Levi, I am beginning to think that Lemony Snicket is not a real name.

    And those Flashman documents might not be real.

    Anyhow, this is the way it is done now. There is so much talk about the novel being dead etc… and it is true enough, except that now they market novels as being true, eg Frey, JT LeRoy, some dude we know etc…

    People make stuff up as a story and they say it is true and marketed as non-fiction. Sells better now. It’d be boring if the readers thought it was made up and not real.

    Paparazzi-lit. Look at the train wreck.

  9. I really don’t understand the
    I really don’t understand the whole thing with Laura Albert. I’m with you. So she wants to write under a pen name. Big freakin deal. What about JD Robb. How exactly do the two differ? Really, I’d like to know. I don’t know all the details about the Albert situation…

  10. It’s a bit hard to generate
    It’s a bit hard to generate sympathy for a drug addled, well to do, white male telling a run of the mill tale of depravity and addiction.

    That’s a description of Frey, to the proverbial T, and it wasn’t that difficult for the faker to generate tons of sympathy, which translated into an Oprah gig, and then an Oprah gig to apologize for his lies. Nothing even remotely similar has been offered Laura Albert.

    Some men seem quick to dismiss the role of gender in this equation. It’s obvious – Siegel and Frey are male, Albert is female. Anyone who thinks gender has no part in this is simply naive, fooling himself in order to warm himself in a blanket of denial. It’s cold comfort, as Frey and Siegel discovered, to sleep in a bed of self-constructed lies.

    Albert used a pen name on a work of fiction. Frey made up stories and presented them as truth. Siegel committed a bizarre form of identity fraud. The two men in this story came close to committing actual crimes. The woman simply did what fiction writers have done for hundreds of years. Albert’s only real transgression came when she signed legal agreements as her fictional persona. It is unclear whether her motivation was to deceive; there is no argument that Frey and Siegel meant to deceive. Albert may be dishonest, but Frey and Siegel are liars.

    It’s clear to me: Albert is being held to a higher standard than two lying frauds. It is impossible for me to ignore the fact that she is a woman. It’s the same old story, which any woman of any age and experience can tell you: the same infraction which results in a slap on the wrist for a man often results in severe punishment for a woman.

    We’ve come a long way. But it ain’t far enough yet.

  11. I am still having a hard time
    I am still having a hard time caring about this. I don’t think it’s time to play the “girl” card just yet.

  12. More than sexism, I see
    More than sexism, I see classism. A lot of people hate the whole J. T. LeRoy image, and I think that plays a big role in public perceptions of the case.

    In a related issue, it seems to me that negative attitudes towards Laura Albert’s personality and her discussion of her difficult past during the civil trial with Antidote Films played a big role in the jury/court’s very punitive decision. That’s why I’m glad Donald David is donating his time to help represent Laura, and I’m glad Donald showed up here to share his thoughts. I would love to hear some good news about an appeal to this case, or about any kind of humane settlement with Antidote Films (who, at this point, are holding Laura Albert responsible for far more money than they ever paid her).

  13. Along with class and sex
    Along with class and sex issues, I would add anti-intellectualism into the mix as well. Combine these things and Albert never had a chance with that jury. I would love to know the education level of the people on the jury, as well as those kept off the jury. I’m betting the prosecuting attorney didn’t want any Phd’s anywhere near that jury.

  14. Three things that disgust me
    Three things that disgust me about the situation:

    First, so many people are arguing about her when they haven’t read the work. I thought it was sophmoric at best and needed a bit of polishing. She’s got potential but needs to spend a bit of time honing her craft. I’m not the only one that feels this way. Reference Rick Moody’s essay in Issue One of “A Public Space.”

    Secondly, and this goes back to point one, early on she sought out the help of Mary Gaitskill, who also agreed that J.T. needed some time to hone his/her craft. The response to Gaitskill was that J.T. had AIDS and was pressed for time. So, Laura and her people basically played the sympathy card to try and merit the quick publication of her work.

    Lastly, just like Nasdijj or whatever his name was, she won’t fess up to the fact that she tried in earnest to dupe people. Reading her interview in Rolling Stone she uses every excuse in the book other than simply admitting to the lie. She’s faking at some multiple personality disorder excuse that could be legit, but conveniently came up after the whole maelstrom came to light.

    She has apparently been through quite a bit in her own life, but so has the average person, it doesn’t merit giving them a book deal. We need to stop buying into people’s hardluck backgrounds and personalities when regarding their art. Let Hollywood bend to those whims. Plus, reading the numerous accounts, she clearly craved the glitz and glamour being thrown her way. And now, she’s going around playing herself as some sort of victim. Are people coming down on her harshly? Yes. Unfairly? Maybe. But she wasn’t too concerned when her name was mentioned in every major trade publication and she was rubbing elbows with the likes of Bono and Corgan. It’s hard for people to have empathy when she already acquired more fame than even the most talented mid-list fiction writer and she did so, in most instances, because she duped them into believing she was a 15 year-old with AIDS who had these hardluck tales to tell.

    At least Frey and the others finally fessed up to things. It’s hard to feel for someone who still claims to have no control over their actions. We writers all hear voices, it’s those voices that move the prose. The AIDS thing really made me lose all respect for her.

  15. Don’t see it as a joke or
    Don’t see it as a joke or hoax at all and I’m not sure she tried to dupe people either. Isn’t it possible that she just got caught up in it all? Writing is art. I just thought the whole ‘she’s tricked the literary world’ angle was hilarious, and all the fake friendships you can make as a celebrity.. well it just showed it for how it really is.

    Tori Amos often speaks of characters and songs coming to her and living with her for a while and she’s said in an interview that in conversations with many great song writers (name checking David Bowie) they’ve discussed how they believe there is something more.. that they didn’t just write these songs, they can’t take all the credit.

    It seems to me it’s the same thing. That’s how I look at it anyway. It’s only a big deal because a load of celebs and literary darlings fawned over the character.

    I loved the books, Sarah especially, and that’s all that matters surely? The physical side of it, I just find it funny.

  16. I’m tired of reading reviews
    I’m tired of reading reviews of Laura. Why are we reviewing an author as if she were, herself, the story? Isn’t that what this whole Antidote nonsense was about? She obviously doesn’t want her life to be the story.

    Maybe our culture is just a bit too hooked on “reality.”

    Yes, she crafted a lot of fiction. Two books, and an author to boot. Everybody got pissed when they realized the seemingly-obvious truth they had missed about the author. All that fiction seemed to work. Perhaps a bit too well.

    We might just be grateful for all the stories. And yes, you should read the books before you criticize, unless your fascination is only with Laura. In that case, go ahead and believe whatever half-truth you like the most, since that’s all you’ve got.

    What really irks me, however, is that Laura lost control of it. Someone wrested the story from her and it fell dead on the sidewalk outside her flat in San Francisco. We can argue about whether she should have brought it to light sooner, and we can argue about whether or not it’s too late to recover something, but we will never get to experience whatever reveal she would have concocted in her laboratory for us, since someone else stole the ingredients from her.

    I fear, however, that the proverbial “they” will continue their current fixation until she gives them something else to talk about. I don’t think it’s too late for her, and I’ll be keeping an eye
    out for what she manages to mix up next.

  17. What a relief to read this
    What a relief to read this many rational comments in a row about Laura and her case. Ludicrous as it may be, Antidote capitalized on both the public animosity towards Frey and the betrayal perceived by fans that felt they had a personal connection to JT Leroy. The witch-hunt that occurred was the result of a perfect storm.

  18. While we are quite aware of
    While we are quite aware of the demographic and socio-political motivations for many autogynephilic transsexuals to lie about being us, our web site addresses this dynamic in great detail, we are quite saddened to have our colonization demographic expanded to include 40 year old white female writers pretending to be us. We think that the upward expansion of our exploitation value as a cultural resource into the arts is indicative of our increasing social vulnerability. What is next? Perhaps fake films written by fake transkids, informed by transsexuals pretending to be us, all serving to even more completely eradicate any meaningfull social understanding which would help end the circumstances surrounding the exoticization of our lives. Our lives are not exotic at all.

    Just so you know, as we expected, your book did not convince us at all. Clue: the very fact that it claimed to be written by one of our number is the major tell. We tend not to relish making public the circumstances of our abuse and devaluation, nor do we see any value in it. One of our members was asked to review Laura, but her review was not published, perhaps because it was too brief. “It’s a fake”. If you would like to see what real transkids write, some of whom were discarded onto the street as teens, look right here. We don’t want to be socially and artistically understood, to become the next hip subculture to elicit compassion and empathy from middle class white people. We want to end our subculture.

    We request that you donate the proceedings of your profits from harmfully misrepresenting us to a suitable street trans-youth outreach organization so that people who are working to actually help our population rather than profit by it may have a little more means to do so. We can suggest several. It’s what a real JT would do.

    signed, writers

  19. The only answer is, absolutely not. No need to debate it; you play the fool and get caught, you’re still the fool even if you actually didn’t get caught!?! I mean, ffs….this is a fairly easy question to answer! If anything, she pretty much went out of her way to make sure she looked more foolish after the fact, almost as if that was never even an option of happening. And bloody thanks for that…..

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