Writer Testifies About Source of Her Nom de Plume
The case of Laura Albert — professionally known as JT Leroy — could be read as a literary cautionary tale, the story of a writer who hid behind her own assumed identity and lost herself for many years while reaching for the truth.
Where there might have been a single life, there was instead a pair: JT Leroy, addict, androgyne and the ostensible author of “Sarah,” a novel of truck stop prostitution set among the diesel fumes of a West Virginia highway. And Ms. Albert, a mother in her 40s who had never been to West Virginia, a writer of such reclusive instincts she required not only a pseudonym, but another personality, to write.
For almost five years, these two distinct personas lived together in a sort of double helix as JT Leroy rocketed to stardom while Laura Albert, living in obscurity, wrote the books and staged the interviews that fed her alter ego’s rising fame. But today creator and creation were finally forced together by the power of the witness stand, that sometimes brutal institution used to arbitrate identity and truth. Testifying at her own civil fraud trial in Manhattan, Ms. Albert told the jury the compelling tale of how, and why, it was she sought the shelter of an all-consuming nom de plume.
“He was my respirator,” she said. “He was my channel for air. To me if you take my JT, my Jeremy, my other, I die.”
Stripped of its emotion and labyrinthine literary games the trial, in district court, is actually a mere contractual dispute. A film production company has sued Ms. Albert, saying that a contract signed to make a feature film of “Sarah” should be null and void, for the simple reason that its chief signatory, JT Leroy, does not exist.
In broad terms, though, the trial has been an oddly high-brow exploration of a psycho-literary landscape filled with references to the imagination’s fungible relation to reality and the bond that exists between a writer and the work.
Under questions by her lawyer, Eric Weinstein, Ms. Albert tried to draw what lines she could between the horrors of her childhood and their refracted presence in her art.
She told the jury she had been sexually abused by a family friend, starting at the age of 3. She was also abused, she said, by her mother’s former boyfriend. She said she felt responsible for both men’s acts: she thought it was her fault.
As a heavy girl with an unfortunate last name, Ms. Albert told the jury she was teased in childhood as “Fat Albert,” going so far as to sing for them the television show’s key line: “Hey, hey, hey, Fat Albert!” She said, “I didn’t want my name.”
Traveling one summer in Virginia as a child, she said met a trucker who, as she put it, “would give you a dollar and a chocolate for a kiss.” She said the trucker spanked her — that she wanted him to spank her. “He said the word: are you a bad girl? He got rid of the bad. That’s how I wouldn’t go to hell.”
Life at home, meanwhile, was bad enough. Ms. Albert ran away. She landed in the punk scene, in the East Village, with the hustlers and the addicts. This was around the time of her initial trip to a psychiatric ward. She was still in her early teens.
Eventually, she said, her parents sent her to a group home where she lived as a ward of the state. (She considered Mayor Edward I. Koch to be her father.) The stories of the girls she met were incorporated later into fiction — not unlike the stories of the punks she met in Tompkins Square.
Then, in 1989, she moved to San Francisco, where she worked as a maid, a babysitter and sold her own blood in order to survive. She also worked as a phone sex operator and perfected a sultry Southern accent she would later put to use in interviews as JT Leroy, including one (that was played in court) with Terry Gross on NPR.
It was there, in San Francisco, that she started calling suicide intervention lines from a payphone on the street. Incapable of speaking in her own identity, she adopted the personas of various teenage boys.
One of those was a tattered runaway from West Virginia, a misfit from an educated family, who was living on the street. His name was Jeremy or Jeremiah, she explained: an embryonic version of JT Leroy.
At this point, fractured as it was, Ms. Albert’s psyche seemed to fracture yet again. She had, for months, as Jeremiah, been talking on the suicide intervention line to Dr. Terrence Owens, a psychiatrist. When Dr. Owens said he wished to meet, Ms. Albert paid a street waif she had met to appear as Jeremiah then went along as his friend and roommate “Speedy” — which is to say, a patient standing with her alter ego in the third-degree remove of the alter ego’s friend.
Speedy was a character that remained with Ms. Albert even after “Sarah” was released in 2000 to almost instant critical acclaim. When Steven Shainberg, the director of the film, flew to San Francisco to meet JT Leroy, Ms. Albert, in the guise of Speedy, picked him up and whisked off him to expensive sushi restaurant where JT (played by the sister of Ms. Albert’s former boyfriend) sat there mute throughout the meal then stuck Mr. Shainberg with the check
It is due to such deceptions that the plaintiff in the case, Antidote International Films, has said Ms. Albert committed fraud. The film company’s lead lawyer, Gregory Curtner, confronted her on cross-examination with the fact that she once asked Savannah Knoop (the sister of the former boyfriend) to appear in public as JT.
If the question was designed to fluster the defendant, then it failed.
Ms. Albert said: “She became JT. It’s like a trinity. We experienced it. It was as if he would leave me and enter her — I know how it sounds.”
Then she said: “He wanted his own body. He so wanted to be out of me. I wanted this other child I had to be out in the world. He didn’t like being inside me. He could talk such smack about me.”