My name is Susie Bright and I am not JT Leroy.
I am, however, part of the Leroy Dupe Club. Membership: Countless.
I must be one of the early members. I got the raccoon penis-bone in the mail years ago. I wept over his work when I read his unpublished first stories. Now my face is another color.
For readers, famous author JT Leroy’s hoax— that “he” is really a “she,” that a middle class 40-year-old woman has been impersonating the life of a lumpen gutter whore child— must make for great reading. Memoir, shmemoir, right?
But if you’re an author, an editor, a publisher— or worse, a friend— to someone who bullshit you up one side and down the other, it’s not cute. It’s not irrelevant. It’s a cruel con, straight up, and the whole writers’ community suffered for it.
Welcome to the first meeting of JT Anonymous. I published JT. I defended him in public, performed for him, responded to every editorial and hook-me-up request. I took Twilight Zone phone calls and tendered his frightening tantrums.
I’m embarrassed to tell you all the nutty things I did. Every time he was mean, or screwed up, I always told myself to stay steady and kind. Why did I make the effort? I’m no saint. But from listening to him, I believed the childhood he described surviving would have killed anyone else. The very least I could do was show compassion. I lived up to my promise, too — until a week before Stephen Beachy’s story came out saying that JT Leroy was a hoax.
What happened a week before the dime dropped? I guess you could say it was My Own Private Idaho— I mean, breaking point.
The day in October that I got my last “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” email from JT, I hadn’t heard from him in a long time. I knew why— I was no longer in a position to help him, professionally. His interest in me as a friend had evaporated as soon as he had new companions with diamonds on their fingers and bells on their toes. I was a blip.
JT had long ago risen above my rank in the publishing world. Despite his plaintive old cries of how much he loved me, and how important my work was to him— which overwhelmed me at the time— now, it was all Courtney This and Winona That. Gus Van Sant is calling. Carrie Fischer says dinner is ready.
One Hollywood friend of mine who he courted, told me he sent her expensive gifts of chocolates and lingerie. Wow. I wasn’t on that list.
People can be cruelly changed by sudden fortune. My dismissal from JT’s "special people club" had hurt. But it was so long ago. Two years past, I had sent him a copy of my new book, and asked if he would like to comment on it. I had never asked him for anything before, and like most writers, I dreaded asking my peers for compliments.
But such favors are something publishers beg authors to do... to ask your pals who have a buzz if they would say a kind word about your new project. It makes a significant difference in sales. I’d done such recommendations for him, and dozens of others.
After I sent him my book, Mommy's Little Girl, with a note, he called me up, whacked, late at night.
“Oh my god, your book, it’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever read in my life! Oh, Susie!” Then there was a lot of gasping and mewing, as if we were crowded into a Studio 54 toilet. Then the line went dead.
I snorted. I think my book is quite good, but it’s not the most incredible thing *I*’ve ever read in my life, and I’m sure it’s not Leroy’s eternal flame. My impression was that he hadn’t read it at all.
I emailed him in the morning to ask if he could write down a line, however modest, that I could send to my publisher.
I never heard from him, and I was too embarrassed to ask any further. I knew he didn’t need my help anymore to tell him his work was good, that his spelling was fixable, that I believed in him. At one time he seemed comforted to know that I had faith in him, that he could survive and flourish, despite HIV, his personal demons, his addictions. But he didn’t need anything from me anymore.
Then, that peculiar day in October, JT wrote and asked me to help fundraise for his son’s private French immersion school, Lycee Francaise La Perouse— the most prestigious and expensive secondary school in San Francisco.
I had just come from a Hurricane Katrina fundraiser before I opened my mail. JT’s plea to support his dream of higher education seemed... just plain high.
In the years since I first knew him, JT had made film and book deals galore, with celebrities fawning at every gesture. Would he like to donate to my gas bill? It happens to be suffering more than Lycee Francaise’s current endowment fund.
But I didn’t write back. I didn’t want to say I felt ignored and used, because I felt silly that I had ever thought our relationship was anything more than one-way.
JT never forced me to help him; I wanted to! He never took an interest in me, so why would I imagine he would change? It’s not unusual for kids with abandonment and abuse backgrounds to be narcissistic. I blamed myself for being attracted to those qualities. He pushed my rescue buttons, which are large and soft. It was me who needed to change.
The week after this incident, which I told no one about, the hoax story came out in New York magazine.
I sat at my laptop reading it, with my mouth hanging open. It turns out JT is: a woman near my age named Emily Albert.
Ms. Albert actually DOES know me from the past, because we worked together on an erotic spoken word album in the early 90s called Cyborgasm. The mind reels. No wonder s/he seemed so familiar with my work.
Emily Albert, not looking a thing like her protagonist, has all this time arranged for her blonde sister-in-law, Savannah Knoops, to “play” the role of JT in public. This explains why the "Physical Version of JT" always sounded like an inarticulate boob in public, because it really isn’t Emily, who has a way with words.
All the money from JT’s work has gone to Emily’s family, a corporation in her mother’s name. Emily certainly does have a son in private school, which explains why "JT" acted more conventionally bourgeois and maternal about “his kid” than any teenage homeless runaway I ever met.
What a lovely little family. I have never been frauded by an author racket before, and I have to say, it feels like a punch in the stomach.
There are people out there who think that outrage like mine is overblown. Some have said this is simply a story about a talented author using a pseudonym which disguises their gender.
That’s horseshit. If Emily Albert had sent me those first short stories in her own name, I would have read them all the same. I publish authors all the time who have a very different life than their characters. My hat is off to them, they have my every respect. Their research and credibility are on the line, and they live up to it.
Emily didn’t have to con me to get me to pay attention to her writing. But by portraying herself as the Little Cripple Boy, who’d choke back the tears as he asked me for a match, she set up the dynamic that determined the rest of our relationship:
Don’t expect anything from JT— he’s too fragile. Don’t tell him to not be an asshole— he can barely get up in the morning. Never refuse a request, no matter how crazy— he’s never had anyone he could count on in his life.
Just to let you know how far gone I was, when I first read Beachy’s expose, my first thought was, “If this is true, JT might kill himself.” My suicide alert bells went off. Truth be told, a lot of us who got conned by JT have been trained since childhood to respond to these kind of distress calls.
I wrote an email that day to JT. I asked, "Are you okay?" I wanted to know where WE stood, whether he had been straight with me about our relationship. I said I was worried about him and that I hoped he had good counsel.
His reply was the strangest thing yet.
I won’t quote it b/c it was not on the record, but he denied the charges. Vociferously. He was unrepentant. (I keep saying "he," because that's how we know each other, and it's strange still to me to usurp his word to me).
JT said his real friends— lord help us— are all people in the movie biz he’s working with currently. He said they understand and respect his choices to be who he wants to be. Oh, I'm sure they're loyal to a fault...
He said that I, of all people, should understand these identity issues. There was this weird implication that if s/he is a gender outlaw, I was being unsupportive.
Talk about adding insult to injury. The person named "Terminator," JT Leroy, who wrote me with his first manuscript in hand was a S/M queer street hustler boy, and I never got the birth announcement that anything else was in the works.
Leroy once asked me to read in San Francisco on his behalf, when he published his book of short stories, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. I thought that was such a beautiful title. I never imagined that the nervous heartbeat belonged to a redhead with several different pseudonyms.
The others who joined me in JT’s reading that night were all part of the San Francisco queer, hip, and sex worker counter-culture. There was a tremendous camaraderie and pride in JT’s success. If his story of the extreme dispossessed could make such a dent, it said something about all our efforts, about the lives we knew firsthand.
That camaraderie is still there, with a bit of jade thrown in. The dispossessed have a dark sense of humor. I’m sure I’ll be invited to a JT Wig-Burning in the future, and I’d like to wear my best lingerie. —Order a lot of chocolates, too.
As Dan Quayle once said, "A mind is a terrible thing to lose." And losing your credibility isn't very far behind it! I'm still worried about Emily The Terrible Termininator, but only the uncorrupted— by her deceit— can help her now.
Update: Here's my latest post, 1/12/06:
Slash/Fraud: The Literary Origins of JT Leroy