JT LeRoy

Sarah

Jeremiah ‘Terminator’ LeRoy is a literary persona created in the 1990s by American writer Laura Albert. JT was presented as the author of three books of fiction, which were purportedly semi-autobiographical accounts by a teenage boy of his experiences of poverty, drug use, and emotional and sexual abuse in his childhood and adolescence from rural West Virginia to California.

Albert wrote these works, and communicated with people in the persona of JT via phone and e-mail. Following the release of the first novel ‘Sarah,’ Albert’s sister-in-law Savannah Knoop began to make public appearances as the supposed writer. The works attracted considerable literary and celebrity attention, and the authenticity of LeRoy has been a subject of debate, even as details of the creation came to light in the 2000s.

Published in 1999 and by turns magical and realistic, the novel ‘Sarah’ is narrated by a nameless boy whose mother Sarah is a ‘lot lizard’: a prostitute who works the truck stops in West Virginia. She can be abusive and abandoning, yet he longs for her love and tries to follow in her world, working for a pimp who specializes in ‘boy-girls.’ A follow, ‘The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things,’ was also released that year. It is ten short stories that form a novel about the childhood of Jeremiah, torn from his foster parents at age four when his emotionally disturbed mother reclaims him and then runs away with him. She alternately clings to Jeremiah and abandons him, subjecting him to patterns of abuse and exploitation she has suffered throughout her life. JT’s last major work ‘Harold’s End,’ was published in 2005. The novella follows a young heroin addict who is befriended by Larry, an older man, from whom he receives an unusual pet.

Work credited to LeRoy was published in literary journals such as Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Zoetrope: All-Story,’ ‘McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern,’ ‘Memorious,’ and ‘Oxford American’ magazine’s ‘Seventh Annual Music Issue.’ LeRoy was listed as a contributing editor to ‘BlackBook’ magazine, ‘i-D,’ and ‘7×7’ magazines, and is credited with writing reviews all of which include the character Justin Wayne Dennis.

According to Laura Albert, the JT’s persona was born after calling a suicide hotline in the 1990s. Albert reached Dr. Terrence Owens, a psychologist with the McAuley Adolescent Psychiatric Program at St. Mary’s Medical Center in San Francisco. Owens did not know her as Laura Albert at the time, but as ‘Jeremiah’ or ‘Terminator.’ Owens is credited with encouraging Jeremiah or Terminator—who later became known as JT LeRoy—to write during their phone therapy sessions. The writings that ‘LeRoy’ shared with Owens eventually made their way into the collection of short stories in 1998. Albert also recorded conversations without Owens’ consent, and these illegally recorded phone calls made their way into the documentary ‘Author.’

Throughout the 1990s, virtually no one had ever glimpsed the reclusive author. Then, in 2001, a person wearing a wig and sunglasses began appearing in public, claiming to be LeRoy. In 2005, journalist John Nova Lomax published the article ‘Coal Miner Mother of a Mess’ in the Houston Press, casting doubt on the particulars of LeRoy’s story. Lomax recounted his frustrated attempts to contact LeRoy by e-mail, pointed out several obvious discrepancies of fact.

A few months later, novelist Stephen Beachy, in an article in ‘New York’ magazine, revealed that ‘JT LeRoy’ was indeed a fictional creation, invented by writer Laura Albert, and that LeRoy’s purported public appearances in wig and sunglasses were made by an actor. Beachy asserted that Albert had been posing as LeRoy’s caretaker and spokesperson, calling herself ‘Speedie,’ and LeRoy lived with Albert and her husband Geoffrey Knoop, who used the pseudonym ‘Astor.’

In 2006, journalist Warren St. John revealed his finding in ‘The New York Times’ that the person posing as LeRoy in a wig and sunglasses for six years was 25-year-old Savannah Knoop, Geoffrey Knoop’s sister. In a subsequent article, St. John published details of an interview with Geoffrey Knoop, in which Knoop confirmed that ‘JT LeRoy’ did not exist, and that his sister was LeRoy’s public face. Knoop also admitted to St. John that Laura Albert had written the works published as LeRoy’s.

Albert explained the circumstances of JT’s existence in a 2006 ‘Paris Review’ interview with novelist Nathaniel Rich. She attested that she could not have written from raw emotion without the right to be presented to the world via JT LeRoy, whom she calls her ‘phantom limb.’ In 2008, Savannah Knoop published a memoir, ‘Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy,’ about her six-year career as an impersonator.

Actress and writer Lena Dunham said that JT LeRoy ‘co-opted my imagination for a full year of my life. […] It was pretty remarkable. And then you also go, ‘This person isn’t who they claim to be, but they still wrote this book that captured all of our imaginations, so then why does the identity of the author even matter when you’re reading fiction and engaging with it in a really personal way?” That same year, Laura Albert told Interview, ‘You know, JT LeRoy does not exist. But he lives. That’s what a famous film historian once said about Bugs Bunny.’ Another interviewer insisted, ‘Albert had ingeniously hacked the literary establishment.’

American writer Armistead Maupin’s ‘The Night Listener’ features the case of ‘Anthony Godby Johnson,’ which is similar to that of LeRoy. Anthony Godby Johnson is the subject and supposed author of the 1993 memoir ‘A Rock and a Hard Place: One Boy’s Triumphant Story.’ Subsequent investigations suggest that Johnson may have been the literary creation of Vicki Johnson, who purported to be Johnson’s adoptive mother. The book initially appeared as an autobiography, describing Johnson’s survival of an abusive childhood at the hands of his parents and their friends, his adoption by a new family, and his subsequent contraction of HIV/AIDS.

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