“’Most anything you want in this world is easier when you’re a pretty girl.”
“No biological, psychological or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society; it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature…”
University of Melbourne
Marija Peričić is a creative writing PhD student at the University of Melbourne. Her research topic is literary hoaxes, trauma, and reading in extremis.
gender identity; literary hoaxes; social power
The J.T. LeRoy hoax of the late ’90s and early 2000s was the longest-running and most celebrity-fuelled literary identity hoax of recent decades. LeRoy, purportedly an Appalachian transgender, HIV-positive, drug-using, teenage sex-worker, published several auto-fictional texts that enjoyed widespread acclaim and a cult-like following, including by a number of Hollywood celebrities. In 2006, LeRoy was revealed to be a hoax. The “LeRoy” who had been appearing in public was actually the twenty-something Savannah Knoop, and it was Knoop’s half-brother’s ex-partner, Laura Albert – who had been posing as LeRoy’s manager – that had written LeRoy’s texts. In this paper I will examine identity transformation, gender, and the economics of appropriation and social power in both the LeRoy hoax, and LeRoy’s novel Sarah. I will examine the way that Albert, a cis-gendered, urban, white woman, used her own position of social power to appropriate a less powerful position for her own financial gain. This paper’s themes of marginalised gender identities and social power structures were important themes in the work of Dr Michael Noble.
Literary identity hoaxes are not a new phenomenon: the history of literary hoaxes stretches back to antiquity[i], and yet, this field is one that has been largely neglected as a subject of academic study. There are many varieties and categories of literary hoax, and in this paper I am interested in an example of what Phillip Mead terms “literary identity hoaxes”, those which involve the hoax author “posing as, speaking for, or passing as, a racial, gendered or ethnic ‘other’” (2012, 341). I will examine the J.T. LeRoy hoax, which was an unusually long-running and high-profile literary identity hoax. As Christopher Miller has pointed out, “few literary hoaxes dare to produce a body in the world” (2018, 36), but in the case of J.T. LeRoy, the hoaxer not only had the audacity to produce a body, but to arrange for that body to appear in public, to tour the world, and be subject to high-profile international media attention for a period of over six years. In this paper I will examine identity transformation, trauma, and the economics of appropriation and social power in both the LeRoy hoax, and LeRoy’s novel Sarah. I will examine the way that the hoaxer, a cis-gendered, urban, white woman, used her own position of social power to appropriate a less powerful position for her own financial gain while drawing on Michel Foucault’s (1980) notions of multidirectional nature of power. These themes of gender identity and social power structures were important themes in the work of Dr Michael Noble.
The J.T. LeRoy hoax
Back in 2000, a hot, new, edgy writer burst onto the scene with a debut novel, Sarah; a camp, magic-realist story of a trans Appalachian teenage sex worker, Cherry Vanilla, and her life working at truck stops in the American South. The novel was met with huge acclaim. The 2000 Bloomsbury edition comes with endorsements from a roll call of celebrity authors: Chuck Palahnuik, Mary Gaitskill, Dennis Cooper, Tom Spanbauer, as well as, oddly, the singer Suzanne Vega—an impressive list for a first-time novelist.
The novel was by J.T. LeRoy, and J.T.’s life story—the J.T. stands for Jeremiah Terminator (Beachey 2005)—was almost as melodramatic and tragic as the plot of Sarah. J.T. was born in 1980 in West Virginia. He[ii] survived a horrifically traumatic childhood, which included being sexually trafficked at truck stops by his mother. At some point J.T. managed to escape to San Francisco, where he lived on the streets, making money from sex work. He developed a heroin addiction and contracted HIV. When he was thirteen, he met a social worker, and soon afterwards went into therapy under a Dr Terence Owens. Owens encouraged him to write for therapeutic purposes, and by the time J.T. was sixteen, his short stories were appearing in popular magazines and journals (Beachey 2005; St John 2006).
After the publication of Sarah, J.T. shot to fame, but he was uncomfortable in the spotlight. He was shy; pathologically so, according to his manager. His trans identity, as well as his HIV-related facial lesions, made him feel vulnerable. Because of this, he was reluctant to make public appearances, and instead preferred to conduct lengthy phone and email exchanges. When he absolutely had to make a public appearance, it was always in a wig, a large hat, and sunglasses, and always accompanied by his manager, a British woman named Speedie. J.T. was so anxious in public that often Speedie would have to speak on his behalf. He was particularly nervous about reading his own work; so much so that he would sometimes hide under the table and conduct the reading from there, or else Speedie would read for him (Albert, cited in Rich 2006). Eventually, because of LeRoy’s shyness, Speedie arranged for J.T.’s work to be read by celebrities: the likes of Winona Ryder, Courtney Love, and Lou Reed. Over the following six years, J.T. went on to publish two short story collections, one of which was made into a film, co-written and directed by Asia Argento.
But things were not what they seemed. People began to be suspicious of the secretive and eccentric LeRoy and his strange entourage. In 2005, the investigative journalist Stephen Beachey published a meticulously researched article in New York Magazine, in which he alleged that J.T. was a hoax, most likely created by a forty-something, cis, white woman from Brooklyn Heights, named Laura Albert. The following year Warren St John published an article in the New York Times, restating Beachey’s theory about Albert and alleging that the person appearing in public as J.T. was none other than Albert’s twenty-something sibling-in-law, Savannah Knoop. Shortly after this, Knoop’s older brother —and Laura Albert’s former husband—Geoffrey, confirmed that the hoax theories were true. Geoffrey had recently separated from Albert, and verified that it had indeed been Savannah who had been appearing as J.T., and that everything produced by J.T.—all of his novels and stories, but also his emails, phone calls, and interviews—had actually been produced by Albert, who had also been appearing in public alongside J.T. as his manager Speedie.
Identity transformations in Sarah
Considering the magnitude of deception involved in the LeRoy hoax, it seems fitting that identity transformation, shape-shifting and aliases are recurring motifs in Sarah. Indeed, there is much about this novel that hints at the larger structure of the hoax behind it, which, naturally, only becomes evident when one reads the novel in the context of the uncovered hoax. Sarah, on the face of it—and much like the LeRoy hoax itself—can be read as a rags-to-riches (-to-rags) tale where identities of all kinds are adopted and discarded seemingly at will, to a dizzying degree. A major narrative strand of the novel is centred on Cherry Vanilla’s transformation from a male to a female gender identity, which forms the most straightforward identity transformation in the work. The first part of the novel follows Cherry Vanilla’s preparation to transform from a male to a female gender identity, recalling de Beauvoir’s notion of the constructed nature of gender:
One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. No biological, psychological or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society; it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature…which is described as feminine (1997, 295).
Sarah opens with various scenes focussing on the prolonged preparation for what de Beauvoir refers to as “becoming a woman” or at least, the preparation for presenting the visual signifiers of femininity. The early chapters contain long sequences that focus on Cherry Vanilla practicing with clothing, make-up, deportment, and particularly on the styling Cherry Vanilla’s hair, which is blonde and ringleted, and very much admired as a marker of femininity.
The novel is also preoccupied with transformation in other ways. When Cherry Vanilla starts out as a sex worker, she tries to transform into her own mother, Sarah—also a sex worker—making herself up to look just like her, adopting her name and wearing her clothes. Later in the novel, Cherry Vanilla agrees to work for a rival pimp, Le Loup, who transforms her into a saint. It’s worth noting that the magic-realist style of Sarah means that events and situations that appear to be surreal and far-fetched are completely logical and believable in the world of the novel. Le Loup transforms Cherry Vanilla into “Saint Sarah” a reincarnation of the biblical Abraham’s wife (55),[iii] and “the patron saint of truckers” (82). Saint Sarah is a holy figure who can supposedly bestow blessings and remove curses:
All the truckers came to see me, laid out on zebra-striped satin sheets. They whispered their prayers for a Kenworth’s Limited Edition truck with a heated waterbed in the cab and for the strange burning sensation in their groin area to be cast from them. Le Loup lit candles and shook the truckers’ hands a little too hard until they were more generous with the collection plate (63).
Le Loup strings up velvet ropes behind which Saint Sarah’s worshippers respectfully line up—no one is allowed to touch her; rigs her up with trick lighting to make it look as though she has a halo; and even pulls off a stunt where he has her walk on water (72-75). Cherry Vanilla is a hit with the truckers as Saint Sarah, for a short while at least, during which time she makes Le Loup a fortune.
The economics of appropriation in Sarah
In the novel, the reason behind any identity transformation, and the rewards for it, are always purely economic. Cherry Vanilla’s transformation from a male to a female identity is framed not in terms of an expression of her gender identity, but in terms of economic advantage. At the opening of the novel, Cherry Vanilla casually announces that she will be “going as a boy” to make her sex-work debut, but is told by both her mother (4) and her pimp (10-14) that working as a girl is a much better option. Female sex workers earn much more than male sex workers, and live lives of comparative luxury. Cherry Vanilla’s mother tells her: “’Most anything you want in this world is easier when you’re a pretty girl.” Shoplifting is easier, because “girls have more cubbyholes to hide things in.” It is also:
easier when you’re sitting at a diner, loudly fretting over only having enough for a Jell-O salad when a baconburger would go down real nice, to get a man to lean down over you and say ‘Let me take care of this, little darling.’ Easier to get invited to stay the night at a man’s place instead of sleeping in the car (10).
With each new transformation that Cherry Vanilla makes, the economic incentives increase. At each transformation that Cherry Vanilla makes—first to a female gender identity; then into Sarah the lot lizard; and finally into Saint Sarah, the patron saint of truckers—she earns more. This economic upward trajectory comes to an abrupt end when Saint Sarah’s powers begin to wane, and she falls out of favour with the truckers:
Le Loup put up flashier lights, but the crowds thin as talk spreads of luck turning malevolent after a visit with me… an increase in being pulled over by the highway patrol… logbooks inspected with a fine-tooth comb, and having scales overweigh their haul, even when their rig was half-empty, all after they had a visitation with me (83).
After Saint Sarah loses her followers, Cherry Vanilla is forced to work as a “goodbuddy lizard” (or male sex worker), with clients “too poor to afford the expensive mare lizards” (122). Cherry Vanilla, now going by “Sam”, gets into debt buying alcohol or glue to get high or drunk enough to cope with the work.
The economic rewards of identity transformation in Sarah makes a veiled gesture towards those of the LeRoy hoax itself. As long as Laura Albert and Savannah Knoop were transformed into J.T. and Speedie, they enjoyed various rewards: fame, connections to celebrities, but most significantly, economic rewards. Laura Albert received $110,000 USD for the rights for the film adaptation of one of LeRoy’s short story collections alone (Antidote Intern. Films Inc v. Bloomsbury Publishing 2007). The LeRoy hoax illustrates the insidious way that those in positions of power and privilege are able to make use of and appropriate marginalised subject positions for even greater social and economic gain.
Power, privilege, and marketability in the LeRoy hoax
The power dynamics at play in the LeRoy hoax are complex. Laura Albert, a white, middle-aged, straight, cis-gendered woman from Brooklyn Heights appropriating the identity of an Appalachian teenage, trans, HIV-positive sex worker, may appear to be a to be a shift from a subject position of greater privilege and power to one holding less of both, but this is not the case. Albert’s transformation into J.T. gave her access to social and economic power she wouldn’t ordinarily have had, and this hoax illustrates the multidirectional nature of currents of power, which are never, as Michel Foucault (1980, 142) notes, a top-down one-way affair, but rather, a “multiform production of relations.”
J.T. LeRoy—if he were a real person—would certainly hold less power, and undoubtedly occupy a less-privileged position, than Laura Albert. But Albert, by transforming into LeRoy, was able to leverage LeRoy’s marginalised identity for her own financial gain. The power schema at play in the LeRoy hoax is economic, commercial power, specifically the power of desirability. Though Roland Barthes may have announced the death of the author back in 1977, the author still remains very much alive in terms of the economics of publishing. In recent decades, a combination of the rise of celebrity culture, the internet and social media, and the subsequent downturn in traditional publishing has meant that authors have become not only the person attached to the commercial product that is the book, but have themselves become a commercial product in their own right, to be branded and marketed in the same way as any other commodity (Glass 2015, 38). Graeme Turner argued around the time of the LeRoy hoax that literature was “enclosed within the mass-mediated, promotional world of fashion and celebrity” (1999, 12), and this has certainly only become more true in the decades since. In order to survive in such a commercially driven environment, literature has had to become a desirable and marketable commodity, which is often achieved through the vehicle of the celebrity author (Lappas 2012, 146; Turner, Bonner and Marshall 2000, 88). Although the concept of the celebrity author has been around for hundreds of years, with figures such as Byron and Dickens (McDayter 2009; Glass 2015), increasingly, it is the commodified author rather than their books that is the true locus of desire for readers. Graeme Turner, Frances Bonner and David P. Marshall argue that this is because the book becomes a vehicle to bridge “the gap between the celebrity and the ordinary person” (2000, 149). Similarly, Maria Takolander and David McCooey argue that in a hyper-commercialised publishing world, the book merely acts as a tool with which to penetrate “through to the authentic identity of the author. It seems to offer the possibility of an exchange of interiorities” (1999, 59).
In this kind of economic environment, the marketability of an author becomes a chief concern (Sutherland 2013). Laura Albert, by masquerading as J.T., was able to wield a great deal more marketing power in the world of literary celebrity than she could have done by presenting the same work with her own identity as the author. In what may have been a canny business decision, Albert recognised that a middle-aged woman was no match for an edgy and troubled teen in terms of marketability. Albert, as herself, would never be as hot and desirable a commodity as someone like J.T. This was particularly true during the early aughts, which was the heyday of what became known as “misery lit”, when trauma narratives were big business (Twitchell 2011), and the fetishisation and commercial exploitation of marginalisation invested LeRoy with great economical potential.
It is worth noting that though LeRoy’s novels and stories were always clearly labelled and sold as works of fiction, but, in his interviews and publicity for the work, LeRoy, always made clear that his work contained an autobiographical element. Jannah Loontjens (2008) has pointed out that it is this aspect of the LeRoy hoax that illustrates the way that the boundaries between the author and their texts are becoming “more porous and interdependent” (2008, 3), and that the author is increasingly “becoming part of the work” (2008, 9). The more J.T.’s commercially desirable identity could be imbued into the work, the more marketable his books became, and the more books he sold.
Ann Pancake (2006, 42) argues that it was J.T.’s marginalised social position, particularly his “white trash” Southerness, that appealed to the avant-garde middle and upper class for its “camp” and “kitsch” value:
For these people, “white trash” can be simultaneously horrifying and hilarious, repulsive and fascinating. Yes, it’s a kind of slumming it, but more precisely, it’s an attempt to distinguish oneself as ultra-hip by embracing in parody what middle-class and upper-class mainstream America rejects (Pancake 2006, 42).
But I would also add that J.T.’s youth, troubled background and ambiguous sexual and gender identities all played a role in making him a more marketable product than Albert could ever hope to be. This is not to say that LeRoy—had he been a real person—occupied a privileged social position: indeed, it is only because of Albert’s social privilege that she was able to profit from LeRoy’s marginalised position. Albert had enjoyed the privilege of attending a creative writing course at The New School; and she had the stability, resources and confidence to aggressively network and market LeRoy long before he had ever published a single story. LeRoy’s first publications came about after Albert had embarked on a lengthy campaign of repeatedly telephoning various literary agents, as well as writers, such as Dennis Cooper, Bruce Benderson and Joel Rose, and then faxing them copies of LeRoy’s work (Feuerzeig 2016). As Ann Pancake (2006, 38-39) has also pointed out, it is unlikely that someone coming from a background as marginalised as LeRoy’s would have had the material resources for such an approach, or indeed to produce a work like Sarah.
This potential for the monetisation of a disempowered position is also obliquely referred to in Sarah, with the repeated reference to the economic incentives of femaleness noted previously. It is worth pointing out too, that most of the economic incentives mentioned in Sarah are manipulative at best, such as using men for free accommodation; or illegal, such as shoplifting. For Albert then, the LeRoy hoax perhaps presented a similarly lucrative venture based on manipulation. Her act of posing as Speedie and setting up Knoop as LeRoy is once again gestured towards in Sarah with Le Loup’s setting up of Cherry Vanilla as Saint Sarah. Like Le Loup, Albert made a fortune from Knoop transforming into LeRoy. Furthermore, as with Cherry Vanilla’s transformation into Saint Sarah in the novel, soon enough Albert’s followers deserted her, and, like Cherry Vanilla, she too faced a heavy economic loss, finding herself being sued for the sum of $350,000 USD (Antidote Intern. Films Inc v. Bloomsbury Publishing 2007) after the hoax was uncovered.
No matter what Roland Barthes (1977) may have said about the death of the author, it is clear that in the world of literature, the author’s identity, and particularly their desirability as a consumer product, is of primary importance. The power relations at play in the LeRoy hoax illustrate Foucault’s notion of the multidirectional nature of power as mediated through the economics of marketability in the literary world. Foucauldian concepts of the control and dissemination of power, as well as marginalised gender identities were a key focus in Dr Michael Noble’s work.
[i] One of the earliest recorded hoaxes dates from at least as early as 400BC when Dionysius the Renegade, having littered his play Parthenopaeus with jibes against his rival, Heraclides, shielded himself from retribution by publishing the work in Sophocles’ name (Sollenberger 1992, 3837).
[ii] J.T., although in the process of transitioning from a male to a female gender identity, referred to themselves using the pronoun “he”, for which reason I will also use “he” to refer to J.T. in this paper.
[iii] All references to Sarah are to the 2000 Bloomsbury edition.
2007. Antidote Int’l Films, Inc. v. Bloomsbury Publ’g, PLC. United States District Court New York.
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