I’ve never read any of JT LeRoy’s books, but I always came away vaguely envious and annoyed by articles I read about him. Envious because he was a successful young novelist, annoyed because his over-the-top persona seemed to contribute to his success. B once reprimanded me—would I trade my happy childhood for literary success? Give a fucked-up kid a break already, okay?
There are plenty of fucked-up kids out there. Some of them are really talented. But JT LeRoy is apparently not one of them. What is most likely is that JT is the product of a San Francisco writer, her husband and her husband’s sister (who made a lot of public appearances as the allegedly shy JT).
Hoaxes attempt to make their victims look inward: Why are we so gullible? What is it that we want to believe? In this case, we—or more specifically, dozens of celebrity authors, actors and musicians—wanted to believe that a kid could have a terrible life and produce amazing art in spite (or even because) of it. They wanted to believe that the kid had done so in part because of their help. That way they could own a little bit of the ensuing success, and they could also believe that terrible things don’t destroy people.
I suspect that your average HIV+ teenage junkie prostitute is either on the streets, in a shelter or dead. There may be a few who’ve gone onto bigger and better things, but who wants to read a story about the teenage junkie prostitute who got off the streets and got a job at Quizno’s, now has a tiny studio apartment in North Hollywood and only smokes pot?
In America, we love rags-to-riches stories, but we’re not very interested in rags-to-slightly-less-ragged-rags stories. Stephen Beachy says this, and includes some impressive fact-checking, in his New York Magazine article.
I wonder whether Courtney Love, Shirley Manson, Billy Corgan or any of the other celebrities who befriended JT spend time at shelters and drop-in centers on Hollywood Boulevard. If they were so interested in the artistic impulses of abused youngsters, they’d know that getting a homeless teenager to write six lines of poetry is a huge undertaking. Sometimes that poetry is really beautiful, but it’s hard to write a whole novel when you’re being kicked out of your squat, you’re pregnant for the fourth time and all of your energy is focused on getting high so that you don’t have to think about those problems.