Recent revelations about fictitious memoirs have exposed our society’s lust for stories about savaging helpless children
Not to be outdone by recent Beltway-corruption scandals, the ordinarily more-subdued literary world found itself two weeks ago grappling with its own grim little fraud. On January 8, TheSmokingGun.com ran a lengthy exposé of the massive exaggerations and outright lies in James Frey’s Oprah-promoted, drugs-and-alcohol-drenched memoir A Million Little Pieces. Then, on January 9, the New York Times reported that J.T. LeRoy — author of the 2000 autobiographical cult novel Sarah, about a sexually abused transgender teen with AIDS, and the 2001 autobiographical story collection The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things — didn’t exist. Or rather, the person who has been appearing at readings as “J.T. LeRoy” is really a San Francisco–based woman named Savannah Knoop. It is still unclear who wrote the books, but most probably it was Laura Albert, the partner of Knoop’s half-brother Geoffrey.
While national news and op-ed columns have been filled with harsh dissections of James Frey’s fictional embellishments — since its original story the Times has run 17 news, feature, and op-ed pieces on the subject — the J.T. LeRoy story has received far less attention. And when it has, the LeRoy scam hasn’t been taken very seriously. Indeed, in a Sunday, January 15, Times op-ed, memoirist Mary Karr lambasted Frey as a mendacious “skunk” fouling the literary waters, but found J.T. LeRoy to be a “fine little prankster.” The discrepancy can be attributed simply to scale: in contrast with Frey, who launched a big-bucks-bestseller scandal, LeRoy — although championed by glitterati (Courtney Love) and writers (Mary Gaitskill) alike — engaged in nothing more than penny-ante grifting. Whatever the explanation, everyone seems to have missed the important story here: in a monstrous act of literary sadomasochism, J.T. LeRoy published emotional pornography that features implausibly sick-and-dying, destitute, sexually abused teens. What’s more, readers have been lapping it up.
Few have made the obvious connection between J.T. LeRoy’s masquerade as a gay kid dying of AIDS and Anthony Godby Johnson’s 1993 AIDS memoir A Rock and a Hard Place. In that literary scandal, the book’s author — supposedly a 14-year-old boy dying of AIDS, but actually, according to a November 6, 2001, article in the New Yorker by Tad Friend, a woman named Vicky Johnson who later claimed to be “Anthony’s” adoptive mother — wrote about his childhood of horrific sexual abuse. With that in mind, LeRoy’s abject literary hoax looks like a copycat crime, mimicking not just the sexually lurid, damaged-child motif of Johnson’s book but its promotional strategy as well.
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