The awful truth

Recent revelations about fictitious memoirs have exposed our society’s lust for stories about savaging helpless children  
By MICHAEL BRONSKI  |  January 25, 2006

FRANKEN-AUTHOR 'J.T. LeRoy' was cobbled together by several sadomasochistic souls eager to cash in on our taste for emotional pornography.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.

Damaged goods
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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Related: Redeeming the Image, Review: Sarah's Key, Review: Silent House, More more >
  Topics: Books , Media, Health and Fitness, Savannah Knoop,  More more >
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From Kirkus Reviews, 1993, on A Rock and a Hard Place:
"Extraordinary autobiography of child abuse, nomadic street life, and, finally, AIDS - written with uncommon sophistication by a 14-year-old. The son of outwardly normal Manhattan parents, Johnson endures unspeakable depravity at home ('While other kids were being tossed into the air, hugged and caresses, and lulled to sleep by their mothers, I was being flung into corners and slapped across romms'). He's denied food, even a bed to sleep on, while suffering savage beatings by his parents, as well as sexual abuse by one of his mother's friends. . ."