The latest in the J.T. Leroy scandal.

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June 27 2007 1:08 PM

Sarah's Antidote

Is the J.T. Leroy scandal what you think it is?

Laura Albert. Click image to expand.
Laura Albert

Last Friday, Laura Albert—the woman who created "J.T. LeRoy," the transgender former teen prostitute who nominally wrote two novels and a short story collection—lost a lawsuit brought by Antidote International Films. Antidote had purchased the rights to LeRoy's first novel, Sarah—the novel that had made Leroy something of a literary celebrity—before the world learned that LeRoy was actually Albert's creation. After the mask dropped, Antidote sued, asking for development costs back plus punitive damages, claiming that the contract was invalid because one party to it did not exist. Albert defended herself by recounting her real history of child sexual abuse, explaining (in the Paris Review and on the witness stand) that victims can split themselves into personae: J.T., she maintained, was part of her. Antidote countered by pointing to events in which someone else (usually Albert's ex-partner's half-sister, Savannah Knoop) played the role of LeRoy in public. J.T. was no split personality, therefore, but a deliberate fake, designed to get attention for Albert's writings. Albert will now have to cough up $116,500 unless she prevails on appeal.

But step back for a moment: Sarah is a novel, not a memoir. It contains the same events, in the same order, no less "true" or "false" than they were before the hoax was exposed. What, with Albert unmasked, did Antidote lose? The answer, it seems, is that Antidote wanted, and paid for, and lost, the right to call Sarah a product of LeRoy's life. "We bought the identity of the book's author," one Antidote employee said. The value of the novel, in Antidote's view, depended not on what was between its covers, but on who the producers thought the author was (and on their belief that the novel derived directly from events in his life). Almost all the press around Albert's deception—including stories about the trial—has treated "LeRoy's" fiction the same way, as something akin to falsified autobiography.

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That's a shame, and not just because Sarah is still a good read. Before the scandal broke, I taught the novel in a college class (called Sexuality and Literature): Most of my students loved it. Though the book's narrator is, as "LeRoy" was, a cross-dressing Appalachian teen prostitute, the novel is not and could not be a slice of any imaginable real life. Instead, Sarah is a defiantly unrealistic fantasia on the difference between memoir and fiction. It's also a poke in the eye for anyone who thinks—as many people around "LeRoy" thought—that a novel should document an author's life.

To see what's fanciful, and what's implausible, about Sarah, we can begin on the first page, where we meet the narrator's generous, articulate pimp, who oversees a ring of prostitutes in his corner of Appalachia. Glading Grateful ETC (the "ETC" is part of his name) uses ingenuity and "Choctaw magic" to enhance the beauty and the sexual technique of his "lot lizards" (or truck-stop prostitutes), especially his "goodbuddy lot lizards" (male prostitutes). We are in a highly stylized world, even if we're also in a world of abuse and trauma familiar to us from addiction memoirs: The prostitutes "affectionately refer to each other as baculum, which … means 'little rod' in Latin"; they all wear necklaces of raccoon penis bone, which confers supernatural protection, and they hang out at the Doves Diner, a paradisaic truck stop whose menu includes "Wellington of King Salmon with truffle mashed potatoes." The Doves is part wish-fulfillment—if only real truck-stop hookers had such protection!—and part a colorful exaggeration of urban coastal beliefs about Appalachia.

The novel grows only more fantastic from there, but any close reader will notice that the plot duplicates other coming-of-age stories, in which a troubled teen with special powers runs away, discovers himself by taking a big risk, and then has to be saved with help from a surrogate parent. The barely teenaged narrator, who calls himself Cherry Vanilla, has learned how to dress like a girl from his prostitute mother, Sarah. The plot is set in motion when the mother disappears, leaving Cherry in the sole protection of Glad. Cherry then resolves to show his independence by disobeying Glad and crossing an accursed bridge (in drag) to ask a magic boon from a "jackalope" hung from the wall of a local bar. (Jackalopes are fake hunting trophies: jack rabbits with antlers.) This one apparently has the mystical power to grant prostitutes' wishes, and the narrator asks for success in his trade: He wants to be the sexiest, most feminine, highest-earning cross-dressing prostitute he can be.

Seeking adulthood (and sexual and economic power), Cherry finds danger instead: He gets abducted by Glad's trashily evil archrival Le Loup, "the roughest, toughest pimp in West Virginia," who believes that Cherry is a real girl named Sarah, with miracle-working powers, and sets up a fake religion around "her," charging for admission to "her" "shrine"—all of which Sarah goes along with,until, that is, his anatomical sex is revealed. After that, things go sour: Cherry  is raped, forced to sniff glue,  beaten, held captive, and otherwise imperiled until Glad can ride (in disguise) to the rescue.

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