Sarah’s Antidote

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

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.

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.

Albert did her research: A number of details in her book (slang like “lot lizards”) derive from fact. But none of the major characters, sites, and events—not the Doves, not Glad, not Le Loup, not the Holy Jackalope—could be real. Sarah looks now like a book about the risks and thrills of false identity, of claiming that you are what you are not. What it does not look like—what it never looked like—was an autobiographical document. Those critics of Albert who liken it to memoir seem not to have read it.  Much of the novel’s power, in fact, comes from the glee with which it refuses realism: multiple subjects (sexual trauma, coming out, rural poverty) that American fiction usually depicts with flat-footed seriousness instead come together for a Technicolor romp.

When I taught Sarah, I thought LeRoy was real: We even listened to one of “his” radio interviews. But we did not discuss the novel as fact. Instead, we discovered two ways to interpret the fiction. First, we looked at how easily almost any setting (including a scandalous, sexually transgressive one) can be made to fit a conventional plot. If not for all the sex, and all the drugs, Sarah would feel like a book aimed at teens: well-crafted, inventive, and just slightly more believable than Harry Potter.

Second, we looked (I now wish we had looked longer) at the ways in which Sarah parodies confessional narrative, making fun of our hunger for true-life tales. The plot shows the ridiculousness, and the dangers, of a religion of authenticity (in which pride of place goes to real girls, real virgins, real men) in a world where everything of value is fake, created with conscious skill (the jackalope, Cherry-as-girl, the food at the Doves).  The story also offers cartoonish or supernatural versions of precisely the issues (absent parents, early sexual initiation, repressive religion, the wish to escape no matter what) we expect from nonfiction about a traumatic childhood—or from fiction that asks us to read it as fact. If you believe this story, Albert implies, you must be so hungry for traumatic memoir that you’ll believe anything. Better to recognize, and to take pleasure in, the ways in which human beings enjoy making things up.

The LeRoy persona (whatever its supposed links to mental illness) looks now like a fine bit of Authors’ Revenge. “You want a marketable author?” Albert (and her accomplices) seem to have said. “You don’t want to judge fiction on its merits, as a product of human invention? Fine: I’ll give you as marketable an author as I can dream up, an author appropriate, too, for my novel’s subjects: teen sexuality, sexual fantasy, impersonation, extended deception. Then the works of my imagination might get a chance—however small—to bloom.”

“LeRoy” is gone, but Sarah remains: I expect to teach it again. Steven Shainberg, who would have directed Antidote’s film, says he hopes now to make a film like Adaptation, in which Albert’s life, “LeRoy’s” story, and the events in the novel are intertwined. Such a work of art could show how deeply the conventions of fiction (for example, the coming-of-age tale) affect our responses to real life, how fixated we have become on the lives of authors, and how easily we believe what we want to believe. But such a work of art exists already: It is the novel Albert wrote.