“People always talked about the authenticity of the work,” Laura Albert tells me as a makeup artist fixes her eyes during a photo shoot to create promotional materials for a European TV dcoumentary. “They saw that there was obviously great pain behind it. I was doing it the only way I could. My childhood was hell. I went through a minefield, and I put on camoflauge in order to tell the truth. Billy Corgan got it like that,” she says, snapping her fingers. “He understood it immediately. He didn’t feel duped.”
“The work,” of course, is the collected writings of JT Leroy, Albert’s public “face” until late 2005, when Stephen Beachy first broached the possibility in a New York feature that the person appearing in public as Leroy might not be the actual author, a thesis confirmed three months later by NYT reporter Warren St. John. Although the James Frey scandal got longer play in the mainstream media, just about everybody in literary circles had an opinion about the revelation that a 40-year-old woman, not a 25-year-old transgendered man, had written Sarah, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, and Harold’s End, few of them sympathetic—especially after St. John’s article alleged, with a supporting statement by Leroy’s then-agent, Ira Silverberg, that the author had gained the sympathy of literary figures and other celebrities by claiming to be infected with HIV. Albert points out that such a claim never appeared in any of her writing or public statements. “But once that became the story,” she says, “everybody was ready to kill the witch. The bullying culture is part of our zeitgeist, and it doesn’t take much for someone to say ‘that one’ and have everyone go wild.”
“When people are clubbing you, that’s not the time to speak out,” she reflects, comparing the barrage of negative press to the mob scenes from Lord of the Flies. “All I could do was cover my vitals. But I always knew that I would eventually have my say.”
The mention of Billy Corgan isn’t casual; Albert describes how she’s been working on liner notes for the new Smashing Pumpkins album, Zeitgeist, and several of her emails from the past few days as we’ve tried to arrange this meeting have invoked Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death, which she says is central to her essay. “We so despair of having an actual self that our biggest goal is just to be known by others,” she elaborates. “We see the jewel on the thin ice, but most of us are too afraid to try to get it. We skate out a little way, but we stay where it’s safe and hope that people will notice us skating. But none of that is of any lasting value.”
Albert talks about taking such problems of the soul seriously and addressing them as problems of craft in her writing; it’s a theme she will return to repeatedly during the conversation, describing her literary skills and craft in terms of a gift from God and insisting that the stories were intended as transformative for their readers, not manipulative. “Who pretends to be transgendered just to get attention?” she asks. She’s surrendered the makeup chair to her mom, let the wardrobe mistress put her in a black gown, and is moving about the studio while various people, including her young son, snap pictures. “I wrote those stories with compassion and acceptance. And when people came to readings, they weren’t coming to see Lou Reed or whoever. They came because the work meant something to them. What happened was that somebody felt punked and decided he was going to get me for it. Anyone who experiences any level of fame is stupid if they don’t know that it comes with the media’s sense that they’ve bestowed it on you, and they can take it away whenever they want.”
She’s still hesitant around the media; several times during our chat, she stops for reassurance that I’ve come to the interview with “purity of intent.” And when I ask if last week’s guerrilla interview was for the European documentary, she deflects the question neatly, merely allowing that “the whole story will come out one day.”
One thing’s clear: She has no regrets about the way she created JT’s literary legacy. “What if it wasn’t a mistake, but an articulation of survival?” she asks rhetorically about the writing. “I’m not sorry, and I’m not going into rehab. I know that’s the standard narrative for repentance in America, but I’m not going to do it. Sorry presuppose a trick and a hoax, and this wasn’t that.” But with the Leroy author-function behind her, I wonder, is she ready to continue as “Laura Albert”? Her voice grows soft as she talks about the support Deadwood creator David Milch gave her, and how she came to be ready to use her name when he asked how she wanted to be credited. And beyond that, I push? “I’m writing,” she says, smiling.