Flashback: The Cult of J.T. LeRoy

How a Teenage Hustler-Turned-Novelist Built a Celebrity Support Group

LeRoy's books call like sirens to emotional tourists looking to vacation in someone else's torment. Abuse, gender confusion, abandonment, prostitution, addiction—all the sensationalistic obsessions of our era, wrapped in one neat adolescent package. If hustling taught LeRoy how to sell his physical self for self-preservation, therapy showed him how to mine the ore of his personal life, how to use his realness both as a seduction tactic and as a shield. Says Dennis Cooper, who has known LeRoy since he was 15, "I think he had a really hard time being a prostitute because he's an enormously shy kid and insecure beyond belief. But I think writing his books, he found something to hustle, and it's been very good for him. It's safe."

One of LeRoy's literary mentors, Bruce Benderson, wrote a few years ago: "Seldom in my life had I encountered a 'professional' with such a knack for creating an instant sense of intimacy." Even forewarned, I am caught off guard by LeRoy's charming telephone manner. At first he stutters wildly, his high Southern drawl eventually settling into a sweet, soft-spoken patter that suggests he might call me "ma'am" at any moment. He offers messy personal details bundled in charming metaphors, and almost immediately confesses he has problems with boundaries: "Around the time of that memoir craze, my story came out [in Close to the Bone], and I got a little taste of the press. I didn't know how to deal with it, and I ended up having sex with one of the people who interviewed me; it was a big fucking mess," he sighs, sounding like a remorseful teenage girl caught smoking after curfew. "If I feel like someone wants to have sex with me I go into waitress mode: 'Let me take your order?' "

Behind LeRoy's compulsive openness is a knack for self-mythologizing: For instance, he claims to have started the widespread rumor that Dennis Cooper wrote Sarah. There's also been some confusion over the photo on the cover of Cooper's most recent novel, Period (of a gamine, straw-haired boy), which Bloomsbury has also used as LeRoy's publicity photo. J.T. says, "I wanted to be anonymous, but they really pushed me for pictures. So we spread the idea that it's not really me, because I wanted a parachute so that if I wanted to jump, I could jump. When I wrote Sarah I was male-identified, and now I'm not. I don't know what I am. So it's easier if people decide it's not me, then I won't be held down. So many people have claimed me as their own, so I guess the best thing is to confuse them all."

LeRoy: Self-promotion meets a longing for invisibility.
photo: Roe Etheridge/Index Magazine
LeRoy: Self-promotion meets a longing for invisibility.

All of this slipperiness has led some early supporters to wonder if they've been played. As Gaitskill put it, "It's occurred to me that the whole thing with Jeremy [J.T.] is a hoax, but I felt that even if it turned out to be a hoax, it's a very enjoyable one. And a hoax that exposes things about people, the confusion between love and art and publicity. A hoax that would be delightful and if people are made fools of, it would be OK—in fact, it would be useful."

Why were so many talented people so drawn to a fucked-up teen with a shady past and a shaky identity in the first place? Cooper explains, "When I first knew him, he was 15 and living on the streets. He carried a fax machine wherever he went, and he would plug it in to weird places and fax me all the time. For years I thought he might die any minute. I was always trying to encourage him to write because I didn't know what else to do. And I think people like Mary did the same thing." Gaitskill says she took an interest because "he's one of the smartest people I've ever talked to in my life. It's an uncanny sort of intelligence, like he can read people without meeting them. . . . I sometimes got this image of him as a glistening gossamer net moving in response to sound, thought, feeling, any kind of stimulus imaginable."

LeRoy was astute in his choice of role models—writers such as Cooper, Gaitskill, and Dorothy Allison whose main turf is the battleground of sexual and emotional mind games, whose characters perpetually map the surfaces of the wounded heart. LeRoy is precisely the sort of damaged character who inhabits their work, and that probably appealed too. Laurie Stone explains that when LeRoy was younger, "It was a strange experience, having to allow for how little and vulnerable and needy this person was, and how richly experienced he was. He really stakes out different people to play different roles for him."

Gaitskill is one of the few writers LeRoy has materialized for in person, but their meeting was hilariously fleeting. She says she waited for him in a San Francisco diner at the assigned time, "and suddenly he walked in with two other kids and thrust a bag of stuff at me. It turned out to be a Sharon Olds book, a manuscript, a bottle of balsamic vinaigrette, and a bar of chocolate. He said, 'I'm Terminator,' and bolted. I probably saw him for a few seconds." Yet they continued to communicate by phone and e-mail. LeRoy says, "We entered into this relationship she described as erotic, and it was—it was everything. She's the first woman I'd say I ever fell in love with on all sorts of levels. I wouldn't say she's a mom—more like a lover, but a parent for the writing. A lot of people were delicate with me because I was perceived as fragile. . . . And I think I was, actually." He clears his throat nervously. "But she kind of tore me another asshole. She basically told me everything I was doing wrong in my writing and sent me Nabokov and Flannery O'Connor."

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