When The New York Times revealed in 2006 that literary wunderkind JT LeRoy was a hoax, it rocked the entertainment establishment. JT did not exist, but was instead a creation of writer Laura Albert, who’d published critically acclaimed novels such as Sarah, Harold’s End, and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things under the LeRoy pen name—while having her sister-in-law pose very publicly as the young male writer. Legal and personal recriminations ensued—leaving legions of devoted readers feeling alternately betrayed and amused. Savannah Knoop, who posed as JT, has now written a book about her experience, Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy ($17.95, Seven Stories Press). We quizzed Knoop about her experience as the fake phenom.
You played JT LeRoy for six years. What made you want to write about it?
I got through that experience and had no idea how I felt. It was like I’d suppressed my inner thoughts and emotions while I was in it—because they weren’t JT’s.
Many people rallied around JT. Why?
He fit easily into most people’s projections. He was the Jean Genet, the quiet-sage mute. He was wild and crazy; he was a train wreck. Or he was hope that we could all get through it and transform it into art. I was never offered so many drugs in my life as when I was the recovering addict JT—and for someone who didn’t like to be touched, I was constantly being touched.
Were you troubled by the deceit?
There were many times I felt uncomfortable playing JT. It was complicated. For instance, at a reading, if a fan would tell me how the books had affected them, about what had happened in their life that made part of a book resonate so strongly—there was nothing I could say, because I couldn’t interfere with that true emotional connection they were having to the work. My reaction was not the point.
When it ended, did you miss JT?
Yeah, I think so. I knew that it would come to an end, but I would have never chosen for it to end. It was a huge part of my life. It was almost like an addiction.
What were you addicted to?
Well, it was a completely other life. I got to express myself, and be a boy. I had permission to do so many things in that world. JT could do whatever he wanted! He was allowed to be as weird as he wanted to be.
But in the beginning, you seemed ambivalent about being JT. What changed?
Deciding that I wanted to do it. At first, I was thrown into it [by her sister-in-law, Laura Albert], and I was really resentful of that. I quit for about a year. When I came back to it, it was like: “I want to be doing this.” It was a commitment.
There were inconsistencies. In the late ’90s, HIV was part of JT’s story. But that got dropped. Were you ever challenged about that?
No. I think that HIV was dropped right around the time I started impersonating him. HIV wasn’t part of the story that I was playing, but there were little details. I would wear long sleeves, and there were scars. HIV was part of the trajectory, and then it was just dropped.
People really want to believe in something.
People believed in JT because it made sense to them—the square fit in the square hole. It’s not like people haven’t undergone trauma like JT’s. It’s not like it couldn’t have happened.
When I read the books, I felt like they came from some emotional place of truth, and that was what I responded to. I don’t think you can fake that.