To Be Or Not to Be: Does It Even Matter?

Who is JT Leroy? A critically acclaimed young fiction writer noted for his "stark portrayal of child prostitution and drug use" -- or a cruel composite hoax?

Who is JT Leroy? A critically acclaimed young fiction writer noted for his “stark portrayal of child prostitution and drug use” — or a cruel composite hoax that played with the heartstrings of readers and duped celebrities into giving “emotional support” after Leroy declared he was HIV-positive?

Today, the insular world of Manhattan media and publishing is abuzz over a New York Times article giving the strongest evidence yet that the transgendered Leroy is not actually a real person at all — and literary bloggers are both outraged and feeling betrayed by the revelation.

In his “Unmasking of JT Leroy,” the Times’ Warren St. John writes, “Mr. Leroy’s tale was harrowing in its details and uplifting in its arc. He was a young truck-stop prostitute who had escaped rural West Virginia for the dismal life of a homeless San Francisco drug addict. Rescued as a young teenager by a couple named Laura Albert and Geoffrey Knoop and treated by a psychologist, he was able to turn his terrible youth into a thriving career as a writer.”

Benefiting from the support of celebrities and well-known authors, Leroy’s books were published around the world, and the reclusive 25-year-old “appeared in public often disguised beneath a wig and sunglasses,” St. John reports. “But the young man in the wig and sunglasses, it turns out, is not a man at all. The public role of JT Leroy is played by Savannah Knoop, Geoffrey Knoop’s half sister, who is in her mid-20’s.”

Shown a 2003 photo of Knoop “discovered online,” five people close to Leroy — including his literary agent — identified Knoop as the Leroy they knew (Knoop told St. John “I don’t need this in my life right now” before hanging up on him). The Times piece also argues that Albert is the writer behind Leroy’s work, following a New York magazine story that broke substantial new ground on the mystery in October.

“Recently, there has been more conversation about the identity of JT Leroy than I care to recount,” writes, but the Times article “seems more definitive, more concrete, and in some ways, more damning than all the previous speculation.”

St. John is open about the fact that journalists, including himself, “wrote credulous profiles of the successful young writer after interviewing him, often in person” and notes that the “Times even published an article last September under the byline JT Leroy.”

Supernaut writes, “Part of me likes the great simulacrum of the media endlessly recreating its own reality until it is all simultaneously real and fake, until it doesn’t matter that an author I really admired for personal reasons in fact is an elaborate publishing hoax perpetrated on exactly the set of media/information-whores who always are so quick to pick up on and decimate an advertising technique by corporate monsters,” before trailing off into abstract theory. Gothamist’s snarkiness is more digestible: “[W]e guess the Times is trying to play catch-up with its writers’ and contributors’ writing habits — JT Leroy wrote an article for the TimesT magazine last fall about Disneyland Paris; expenses and questions with hotel staffs there helped the Times realize he might not exist! Dunh dunh dunh.”

Ken Foster, one of a series of bloggers who met or knew Leroy personally (“[T]here was JT, in his weird sunglasses and hat, refusing to speak to people, but cutting a mean rug on the dance floor and squealing like a girl. Turns out he was a girl”), concludes that perhaps even more disappointing than the scam itself “are the number of people — including journalists — who completely bought into it, and who were so convinced of the existence of their ‘friend’ that they refused to entertain any questions about his true identity.”

Betrayal, however, is a more common theme. “[I]f you’re an author, an editor, a publisher — or worse, a friend — to someone who bullshit you up one side and down the other, it’s not cute,” writes Susie Bright, a former editor of Leroy’s. “It’s not irrelevant. It’s a cruel con, straight up, and the whole writers’ community suffered for it.”

Meanwhile, in an email statement provided to the Times by Leroy’s lawyer, the writer maintained that Savannah Knoop is nothing more than a fa├žade. “As a transgendered human, subject to attacks,” Leroy said, “I use stand-ins to protect my identity.”

Wrapping up this even-more-meta-than-usual trip through blogland, we turn to Professor Kim’s News Notes for the final word: “Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and sometimes truth just is a fiction.”

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.