The Rumpus Interview with Laura Albert
Laura Albert contains multitudes. The subject and the protagonist of Jeff Feuerzeig’s 2016 documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story, Albert is better known by her alter ego/avatar/pseudonym, Jeremiah “Terminator” (JT) LeRoy.
Writing as a sixteen-year-old drug-addicted “lot lizard” who sold his body at truck stops, Albert/LeRoy first published short stories in Nerve, The New York Press, and Spin. This led to a prestigious literary agent and then to book deals for the novel Sarah and the short story collection The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. Both became international bestsellers. In 2005 and 2006, when JT LeRoy’s true identity was exposed by the New York Times, the resulting scandal threatened to “terminate” Albert’s literary career along with her credibility.
Goodbye to all that. Ten years later, timed to coincide with the release of Feuerzeig’s documentary, Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things have been rereleased by Harper Perennial. This time, the author photo on the books is of Albert, and the bio reads, “JT LeRoy is a literary persona created by Laura Albert.”
“One of the unfortunate casualties of the JT LeRoy saga,” Adam Langer wrote of this literary event, “was the career of Laura Albert, a tremendously gifted and empathetic writer who found herself overshadowed by her own creation… It’s thrilling to finally have Laura’s stories liberated from JT’s story, and to have Laura and her words back together again.”
Speaking for herself in the Feuerzeig film, Laura Albert, now fifty, details the abuse, neglect, and institutionalizations she suffered through her early years. In a series of phone conversations, Laura told me, often through tears, about a different, more positive aspect of her childhood. Turns out that her mother didn’t just terrorize and abandon her daughter—she also taught Laura how to make a life as an artist, and how to slip into and out of various identities, and how to hustle to meet the needs of that life and those identities. It takes a lot of work on yourself to see the upside of a mother who knowingly allowed her boyfriends to rape you, threw you into a mental hospital, and threatened to kill you. As evidenced by the interview that follows, Laura Albert has found some pretty creative ways to do that work.
The Rumpus: You’ve said that you “researched” the lives of your prostitute-protagonists by having been a phone sex worker yourself at age sixteen. How did that career come about?
Laura Albert: My family was lower middle class. We never had any money. I saw an ad in the Village Voice, and I thought, ‘I could do that.’ So put a private phone line into my bedroom at my mother’s house. I’d been sexualized by my mom’s boyfriends way earlier. It wasn’t as much of a big deal as it would have been if I hadn’t had those experiences. I was very, very good at phone sex.
Rumpus: By ‘sexualized,’ I assume you’re referring to the fact that your mom’s boyfriends sexually abused you. Did your mother know about that?
Albert: When I told my mother about one of them, Tom, she was like, “Well, that’s just Tom.”
Albert: My mother was a mix. She had a phenomenal brain. She was abused as a child, and she had to take care of her siblings, and she still graduated college at seventeen. She won so many quiz shows, including Sale of the Century, they banned her from competing. She hated roll-the-dice games, but if it was a skill game, she always won. When I went to Hawaii, she busted out her knowledge of the Hawaiian language. She read the dictionary and the encyclopedia.
But my mother had a totally nonexistent emotional IQ. She was a bull in a china shop when it came to emotional interactions. She’d be supportive one minute, and the next she’d say something that would totally devastate me. She would just fucking snap. She never got help, so when she reached that point of rage, she couldn’t control it. She would kill for me, and she reserved the right to kill me.
Rumpus: I’m not sure I’d call that “mixed” mothering.
Albert: Our relationship was very complex. When I was thirteen, my mother broke up with my dad. All of a sudden she had two kids on her own. She started getting into drugs and going out all the time. I became the mother and she became the teenager. I dropped out of school to stay home and take care of my younger sister. But my mother loved me very, very much.
Rumpus: How did she show that love?
Albert: Even without money, she figured out ways to give my younger sister and me the things she thought it was important for us to have. She pitched reviews of plays and movies and places all over the world, so she could take us with her on all these trips. You know, when well-known, established writers write travel stories, they’re comped whether or not they end up writing the review. My mother didn’t have that advantage, so she created opportunities that would have been there for us if we’d had money. She wanted to go to England, so she pitched a story and she got a vacation out of it.
Brooklyn Heights then was not what it is now. We lived in a lower-middle-class apartment complex, built for civil servants. We didn’t have money but I didn’t know we weren’t rich. It was my mom’s capacity to create opportunities from her creativity that created privilege.
Rumpus: There are some striking similarities between the childhood your mother had and the one she gave you.
Albert: She actually tried very hard to make a better life for me and my sister.
Rumpus: Was she your role model?
Albert: My mother had ethics about what she did. She never took the tickets unless she really reviewed the play. Even if the show stank, she still turned in her reviews. She got the tear sheets and sent them to the publicists. She drilled that into me. You don’t take an assignment and then not do the work.
As a writer, I admired her. Her writing was very technically correct, unlike mine. I have the worst grammar of anyone. She got her tenses and her grammar right, but emotional depth wasn’t in it. She was a very cute witty songwriter, with no emotional depth. It took me a long time to realize that I’d surpassed her as a writer. I didn’t show her Sarah. I knew she’d try to edit it and I didn’t want her to. She didn’t get a vote.
Rumpus: How did your mother’s life affect your thinking about what you wanted to do with yours?
Albert: My mother had a need to do art, a drive. She showed me the dedication it takes to be an artist. And because it was so hard for an artistic woman of her day to be taken seriously, she also had to know how to a hustle, how to use her art. She put on plays in the community room of our apartment building that brought the whole building together. She entered a song of mine in a contest that Peter Bogdanovich was running, when he was looking for someone to write songs for his next film. Bogdanovich wrote back a very sweet letter to me, saying that it was close but that he was going with Cole Porter instead. He came to the LA premiere of Author and interviewed Jeff [Feuerzeig] on stage. He’s such a sweet man.
My mom did interviews for magazines using a man’s pseudonym to help her get published. It was a smart idea, and it worked. All that was modeled for me. But the characters I’m writing about are complex and contradictory; it’s a theme of my writing—how do you love the unlovable?
Rumpus: So you came by JT LeRoy honestly.
Albert: When I was in a group home as a teenager, everyone told me their secrets, and I started writing this other girl’s story. That was as close as I could come to writing my own story, but it still felt really bad to me to write about the sexual abuse of that girl. It felt nasty. Disgusting. Gross. Then I started writing the story in the male voice, and it was all right. It didn’t feel good, but I could do it.
Ever since I was a child, I had had boys’ voices coming through me. I had so many of them, all with different voices, all with different stories, all from different places. You name the place, they were there. They were just telling me whatever their story was, and I went along with it.
Rumpus: Were you literally hearing voices?
Albert: It’s funny. If you give voice to the people who live in your head, you’re crazy. If you hear voices and you put them on the page, you’re a writer. I’m kind of both.
Starting as a young kid, I had feelings that I wanted to be a boy. When I was eleven everyone thought I was a boy. At that time, being trans was considered scary and sick in our culture. All we had to model that was The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The super evolved language of the trans community, which we have now, didn’t exist then. I didn’t have language for any of this, like “gender fluid.”
Rumpus: How did it feel to live with all those boys inside you?
Albert: Someone told me once that the artist’s process is like acting. You go into the zone. Well, once I started writing, I lived in the zone. I never left the zone. I remember staying up late at night in the group home, writing in my bed. I couldn’t have a light on. I would tell the group home mothers, just let me write.
While I was still in foster care, I won a scholarship to go to the Eugene Lang College at The New School. I took every writing class I could get my hands on. I knew that the only way to make people care about my stories was to learn my craft.
In my fiction class I was writing short stories, and they always had a male protagonist. I started writing a novel and I did that in a male voice. I told the professor I had to write in the male voice, but she wouldn’t let me. I didn’t finish the year. I ended up in a mental hospital.
Rumpus: How did you get from the mental hospital to becoming a writer?
Albert: I was writing about punk bands when I was in the group home. I didn’t do it for money. I did it for the experience. I was doing journalism. My mom did that. When I was going to college, I didn’t have any money, so I’d get assignments from the PennySaver, writing about bands I liked. It was cool. I got free records. I got to meet the bands.
Later, I wrote for The Web Magazine, I was hired by a guy who knew I was doing phone sex. After a while I was getting kind of known to be a sexpert. Every month I had to write ten new reviews of sex sites, health sites, sexuality sites, everything that fell under the category of sex. This was the old days of the world wide web. Imagine watching a woman suck off an elephant by modem!
In the 1990s, I began writing for The Web Magazine, AVN and Rolling Stone online about the sex industry. It was the start of the dot-com boom. There were all these dot-com companies that had no product, but they had a whole press department and press releases up the wazoo. At the same time, you had a sex industry that had tons of product, and no press releases. I told the sex companies, ‘I’ll write your fucking press releases.’ It had never occurred to them to do it. Would the mafia write a press release?
Rumpus: What about your own writing?
Albert: I was doing the Terminator writing as well. I realized I had to make a choice. I couldn’t do both. It was too much, time-wise. Also, the web-sexpert writing felt undermining, very fake. I was having to make it all sound hip and funny and cool, when actually the girls I interviewed who worked in the sex industry were telling me some pretty sad stories.
The Terminator writing felt more real to me. It dealt with more of my issues. Being funny and rowdy for the sexpert writing felt like more of a lie than the Terminator writing, even though I was writing that stuff under my own name. It didn’t explore the darkness, just glided over it, and that was getting intolerably painful to continue to do. To do that work, I had to present myself as a person who was attractive and okay. I didn’t feel like I was either of those things. I was afraid if I kept faking it I’d go crazy again and lose my shit. That’s what happened in college. So I picked the writing that was more authentic, and more healing to me.
Rumpus: Ten years ago, after you were exposed as the author of the JT LeRoy books, you stepped out of the spotlight. What made you step back into it by participating in the Feuerzeig film?
Albert: I did hide. I didn’t wanna be out in the public eye. I went through some pretty intense shit. Being public with writing, it wears you out. I was buried under the JT LeRoy story. I felt like James Franco in that movie 127 Hours, and I didn’t have it in me to saw off my own arm.
I needed the movie to get out of the hole. I needed a rescue. I needed a way to make people understand me on a visceral level. I knew my rescuer had to be the right person. When I met Jeff and saw his film The Devil and Daniel Johnston, I knew he was the one.
I felt ready. I consciously did this. I knew I wouldn’t be in charge of anything that was in the movie. This was very different from writing a book. With a book, you know what you’re getting into. It’s hard for me to watch the movie, but I think Jeff Feuerzeig did a good job.
Rumpus: How do you feel about the response to the movie?
Albert: The response to the movie has been overwhelmingly positive. The response to me is a whole different thing. To some people I’m the antichrist, the worst person in the world. Everyone thinks I’m rich. I’ve been accused of collaborating with Jeff and not any of the other filmmakers who approached me because I was holding out for millions of dollars. It’s a documentary! I can’t afford a filing cabinet.
Some people will never forgive me for creating the avatar. A friend of mine who was intimately involved with JT LeRoy was just saying to me, “You never stole money from anyone. At the end of day, work came out of it. What really was taken from anyone?” But some people will die on that hill no matter what.
I was privileged to learn to hustle from my mother. People call me a grifter, but I’m not a grifter. I’m a hustler. I understand that often there is some kind of a trade.
It’s still hard for me to have filters. That’s why I created a persona in the first place. And it’s been healing to connect with people who had a first-hand involvement with JT and were upset by the reveal, to talk and find connection. The media told people it was a joke—that’s what a hoax is. And that caused a lot of pain in those who loved him. The loss of JT, the pain is valid, but to understand my motives allows a more complex reaction to be possible. And time has allowed people to come back to the work and let it be of itself.
Author photograph © Albert Sanchez.