Saturday, June 23, 2007

Backstory of JT Leroy and Sarah Plus

I promise that this is my last post on the JT Leroy decision, but I wanted to write about the backstory here where the film company had offered to adapt their option when her identity and scam had been revealed. I find it fascinating that the author opted to go to court.

I know she thought they were trying to get her life rights for free, but she must have also known she could lose this case. The consequence of this is that she may be able to sell those life rights for more for another film, but her literary career is in shambles.

Has anyone read any comments by her celebrity supporters on this case?


Cloaking one’s identity while writing — to hide, in other words, in order to reveal — is an old literary tradition. Mary Ann Evans used the gender-crossing pseudonym George Eliot to publish “Adam Bede” in 1859, when female authors still struggled to be taken seriously. Charlotte Bronte released “Jane Eyre” in 1847 under the name Currer Bell.

What, then, of the complex case of JT Leroy, the pseudonymous writer with the titillating past, a supposed child of a truck-stop prostitute who rocketed to fame in 2000 with the publication of “Sarah,” a novel of poverty and sexual abuse set among the grease-stained highway rest stops of West Virginia?

Mr. Leroy seemed at first to be a hot commodity in today’s biography-obsessed literary world, a gifted writer with a grotesquely compelling story that only enhanced the value of the work. After years of celebrity that included friendships with Winona Ryder and Madonna, articles in The New York Times and Vanity Fair, and many other gaudy trappings of early 21st century fame, JT Leroy was revealed to be the name not of a writer — in fact, not even of a person — but of the fictive alter ego of Laura Albert, a mother and otherwise obscure young novelist from Brooklyn Heights.

This intricate game of hide-and-seek with its interlocking issues of identity, fame, money and the healing power of art has now leapt from the media to what is arguably the culture’s second most obsessive arena: the courts. A film production company has sued Ms. Albert for fraud, saying that a contract signed with JT Leroy to make a feature film of “Sarah” should be null and void, for the simple reason that JT Leroy does not exist.

At its heart, the case revolves around the contract, signed by Antidote International Films Inc. (producer of, among other movies, “Laurel Canyon” and “Thirteen”) and Ms. Albert’s company, Underdogs Inc., to option the film rights to “Sarah” in 2003. Underdogs was paid $15,000 under the contract, which was renewed, at the same rate of $15,000, for each of the next two years. Antidote is suing for its money back.

Along with tales of commerce, the jury was treated yesterday to a bit of culture: A lawyer for the defendant referred in his opening remarks to the O. Henry story “The Last Leaf” moments after the plaintiff’s lawyer played a recording of Terry Gross interviewing someone posing as JT Leroy on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” The trial, in Federal District Court in Manhattan, promises to be an Escher-like convergence of the movies, literature and journalism with references to sex in truck stops thrown in and a documentary filmmaker, considering a project on the case, sitting quietly in back.

Gregory Curtner, a lawyer for Antidote, opened the trial by painting a broad picture of JT Leroy’s supposed rise from Appalachian misery to stardom. The son of a truck-stop prostitute, the jury learned, JT Leroy (according to the stories concocted on his behalf) would sit in parked cars or at a diner while his mother turned tricks. He himself eventually turned to prostitution and, after finally picking up a pen to describe his ordeal, tried to peddle his early works to agents, publishers and the like by sending faxes from gas station bathrooms.

It was this hardscrabble “life” that caught the attention of a director, Steven Shainberg, who wanted to work with Antidote and blend elements of JT Leroy’s biography into the narrative of “Sarah” in what Mr. Curtner called a film about “how art could emerge from a ruined childhood.” The trouble was there was no ruined childhood from which art could actually emerge.

Or at least not one that belonged to the imaginary JT Leroy. Ms. Albert’s lawyer, Eric Weinstein, began his own remarks with the memorably understated line, “Laura is a complicated person.” He said she was physically and sexually abused as a child. He said she was institutionalized in psychiatric wards and in a group home as a ward of the state. He said she was in therapy for 13 years with a psychiatrist whom she spoke to by telephone while posing as a teenage boy named Jeremy, an embryonic version of JT Leroy.

By the time the psychiatrist advised her to write, the persona of the teenage boy had become engrained as Ms. Albert’s alter ego, what Mr. Weinstein called her “bridge to the world.” Ms. Albert herself, in conversations before the trial, called JT “her respirator,” an unreal, though entirely necessary, entity that allowed her to breathe.

As movie people say, the “inciting incident” of the lawsuit came with the publication in late 2005 of an article in New York magazine that questioned JT Leroy’s identity. The Times followed with an article in February that identified Ms. Albert as the true author of “Sarah.”

The producers at Antidote were stunned; they were also worried that the commercial prospects of their project might crumble. As Mr. Curtner put it: “The whole autobiographical back story aura that made this so attractive was a sham.”

Mr. Weinstein told the jury that the contract with Antidote was for a book, not a back story, and that the film company could have made the movie no matter who wrote the novel. He then went on to suggest that the project was in freefall (a bad screenplay) and that Antidote had used the excuse of disputed authorship as an escape hatch.

It was at this point that the sort of lemonade-from-literary-lemons notion that can exist only in Hollywood was introduced. Mr. Weinstein said the director, Mr. Shainberg, decided he would now make a new film, something in the vein of “Adaptation” or “Being John Malkovich,” a “meta-film” that mixed the novel with the lives of its real and purported authors in a project touted in-house as “Sarah Plus.”

But that required obtaining the rights to Ms. Albert’s story — a story of such apparent darkness that she herself had required a literary dopplegänger to tell it.

She refused to grant the rights. “And that,” Mr. Weinstein said, “is why we find ourselves here.”


Dana King said...

I'm not sure what to think about this. The salient point may have nothing with the author's persistent efforts to pass herself as someone else; there is ample history of that. The fraud, if that's the right word, came from passing off fiction as autobiography. There's a venerable tradition of autobiographical fiction; a talented writer should have been able to make a go of it.

David said...

She gets no sympathies from me.

George Eliot and other female authors of her day weren't pretending that their novels were autobiographical. The same applies to Sir Walter Scott, who kept his name off his books because of social prejudices of the times.

None of these people was trying to con the public.

Anonymous said...

The movie company saw a way to cut its losses, and it did. Had she agreed to let them cash in on the "bigger story," there would have been no lawsuit.

Tim Susman said...

The really interesting thing here is that the film company is claiming their property is less valuable because it's fictional. In fact, I'm almost certain their property is more valuable now because of all the publicity surrounding this case and the decision. I had no idea who JT Leroy was before the fraud became an issue--the fraud was a bigger story than the book itself. So they can go ahead and make their movie, and call it 'the centerpiece of the fraud that shocked America' and rake in the millions. The movie would be better with the truth of her additional side--what she apparently doesn't want to sign over--but the company can certainly make the movie based on her story alone, or based on their experience with it, a fictional imagining of the person who'd be driven to make up a childhood like that.

Which doesn't excuse the deceit, but at least offers a little perspective.

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