Living Without LeRoy

With her new memoir, literary co-hoaxer Savannah Knoop steps out of JT LeRoy's shadow. But can she step out of Laura Albert's?

Before becoming JT LeRoy, Knoop, a Bay Area native who grew up in Marin County and went to prep school in Connecticut, had plans to become a clothing designer. She has her own company, called Tinc (a Thai word, meaning to throw away), whose small SOMA workshop is cluttered with clothes racks, old sewing machines, a well-worn work table, and many vinyl records. Knoop's clothes have been noticed, locally and elsewhere. For starters, her mother, Sharon, a San Francisco acupuncturist whom Knoop describes as "intensely creative" and entirely supportive, lately has been seen at her daughter's events, be they about literature or apparel or both, looking sharp in Tinc jodhpurs and an angular heather-gray duster. She's not alone in suspecting that Savannah has a promising future in fashion.

Maybe fashion isn't enough. Knoop says she's been interested in writing since she was a kid. She'd read a lot, and practiced, but later concluded that she needed life experience, because, she said, "As an 18-year-old, what was I gonna write about?" To her dubious fortune, it was right about then that her half-brother Geoff's girlfriend was concocting an elaborate fake identity, an "author" whose so-bad-it's-too-good-to-be-true personal backstory could help make them all stars.

As Knoop writes: "I thought how strange it can be when you meet some people, you want to devour that person, to consume their story, which seems larger and more profound than your own. At certain points in my life I've wished I were more neurotic, less passive, and emotionally hesitant. I've wished that something extreme had happened to me, which would have made me more extreme."

Knoop posing as JT LeRoy.
Photo courtesy of Mary Ellen Mark
Knoop posing as JT LeRoy.
Knoop, while pretending to be JT, had an affair with actress Asia Argento (foreground). Argento considered Laura Albert a hanger-on.
Photo courtesy of Juergen Teller
Knoop, while pretending to be JT, had an affair with actress Asia Argento (foreground). Argento considered Laura Albert a hanger-on.

Laura Albert granted her wish. Arguably, she's still granting it, if in a very different way. To wit: Albert's sharp response to Knoop's memoir — in particular the comment, attributed to Albert by the New York Post's Page Six in June, that "just because you play a writer doesn't mean you are a writer." The Post quoted Albert as calling Girl Boy Girl "sad and sleazy," saying that "it disgusts me," and accusing Knoop of "really stepping on my feelings."

And what of the many other readers who had their feelings stepped on too, and would expect contrition, a mea culpa? The challenge Girl Boy Girl poses to our memoir-cherishing culture of pitiable public victimhood is the question of how much it matters whether the memoir's publication makes Knoop an opportunist or a revisionist. It's the question, in other words, of how much pity Knoop deserves, and whether it's compassionate or condescending for us to allow it.

The intention of JT LeRoy, Knoop has said many times, was never to betray people. But she has also told herself that she couldn't just go on moping about it, and pleading, "I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" forever. Ultimately, Knoop explained, she wrote Girl Boy Girl because she didn't want to find herself looking back on this in many years and wondering what the hell had happened.

"I wanted to write it as fiction," she said, "but I think the story was already too convoluted." Her family and her editor, though consistently encouraging, told her that people needed it not to be fiction. In fact, Knoop's editor wouldn't commission the book without meeting her in person first and being absolutely sure it was she who'd be writing it. Such was the enduring potency of Albert's creation.

It's easy enough to anticipate Knoop's memoir with wearied trepidation — to assume going in that it'll just be some gratuitously mundane exercise in plain old bad form, like the lady who gets sawed in half writing a tell-all about the magician. Or maybe something weirder but admittedly more intriguing, like the ventriloquist's dummy writing about the puppeteer. In this case, it's both a help and a hindrance that the puppeteer has been so beguiling.

Laura Albert and Savannah Knoop first met at a family Christmas dinner in Noe Valley, while Savannah was home on a break from boarding school. As was her wont, Albert made a bit of a scene that night, impishly oversharing about the phone-sex business she and Geoffrey Knoop shared. His mother wasn't pleased, but others, including Savannah, goaded Albert on and enjoyed the performance. What's more, Laura and Savannah each recognized in the other a fellow sufferer of an eating disorder. "Later this would become an important thread in our friendship," Knoop writes. "She was the first person whom I could speak to about my closet bingeing, denial, and fasting. Late at night, we would call each other after we'd binged. We would pinpoint what emotion we ate out of."

Knoop remembers devouring the first two JT LeRoy novels, Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, in a single day. Although she had the advantage at the outset of knowing JT wasn't real, she responded to the books as many other readers had: "I thought the writing was beautiful and true no matter who had written it."

For the first book, published in June 2001, JT was said to be shy about revealing himself in a dust jacket author photo, so the writer Dennis Cooper, one of his early encouragers, sent a 1967 photo of Cooper's now-deceased boyhood friend and muse, George Miles, to stand in. (Cooper was not in on the deception at the time.) Both Albert and Knoop would later comment that the boy in that picture looked and seemed like Savannah.

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