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?

To some, Albert and Knoop's ruse, however fascinating, had always seemed suspicious. The novelist and University of San Francisco creative writing teacher Stephen Beachy went public with his misgivings in an October 2005 New York magazine article, and they were confirmed the following January by reporter Warren St. John in the New York Times.

The cognoscenti called it a hoax. Albert, in an interview with the Paris Review later that year, called it "a veil upon a veil — a filter." Beachy, in his sleuthing exposé, had called it a lifestyle. Maybe that nuanced take was the most perceptive, and had something to do with how things work in San Francisco.

"Savannah, I presume, is probably better able to get on with being Savannah after writing this book," says the Chronicle's executive Datebook editor David Wiegand, who never met Knoop but did work with Albert in her authorial capacity as JT. "I think that while New York was a bit aghast about the whole JT masquerade — or at least, New York media — people seemed to take it more in stride around here when the truth broke. ... I think people found it intriguing and moved on a bit."

"I do think the story matters to San Francisco, a place where people often come or stay in order to reinvent themselves," Beachy says now. "But as a story about how a girl gains a sense of power and entitlement by living as a boy, Savannah's insights are pretty shallow. There's a huge community here, including many writers, who are living and examining gender roles in really complicated ways." 

He allows that Knoop's memoir was inevitable, and that, given her relatively passive role in the construction of JT LeRoy, her role in her own book is inherently sympathetic. "Getting sucked into a surreal adventure involving Asia Argento, cross-dressing, and glamour shots would be a pretty hard path to say 'No' to, I think, for many curious 19-year-olds, especially in the face of such a master manipulator as Laura. ... The book is most interesting, I think, for its glimpses into the mind and behavior of Laura. This will certainly not be the last word on the subject. I can't imagine that Laura would ever let somebody else have the last word."

More than a few people say they want to know what's next from Laura Albert. Last Gasp publisher Ron Turner points out that he still sells quite a few copies of the third JT LeRoy novel, Harold's End, and he'd be glad to publish Albert again. "Laura got hit with the same stick that they used to hit James Frey with," he says. "Which is a shame, 'cause that's a real fraud."

As for Albert herself, on the subject of Knoop's book, at least at the moment, she's staying mum. Phone and e-mail requests to confirm or elaborate on the comments attributed to her by the New York Post yielded only a simple e-mail reply, a backhanded compliment: "Savannah Knoop is a very talented designer. Hope that answers your questions." The note is signed "Laura" but the sender is identified as JT LeRoy. Later, cordial afterthought apologies for not being of any more help come from the same address, but still no real comment.

Readers of Girl Boy Girl will have to decide for themselves whether it's self-serving or self-asserting when Knoop writes, for instance, that "Laura was always censoring my words, vigilantly guarding my true desires and voice." The truth is, Knoop doesn't have the disposition to write the sort of tell-all on Laura Albert that some readers might have hoped for, but that, in part, is precisely why Albert used her.

Knoop hadn't slept for days, but this time it wasn't from worrying. This happens, she said, when she's being productive. Like with the book. In this case, her production was a late-October fashion event and book signing at the Lincart Gallery on Market.

With bottles of beer or cups of wine in hand, visitors milled, chatting and anticipating. A flat-screen TV on the wall played Alfred Hitchcock's mistaken-identity chase thriller, North by Northwest. Exotic, urbane music floated down from the ceiling.

On the threshold between shame and titillation, Knoop had assembled a handful of evidently unabashed sexy-goofball models, and attired them in virgin-white underthings — with veils and straps and translucent mesh and no shortage of visible skin. They took turns getting blindfolded and swinging a bat at a big furry baseball piñata, to nervous cheers from the 50-strong crowd. How could it not be cathartic? She was Laura-less, and making a scene of her own.

Now Knoop has a book with her name on it, and, between its covers, a version of the story she says is hers. Does that make her a writer? As such, her future prospects may depend, at least in part, on Girl Boy Girl's success. And on whatever balance she strikes between that and her budding career in clothing design.

What's not in the book is what went on between Albert and Knoop during the course of the past three years, the post-JT wedge that pried them apart. Was that the book itself? Or — let's just say it — is their apparent standoff just another improvised public stunt? For now, there's no telling. But in any case, Knoop has made some good headway on that life experience.

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