Saturday, June 16, 2007

JT Leroy -- Back in the News Again

On December 30 of last year, I did a post here, saying goodbye to the literary scandals of 2006. I listed six of them. Here's the thumbnail sketch I gave of J.T. Leroy:

J.T. Leroy is the pseudonym of writer Laura Albert. Since 1999, Albert has published four books under the name Leroy. She claimed to be a victim of child abuse, a former prostitute who had once been homeless. She also claimed to be HIV positive and transgendered. Her boyfriend's half sister pretended to be J.T. Leroy in public, but beginning in the fall of 2005, rumors surfaced that Leroy was a fictional invention by Albert. It's probably no coincidence that Leroy's first novel, "Sarah," was the story of a 12-year-old boy whose ambition in life was to become a girl lot lizard, or truck stop prostitute. Leroy's phony bio certainly boosted her credibility to write such a novel.

Now, six months later, according to The New York Times, Laura Albert is in Federal District Court in Manhattan, being sued for fraud by a film production company "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."

I read that line and went "Whoa!"

As The Times points out, hiding behind pseudonyms is an old literary tradition. The first classic novel I read on my own, Jane Eyre, was written by Charlotte Bronte under the pseudonym Currer Bell in the mid-nineteenth century. How then can somebody be sued for using a pseudonym?

It turns out that Laura Albert's company, Underdogs Inc., optioned the film rights to Sarah to Antidote International Films Inc., a production company which produced Laurel Canyon. Underdogs was paid $45,000 for the option from 2003 to 2005, and Antidote wants its money back.

Gregory Curtner, attorney for Antidote, gave an opening statement in which he described J.T. Leroy's supposed biography: "The son of a truck-stop prostitute . . . JT Leroy . . . 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."

This moving story intrigued director Stephen Shainberg (director of 2002's Secretary), "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."


Okay, I begin to see where the issue of fraud enters into the picture. This isn't about Albert's pseudonym--this is about her alleged credentials--or biography, if you will--for which Antidote claims she was paid $15,000 per year.

Of course, Eric Weinstein, Albert's lawyer, had a different take on the issue. He claims that Albert "was physically and sexually abused as a child . . . [and] 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."

Do you get the sense that Weinstein is trying to validate Ms. Albert's credentials to write Sarah? In case that strategy doesn't work (she didn't work as a truck stop prostitute after all), Weinstein argues that the contract with Antidote was for the book Sarah, not J.T. Leroy's biography.

He further argues that, after Ms. Albert was outed by New York magazine in late 2005, director Shainberg decided to mix the fictional Sarah with the story of the real life Albert. However, that required Albert grant him the rights to HER backstory, which she refused to do. Weinstein claims that her refusal is the real reason Antidote has dragged Albert into court.

I plan to follow this trial. Stay tuned . . .

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