“An artist is someone who produces things that people don’t need to have but that he – for some reason – thinks it would be a good idea to give them.” —-Andy Warhol
Did we need JT Leroy? I think in some ways, I did.
First the statistics, the numbers to set the scene. I was thirty-three years old and living in San Francisco after seven years in Manhattan. I was dating a twenty-two year old bartender whom I shall call “T.” He was half japanese with a handsome face and a tattoo around his neck in gothic lettering, “to thine own self be true.” We were hanging out, eating burritos in the Mission, arguing most of the time as a stand-in for a more mature style of flirting. He would come over to my apartment and we would play Mad Libs. We would go out dancing and people would walk up to us, amazed, and say, “you two are the coolest couple!” But we weren’t a couple, and I think that most of the extraordinary compliments you get in San Francisco are amplified by rampant ecstacy use.
I am post corporate job, post internet boom, post ten year long live-in boyfriend. I am trying to get T to team up with me. I want to dress like a ninja and throw down some grafitti late at night, learn some spray-painting skills to add to my creative soul-resume. There are no expectations of door-opening. Of flower-giving. No ass-kissing or ingratiation. It is a vampiric attraction, some sort of oxygen rich blood that I believed wasn’t in my veins anymore.
It’s February in San Francisco. On that day in my journal I write something about “saving yourself before attempting to save the world.” T and I get together. We debate. I psychoanalyze him. We do his laundry. We get a reggae movie from the 70s. We discuss his future. He irons his shirts. I give him a backrub. I ask for one back and he says he’s not in the mood. I call him a bitch and tell him he’s not nurturing enough. He says, jah irie, i and i, mon. I say, fire’ll burn ya.
At lunch we discuss my future. I tell him that I should write a short story collection and he should pose as me. I am a white, midwestern woman. He has the cool, ultra young bi-racial thing going on but we would ramp it up and he would be an eleven year old trannie heroin addicted prostitute. I say this as a joke. He says, “How do you know about that?”
About what? He starts to laugh.
This was when he told me that his friend Savannah had been posing as JT Leroy for the last three years. Flying to NYC, acting weird, handing out raccoon penis bones. I’d met her at her place on Natoma…a collegiate, post-hippy loft space on a bad alley. The perfect club house for a rag-tag group of future fashion designers, artsy types, clubbers, et cetera. Savannah is skinny, tiny and androgenous. Sweet and quick to dart off on her bike. T crashes at her place when he gets kicked out of other places.
I know that he felt bad about telling me his friend’s secret, especially one that has taken him in when he has been in need. I feel bad for him for having told me, that he knows he’s impetuous with his words and quick to sell out a friend to impress me. I am sort of freaked out by the fact that I know this, but I never tell anyone the details of what I know.
So now, it’s almost four years later and the New York Times has come out with the shocking! Shocking! Revelation! that JT Leroy is a collection of a few people, none of which is anything like the character of JT Leroy. Leroy is in fact a man, and a woman, and a girl, and publicists, and publicity, a written words, and photographs, and a band. Leroy is a lifestyle brand. You read the book, now get the raccoon penis bone! Leroy is a weirdo, harassing famous authors and playing his faked therapist sessions for them on the phone. People: this is an art project, this is a spectacle worthy of Warhol’s Factory. This is performance art and I LOVE IT. If James Frey could so something half-way as interesting, or could find someone to ghost write his books who is actually a fantastic writer, perhaps I would love him too. But I don’t. His fifteen minutes of fame are of the lackluster sort, in my opinion.
It is yet another Roshomon-esque moment in modern culture. We can send a man to the moon, but this truth thing sure is hard, Huh?
I haven’t spoke to T in probably two years. I just finished my MFA and I thank him for the material. The truth (whatever it is) is often stranger than fiction. I did, however, a few months ago, think that I saw him out of the corner of my eye. He had more tattoos, a cap on, he was walking with a young girl, pushing and pulling her down the street, and it reminded me of that seesaw energy we had together.
“I’d asked around 10 or 15 people for suggestions. Finally one lady friend asked the right question, ‘Well, what do you love most?’ That’s how I started painting money.”—-Andy Warhol