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Thursday, June 21, 2007

JT Leroy and Other Literary Frauds
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?
--Jeremiah 17:9

The New York Times has an article today about the ongoing civil trial of Laura Albert, otherwise known as JT Leroy. (If you don't know the backstory of JT Leroy, check out Stephen Beachy's Who is the Real JT Leroy?, published in the 10/17/05 issue of New York, which pretty much sums up the whole ugly affair.)

The Times mentions that Albert used a fake Southern accent to impersonate Leroy over the phone (sometimes to other authors, including Dennis Cooper, Mary Gaitskill and Mary Karr), including in an 11/26/01 interview on NPR's Fresh Air. (The interview is supposed to be archived here, but curiously reads: "Due to an agreement with the guest, the audio for this interview is unavailable.")

I immediately thought of Anthony Godby Johnson, another literary hoax whose plot parallels JT Leroy. Anthony, the sexually abused and AIDS-afflicted child, was the creation of a middle-aged woman (she went by Vicki Johnson-- her real name was either Vicki Fraginals or Joanne Victoria Fraginals-Zackheim) who wrote his "autobiography," A Rock and a Hard Place: One boy's triumphant story. Vicki also liked to talk on the phone-- her chats with (and subsequent discovery of fraud by) author Armistead Maupin led to his (very cool) 2000 novel, The Night Listener.

The James Frey case fits in here too, as does Stephen Glass, The New Republic fabulist who later saw his story hit the big screen in 2003's Shattered Glass. (As did Clifford Irving, who produced a fabricated biography of Howard Hughes, in the recently released Richard Gere movie The Hoax, though Irving insists, in this New Yorker article, that his hoax was "for the adventure" and so entirely different.)

Binjamin Wilkomirski, in his 1996 "autobiography" Fragments (which is actually a well-written book and a pleasure to read), describes his childhood as a holocaust survivor. The only problem is that Wilkomirski is actually Bruno Grosjean, a gentile Swiss orphan who was adopted by a wealthy couple in Zurich. To bolster his story, Grosjean relied on the testimony of Laura Grabowski, a holocaust survivor who claimed to have known him from internment camps. The only problem was that Grabowski too was a fraud. Grabowski (nee Lauren Rose Willson, also a gentile) hadn't gone so far as to author a book about her experience as a childhood survivor of the Holocaust, but had written (under the name Lauren Stratford) Satan's Underground, a 1988 memoir detailing her experience as a survivor of Satantic ritual abuse. Oi vey.

It's not that literary hoaxes don't have their basis in the canon. Choderlos de Laclos' Les Liasons Dangereuses (1782) is ostensibly a collection of real letters (rather than an epistolary novel) published by an invented editor as a moral tale for the public. Benjamin Constant's Adolphe (1816) purports to be a diary that Constant has found and edited. The same is true of Mikhail Lermentov's A Hero of Our Time (1839). In the introduction to 1862's The House of the Dead (also titled Memoirs From the House of the Dead or simply House of the Dead), Dostoyevsky claims that the book is actually found document, not authored but only edited by himself. (If you can think of any other books whose writers deny authorship, let me know in the comments.)

The difference seems to be one of ego. While de Laclos, Constant, Lermentov and Dostoyevsky deny authorship of the work, the hoaxers claim so much authorship that they try to become their characters. But this is an entirely sympathetic view. Rather than pathology, it's probably simply mercenary-- non-fiction consistently outsells fiction. A Million Little Pieces would never have been picked for Oprah's Book Club had it been published as fiction. Pushing aside literary games of identity and authorship, these modern hoaxers are playing only for the money.

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