BARRY GRAHAM, Scottish author, journalist, Zen monk in U.S. Books include THE BOOK OF MAN (an American Library Association best book of the year), THE WRONG THING (finalist for SPINETINGLER MAGAZINE best novel of the year), WHEN IT ALL COMES DOWN TO DUST (a MYSTERY PEOPLE best book of the year) and KILL YOUR SELF: LIFE AFTER EGO, an Amazon Kindle bestseller in the Zen category.

Heckling Laura Albert/J.T. Leroy

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Last night I went to Disjecta, an arts center in Portland, and heckled Laura Albert, who became famous under the pseudonym J.T. Leroy by pretending to be a sexually-abused, H.I.V.-infected teenage boy, when in fact she was a middle-aged, middle class white woman. (If you’re unfamiliar with the story, click here.)

I hadn’t planned to heckle. I hadn’t even planned to go to the event, feeling no need to pay $25 for a ticket to be lied to. But, despite the organizers’ claim that “new readers have never stopped coming to Laura’s writing, and her books have continued to sell and win praise and admiration internationally,” it turned out that so few people were interested in going that they had to offer to put people on the guest list just to make up the numbers. Even so, there were plenty of empty seats, and at least a dozen people left during the event. 

It was a freakshow. Albert was onstage with two Portland writers, Kevin Sampsell, the moderator, and Arthur Bradford, who was taken in by her scam and is now an apologist for her. Bradford said that all writers are self-absorbed and full of self-doubt (speak for yourself, white man). He managed to find what he thought was one sentence of good writing in one of her books.

Although Sampsell was the moderator, he didn’t actually get to moderate; Albert ignored his questions and rambled interminably. She compared herself to the protagonist of the rock opera Tommy, who becomes deaf, blind and mute as a result of childhood trauma, and she declared that kids living under bridges were “my people.” She didn’t explain why.

I was reminded of a scene in the Cronenberg film Videodrome. One of the characters, Brian O’Blivion, takes part in a talk show on TV, but he refuses to appear in person, instead opting to appear on closed circuit T.V., so that he can “be on T.V. on T.V.” The host asks a question, the other guests answer, and then the question is put to the T.V. set, and O’Blivion responds…

But it’s not a response, because it turns out that O’Blivion is dead, and that we’re watching a recording. And Laura Albert’s monologues were so unrelated to the questions she was supposed to be answering that it might as well have been a video playing onstage.

There was supposed to be an intermission, followed by a Q. and A., but, with Albert rambling, piling lie upon fantasy and wrapping them in evasion, Sampsell announced that time was running short, and suggested skipping the intermission. At that point, I called out, “Will we get to ask questions, or do we just sit here and get lied to all night?” Albert said there would be questions, then went on talking.

I got up and went to the front of the stage, and asked the following questions, which I had written in my notebook:

  • You said tonight that by going to school and studying creative writing in order to get published, Arthur Bradford cheated more than you did by pretending to be J.T. Leroy. Are you saying that the only way for a writer who didn’t go to school to get published is to lie about who they are, creating a tragic persona in order to con people into helping them?
  • You’ve said tonight that you worked helplines, were sexually abused, a ward of the state… Why should we believe that any of your claims are true?
  • You said tonight that you were offered a million dollars to write a memoir, but that you turned it down. Which publisher made the offer? Who was the acquiring editor?
  • You said tonight that your writing is “authentic,” that it stands by itself and has endured. Why, then, are there so many empty seats tonight? If the quality of your work is to be judged by people’s interest in your writing rather than your fake persona, don’t those empty seats, and the fact that many people here didn’t pay to attend, say something about the irrelevance of your work?

Albert ignored these questions. “I said at the start that I’m a liar,” she laughed. She said that she had recently done a reading in Japan in front of a thousand people. I asked her where, and when, and who had organized it. She didn’t answer. She said she had done an event with Alice Walker. I asked where, and when. She didn’t answer. She went back to rambling, comparing herself to Charles Dickens (she didn’t seem to know that Dickens actually was in a workhouse as a child). She declared that her life is about “service.” She said that it is the right of a privileged white person to write about people suffering poverty and abuse, even though no one had suggested that it wasn’t. She compared her lying about her identity to Chuck Palahniuk’s not revealing he was gay.

When she said that all fiction is about deception, I couldn’t restrain myself. “You are a disgrace to the art of fiction,” I shouted.

Afterward, I was told that she had quietly threatened to leave the stage in response to my questioning her. I would have been happy if she had. When I left, she was signing books and raccoon penis bones, and posing for pictures with her few remaining acolytes.