Saturday, June 23, 2007

When Is Your Delusion Reality?

In the wake of a ruling against author Laura Albert, who created a fictional persona (JT LeRoy) and wrote an autobiographical novel based on JT’s life as a male prostitute, I find myself wondering how this will impact the writing community… and sadly, I don’t think it will have much impact at all.

To writer Laura Albert, her alter ego was a psychological necessity, but to jurors, the fictitious male prostitute JT LeRoy was a fraud. A Manhattan jury decided Friday that Albert had defrauded a production company that bought the movie rights to an autobiographical novel marketed as being based on LeRoy's life.
The federal jury, after a short deliberation, awarded $116,500 to Antidote International Films Inc…

In bizarre testimony punctuated by tears and laughter, Albert told jurors during the trial that she had been assuming male identities for decades as a coping mechanism for psychological problems brought on by her sexual abuse as a child.
To her, she said, LeRoy was real.
But Curtner (Antidote’s lawyer) said Albert stepped over a line by signing contracts and obtaining copyrights under the phony name…

The article also mentions how Albert had friends dress up in disguise and pose as JT LeRoy at signings, and how she staged calls to a psychiatrist.

I’ve been aware of the case for a while. The information I do have prompts me to agree with the judge in this case. I’m stepping into my reader/consumer shoes when I saw that.

In every transaction that occurs, there’s a certain level of trust involved between buyer and seller. I trust that the grocer has not peed on the vegetables before he puts them out in the produce section and sells them. I trust the cook at the restaurant isn’t spitting in the soup. When those trusts are violated it’s pretty clear that the consumer has a right to take offense. However, when authors or artists lie in order to promote work, it isn’t as black and white. I went to amazon, and the cover blurb for one book - ’long may he have the courage to remember’ - underscores how this book has been marketed: As reality.

The “reality” of JT in Ms. Albert’s mind does not make him actually real. Return to amazon and scroll down to see the tags people associate with the book - faker, dishonest, media scam all on the list.

I think people do have a right to feel betrayed, and one of the things I particularly don’t like about it is that it calls into question the integrity of every other author. When authors such as James Frey and Ms. Albert are revealed as frauds the response from readers can include feelings of betrayal and outrage that people will blatantly lie for commercial gain.

Sadly, it would seem Ms. Albert has a knack for fiction, and it’s a shame she didn’t market her work as such. However, it also makes sense. Nonfiction writers are often better paid than novelists, and I doubt there would have been interest in a movie if the words “based on a true story” couldn’t be slapped down on the front.

Why? Truth has a power that fiction rarely matches. When we read fiction we can retreat to a spot in our minds where we can separate it out, and reassure ourselves with the knowledge that this never really happened. The most inspiring thing I ever write is unlikely to match the truth of the courage of a person such as Terry Fox, and the most devastating thing I write can’t match the depths of pain and rage I feel reading a story like this, where a father rapes his two-year-old daughter. I could kill the bastard myself.

No, no matter what, no matter how skilled we are as authors, the knowledge that a story is true makes it impact us differently. These authors who defraud the public understand that, and then abuse that knowledge through intentional deceit.

One thing from the article that gets me - "They made my life public domain. It's about commerce," she said. "They're going to try to hijack my copyrights, which is like stealing my child."
What I want to know is how that’s any different than what she did, not just to the production company, but to her publisher and the reading public?


Anonymous said...

So when she says it's like stealing her child... Is that a makey up child or a real one?

Everywhere we go we have fakes. I'm just relieved she was found out and flushed out.

This isin't a reflection on writers. It is on criminals though.
If a copper can be crooked that doesn't mean all of them are, right?

Sandra Ruttan said...

I agree it doesn't mean all writers are bad, but it certainly does call people into question. I wonder if people find themselves hesitating to pick up autobiographies from lesser known people now. I certainly would find myself wondering if this is another fraud. And if I spent money on one of these books I'd be choked.

As to her child being fake or real, well, I guess that depends on whether or not we accept her delusions as reality. I think there's a case for arguing she's certifiable.