Thursday, January 21, 2010

JT LeRoy and the Narrative of Abuse

Between Oprah’s tears over James Frey’s memoir, and a subsequent national moment of betrayal over the discovery that nonfiction writers sometimes lie, the fake stories told by Frey overshadowed the more complex lies in the stories of JT LeRoy and Nasdijj, who were revealed as frauds almost simultaneously. Nasdijj, it turned out, wasn’t a Native American who’d cared for orphans with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, but a white former writer of gay S & M porn, Tim Barrus. JT LeRoy wasn’t a homeless and abused street kid, but a middle aged mother named Laura Albert. Although Frey’s compulsion to change the details of his girlfriend’s suicide may have some fascinating psychological implications — if there actually was a girlfriend and if there actually was a suicide -- his compulsion to exaggerate his prison time and his general badness is a predictable enough marketing ploy; “privelege” is unfashionable enough, but its imaginary opposite — not poverty, but degradation — can belong to anyone. Frey took obvious pleasure in becoming The Monster. “I am an Alcoholic and I am a drug Addict and I am a Criminal. I am missing my front four teeth. I have a hole in my cheek that has been closed with forty-one stitches. I have a broken nose and I have black swollen eyes… That’s what I am and I don’t blame the Nurse for not wanting to touch me.” Tim Barrus’s performance as a damaged Native probably offered similar pleasures, as easy as saying it was so: I’m your Scapegoat, your Angry Minority, your Mysterious Other, all wrapped up in one oddly white package. Frey’s attempts to garner street cred through his detailed examinations of his own supposedly sordid life, however, and Nasdijj’s attempt to gain authenticity with imaginary native bloodlines were milder versions of Laura Albert’s creation of a West Virginia, white trash, child prostitute identity.

Milder, shorter-lived, and considerably less inhabited. Even after the New York Times revealed that the actress who played the part of JT in public was her boyfriend Geoffrey’s half-sister, Savannah Knoop, she kept emailing and telephoning, and even publishing as JT. Even after Geoffrey confessed to the Times that it had all been a scam, she was still on that phone, still talking in that phony southern accent. Geoffrey suggested to the Times that Laura might never confess. “For her it’s very personal. It’s not a hoax. It’s a part of her.” Laura did confess, however, in a Paris Review interview in which she spun new stories designed to demonstrate the degree to which JT was a part of her. JT wasn’t a hoax, but an organic response to her own abusive childhood. She’d felt the need to create male identities and phone identities since she was a child, she explained. Her mother was a playwright, and Laura helped with the shows. She would arrange her bathroom mirrors as she performed, in order to create a fantastic world of infinite reflections. She told stories as a child, stories about boys in trouble. She made prank phone calls and pretended to be a Swedish exchange student, Katrin, that all the boys fell in love with over the phone… until Laura could no longer maintain the ruse and killed her off with cancer. When her household became crazy and violent and full of sexually inappropriate men, she began calling emergency help hotlines -- as a boy. In the latest version, it seems that Laura’s whole life was a prelude to becoming JT LeRoy.

“…there was a time when I knew this supposed JT very well,” Dennis Cooper wrote in his blog after the hoax was revealed, “years when I talked to him on the phone every day, and was told by him (as he later told innumerable people) that I was the most important person in his life, his saviour, the person he loved the most in the world, etc, etc. That JT Leroy was dying of AIDS, covered with karposi sarcoma and so many scars from the abuse he'd received and the self-abuse he'd inflicted on himself that he couldn't go outside because people stared at him, had multiple personality disorder and would call me at all hours of the day and night talking for hours in his various personalities, was seriously addicted to heroin, claimed he had been so horribly abused that he had never developed sexually and had useless genitals that were the size of an infant's… claimed to have never attended school in his life or have had any education whatsoever, was constantly threatening to either commit suicide or find some s&m master who would kill him and expected me to spend hours talking him out of letting this happen, and so on and so on.”

JT’s strident and melodramatic performance of “pain” also attracted others who were in pain. “I was drawn to JT like a flittering moth to a summer porch light,” one self-described mark e-mailed Susie Bright. He was a middle-class gay man in Chicago who was rearing his adopted disabled son, a boy the same age as JT. “I began emailing JT due to my own history as a sexual assault survivor and part-time counselor to adult male survivors of childhood sexual abuse.” JT emailed back immediately, often several times a day. “I was in awe… the famous author was emailing me. I gave these grifters, money, support, ran errands, delivered his books which I usually purchased to visiting authors in Chicago, foolishly provided him with a cellphone for nearly a year and a half.” And yet there was an odd rush to forgive “LeRoy”. Mary Karr, one of his earliest marks herself, wrote that, “Asked to referee the ethical contest between the two writers, I'd call JT Leroy a fine little prankster and Mr. Frey a skunk.” This because JT at least called his books fiction, whereas Frey called his memoir. As a referee, Karr is focussed firmly on the texts, and on the apparently black and white distinctions of truth and fiction in the sentences scrawled on their pages and on their covers.

Frey only had to become The Monster, however, in relation to an imaginary Middle America that still considered junkies novelties. If James Frey was my dream, it would be such an obvious and boring dream I wouldn’t even need to consider it. Laura became the Monster for a jaded urban literary world that had vigorously already located itself outside the mainstream. “Try to turn and face the demon or whoever is attacking you… recognition of the fiend and what it represents is a large part of the solution.” Laura Albert is nastier and more interesting than Frey because JT was like the Evil Twin of every writer and wannabe writer, a caricature of our own monstrous ambitions, megalomania, and secret desire to hobnob with celebrities. Frey tried to peddle his poorly imagined life of degradation as fiction, but nobody was having it, until he told them it was all true. His appropriation of a local car crash, and its victims would have fit neatly into any fiction writers bag of socially acceptable tools, if he only hadn’t claimed to have been the dead girl’s closest friend in “reality”. But Frey wasn’t searching the dark corners of anyone else’s psyche to figure out which of their own desires he could use. He wasn’t creating himself as the exact replica of the lost and abused child wandering the maze of some editor’s maternal instincts or the disturbed and masochistic child feeding another artist’s outlaw persona. The only people involved with Frey’s lies were readers, who may have been misled and slightly disillusioned, but who seem to have emerged from the ordeal of reading his work relatively unharmed. Writer Ayelet Waldman also found Frey “more venal, more absurdly self-aggrandizing, more dangerous,” and Frey’s advice on how to deal with addiction without 12-step programs more horrifying (“If they acted as he did, if they followed his lead, they too could be saved.”) But Waldman never talked JT out of letting some S & M master kill him; Waldman and JT mostly shared child-rearing notes, it seems.

In one interview JT suggested that a bad review of his work might lead him to cut himself. Based on his own fragility, he put others to work; the man from Chicago was one of several confidantes that JT trained to answer his e-mail for him, with instructions on how to write “as JT.” Once found out, Laura would go all out to defend her lies, or to delay, however slightly, the collapse of her fake identity, and the corporation she’d constructed around it, Underdogs Inc. She compared the New York Times’ decision to kill a story they’d contracted from her to blacklisting. Laura also compared herself to Oscar Wilde. “He was a writer and he got murdered for it. It’s a dangerous turf. Sticking your head out to peek with your words and saying this is who I am.” That’s right – saying “this is who I am.” Laura encouraged JT’s supporters to go after Warren St. John and myself. “Please the BEST thing we can do is hit them back!” she e-mailed one supporter, “We cant just sit and let them smack at us. I did that as a child, and I wont do it now. This is fueled by jealous cruelty…”

In terms of the salvation narratives that Waldman found so disturbing in the case of Frey, JT often paid homage to the good doctor, Dr. Owens, whose therapy saved him from his life on the streets -- a doctor, it turns out, who had no ethical problems with giving telephone therapy, without significant face-to-face contact, to a drug addicted, suicidal and homeless minor who worked as a prostitute, a minor who would later raise money for Owen’s Adolescent Treatment Center, because of all that amazing work that they did. In the process, the illusion was created that a world of caring therapists and daily interventions was waiting out there for homeless kids, kids who could even maintain their addicted, hustling lifestyles while receiving the sort of mental health care that is generally only possible if subsidized by healthy insurance plans or trust funds. Real street kids certainly couldn’t act as he did or follow his lead, but the rest of us could reassure ourselves that help was out there, at least for the inordinately gifted.

Nasdijj never contracted AIDS in his memoirs — he had a wife after all and was busy denying that he was gay — but after the success of his first memoir recounting his caretaking for a doomed orphan with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, he chanced upon another doomed Native boy to caretake, and write about, this one with AIDS. Just how much disbelief will we willingly suspend? Frey had one supposed friend from his rehab clinic, “Leonard” who he killed off with complications of AIDS on his book’s final page. That Frey himself never contracted HIV from a dirty needle, an imaginary prison rape, or an infected girlfriend, may only be indicative that AIDS as the cultural narrative of pathetic drama had peaked by the time he was penning his “memoir”, and that our never-ending narratives of addiction, relapse, and recovery had taken its place. Although Laura had been inspired by another fake boy with AIDS, Anthony Godby Johnson, Laura has been adamant that she never claimed to be HIV+ in print. She doesn’t mention her close study of the Godby Johnson case in the Paris Review interview; her decision to cover herself with Kaposi’s is treated like a necessary act of protection, in her latest version, for an actual child, from the advances of predatory older gay writers who keep asking JT to come stay with them. She doesn’t name either Dennis Cooper or Bruce Benderson in the interview, but it’s clear enough who she’s talking about. It’s less clear that what she’s actually doing is protecting the fake identity of a 30-year-old woman.

In the Dream, causality can be so complex as to be indeterminable; we are both one thing and another, neither this nor that; everything is flux. Once, in the mid-90s, when I was teaching writing to homeless kids, it became apparent to several of us who were working with the same boy that he was lying a large portion of the time. People in his life were dropping dead at epidemic proportions, and he himself was being constantly victimized in improbable situations. In the tough competition for attention, among other kids with an endless supply of harrowing life experiences, he had to cheat, to make things up, in order to get not only our attention but our services. He’d staged a drama for one outreach worker’s benefit at an anonymous testing site, where he emerged terribly distraught with the news that he was HIV positive, a “fact” he then used to skip over the waiting list for housing at the agency where I met him. None of this, we realized later, was true. In the world of social services, however, workers become practiced not only in creating hierarchies of abjection — double diagnosis? triple diagnosis? -- but also in understanding lies and exaggerations as measures of distress. His lies understood as “cries for help”, the boy in question wasn’t tossed back out on the streets, or forced to publicly confess his crimes, and probably that was for the best. In that sense, his lies worked for him; they served the most obvious purposes they were designed to serve, and probably several other less obvious “psychological” purposes as well.

And so it goes. Laura Albert’s lies worked for her for 11 years. Although her own adolescence remains murky, it has been reported that she spent time on the streets herself, in New York in the 80s. Street life, whether experienced by those who are born to it or by those who gravitate to it, doesn’t teach people to be nice. It teaches us, instead, that everything we are can be reduced to a core value, which usually isn’t much. Words are weapons, a face is a weapon, sex is a weapon, an HIV diagnosis is a weapon, and every human relationship can become a transaction in the most boring way. Those of us who have learned those lessons at times, might later try to forget them -- because they really don’t make life much fun. Laura’s use of a fake HIV status served as an occasion for several angry commentators to wring their hands over her exploitation of people with HIV — such as JT’s agent Ira Silverberg, who just months earlier had found the idea of such a hoax grand and Warholian. The tactics we use and accept are most times reflections of the range of our possibilities, our economic and/or psychological desperation, and in that sense, I could care less if Laura appropriated my experience as an HIV+ gay man. If anyone else wants to inhabit that particular story as an easily graspable “cry for help”, I’ll gladly look the other way. We don’t, any of us, really have the facts we would need to proclaim her childhood so free of suffering that her insane behavior is somehow not “justified,” because none of the adjectives by which we distinguish each other in America lined up in Laura’s case to denote a sufficiently traumatized person. Obviously, Laura felt she needed to become the most abject person in the world to get the world’s attention.

In the process, she radiated the sort of dark energy that we imagine comes from hell. During my investigation, I spoke to JT/Laura in two long, rambling telephone conversations. The meandering voice on the other end, at turns manipulative, vindictive or seductive, seemed like a caricature of Satan. Marjorie Sturm, a documentary filmmaker working on a film about JT, would later share her boyfriend’s similar impression, as she was preparing to delve back into JT’s world, after a hiatus of several years. He had said he was spooked. “That he feels like we're working against a very dark energy. He said, like some evil or something.” Laurie Stone wondered, “Where did these people get the idea that in order to exist in the public sphere they needed a marketing gimmick that could be turned into a brand? How did they come to feel that acquiring name recognition justified anything it took? Gee, I don’t know. Maybe Satan?” Evil is often imagined as unstable and shapeshifting, while the good is firm and solid and true. In Michelle Remembers (1982), a story of Satanic Ritual Abuse, Satan is described, by Michelle: “His face is more like the fire. You think you see it, and by the time you look hard, it’s already changed… Sometimes all you see are huge legs, and then a minute later you can see a clawlike hand. At other times he’s just a dark space with glistening eyes, or nothing but gigantic steaming nostrils. You never see him all at once — he’s always distorted and he’s not quite substantial, more like a vapor…” He is always changing, and then once she actually sees his face: just empty blackness. “In that dark void Michelle imagined she saw a thousand spiders and snakes, open sores, dripping blood, people with claw marks on them, people with no eyes.” In a similar memoir, Suffer the Child (1989), Jenny says of Satan, “He could be seen only in dim or flickering light.” Or maybe behind Wigs and Sunglasses. But shouldn’t Satan be… wittier? You’re too alive for the perm, Al Pacino’s Satan tells Charlize Theron in The Devil’s Advocate. The funniest line from JT’s oeuvre was delivered when a San Francisco Chronicle reporter showed up at JT and Laura’s door after the story broke. The woman who answered – Laura, I assume -- spoke to the reporter from the landing at the top of the interior stairs, out of sight; she said that Albert and Knoop had moved to Mendocino. "You should get them, because they must be brought down," the woman said.

The unstated layers of irony in that statement display an intelligence and a sophisticated sense of humor rare in JT’s work or in his conversations. At that moment, there seemed to be a hilarious sense of perspective about the evil that takes place in the world, in the media, and JT’s relationship to both. That sense of humor and perspective were usually missing, however. During one of my conversations with JT, he shared with me his own criteria for judging the presence of evil in the world. If somebody spoke ill of Dave Eggers, he told me, he knew that person was evil; he wasn’t joking. Comments like those, interspersed with his tireless monologues about “purity of intent”, To Kill a Mockingbird, and collective identity, served as a complex sort of smoke and mirrors. If the person on the other end of the phone hadn’t really been driven crazy by the abuse of fundamentalist Christians, then what could be the source of such wacky non-sequiters?

Laura now talks about the contrived mishmash of cliches that was JT as a kind of entity that was both a part of her and separate, and that managed to possess Savannah Knoop as well. “At first it was the problem of, I needed a body -- he didn't want to be in my body at all. But then Jeremy really entered her, and her body changed, and there were things that I didn't even have to tell her. It was almost like this realm of the supernatural. There were people who, when they heard that Jeremy wasn't real, they said, ‘That's impossible, 'cause there were things that Savannah knew that were never said ...’ She became JT.”

How possessed she was by the spirit of JT, or how much her brilliant performance relied on his fans’ lack of inclination to look too closely is open to interpretation. “Even trying to give JT a little hug,” the writer Gary Indiana told me during my investigation, describing one particularly monstrous JT event, with velvet ropes and a VIP room for the celebrities, “produced these absolutely calculated shudders of horror, as if the poor thing had been so traumatized at those truck stops s/he never even drove past that another person's touch reactivated gruesome memories of his/her brutal treatment at the hands of Johnny Cash.” Laura’s performances as JT created complicated illusions, not only for others but for herself. While others talk of Satan, Laura talks of God. “God put all the things in place for me to leave and walk on my own, but I never would've done it, because I didn't have faith,” she said in another recent interview. “So I don't doubt that God sent that reporter from the New York Times, even though (the reporter's) intention was not one of compassion and love.” Laura/JT formed a strange corporation of imagery, both empath and sociopath, female and male, Christ and Satan, child and adult, masochist and sadist. Like our political leaders, Laura is now a godly woman who cares; in the latest version, the JT story was a way to expose all of the horrible things that happen to children in institutions, a position that JT didn’t bother to espouse since it was all he could do to recover from his own damage. What JT primarily taught us, through his column in 7x7, was that what an abused street child craved and needed and deserved were luxury skin treatments and designer body scents.

* * *

The rise of the American abuse narrative began in earnest with the publication of Sybil in 1973. Sybil’s torture at the hands of an insane, religious mother was a story of personal crisis and a personal story of triumph, with a contrived finale’; the journalist writing the book needed a happy ending and Sybil had been warned that if she didn’t integrate, her story wouldn’t be written. As transgressive, shocking and “painfully honest” as JT’s stories of torture and child prostitution were, they pale next to the mass-market paperbacks that followed in the wake of Sybil. In books like Prism, Broken Child, Shatter, The Flock, The Healing of Lia, Voices, Suffer the Child, and When Rabbit Howls, harrowing stories were told of the cruelty and sexual torture that gave rise to fragmented personalities. Sybil’s story began an “epidemic” of narratives of abuse and multiplicity, peaking in the late 80s, when stories of Multiple Personality merged with those of Satanic Ritual Abuse.

The stories of Anthony Godby Johnson’s abuse shared characteristics with those of the multiples. It was his policeman father who was at the center of the ring of pedophiles — a sort of Satanic cult with a different set of uniforms -- that was supposed to have raped and tortured him and given him AIDS. Godby Johnson repeated a mantra found over and over again in these biographies and autobiographies – not just the victim’s right to speak, but the victim’s need to speak and the victim’s duty to speak, for all the silenced others in similar positions. What might seem like a profoundly self-interested exercise, primarily concerned with one’s own abuse, one’s own recovery, and one’s own justification for a variety of crimes, was legitimated as a form of collective speaking.

One question that the JT saga doesn’t answer is whether there actually has been a trickle-down effect, in terms of that perceived “right to a voice,” from the middle and upper classes — who have rarely doubted their own entitlement to speak — to the world of the streets. Laura had inherited that belief, as had her partner Geoffrey Knoop; they came from families of the artistically inclined, her mother a playwright and theater critic, his father a filmmaker. Laura is still tossing the idea around that bad people are invested in denying a woman her voice, and that the JT ruse was legitimated by a feminist necessity. Nobody wanted to hear a woman speak it seems — they wanted to hear from gay, androgynous, abuse victims – one of the voices that Laura felt entitled to.

Laura was clearly familiar with the narratives of Dissociative Identity Disorder. Maybe Laura read Prism: Andrea’s World (1985), in which a woman with more than 16 personalities describes being bathed in lye by her father, a story that JT would tell about his own fundamentalist grandfather. Andrea would later burn herself with industrial steam machines, pour oven cleaner or Drano on her hands or in her own vagina; JT told similar stories of the abuse he inflicted on himself. And like JT, whatever she did, Andrea was always understood as a victim and as an addict; she was driven to strangle cats “as an alcoholic is driven to drink.” Maybe Laura read Nightmare (1987), in which one of Nancy Gooch’s 56 personalities, Sunshine Sherry, works as a truckstop prostitute. The truckers might beat Sherry up if they couldn’t make it with her sexually — just how they acted with JT’s truckstop hooker mother, “Sarah” and with the character “based on” JT, Cherry Vanilla. Maybe Laura read The Healing of Lia (1982), in which Lia is befriended by an older, cultivated man named, believe it or not, Quinten LeRoy, who instills in her a love of fine books, music, poetry and ethics -- just as some of JT’s johns would do for him. Maybe Laura read Shatter (1986) in which Kathy’s personality Roxy declares she’s goin’ out West. “I’m gonna be a waitress, where no one is gonna know me.” “In some cheap joint?” asks her therapist. “Sure. As long as I can be left alone.” “Like a truck stop?” “Right!”… “Umm-hmm. Get up on that big truck and ride for miles at night with any guy who picks you up, right?” Although Laura is Jewish, JT, like many multiples, came from a strict Christian background. As in JT’s West Virginia, in Sybil and Prism and When Rabbit Howls, rural America was revealed as a place of psychotic tortures; something horrible was always happening to children in the barn. Maybe Laura read Suffer the Child. “At two Jenny was initiated into a Satanic cult. At eleven, she was ordered to kill.” Like JT, Jenny was pimped out by her mother as a child, and Jenny’s therapist makes a relevant observation. “Karl explained how the telephone seemed to allow the personalities to introduce themselves or to speak their needs from a safe distance. ‘Though,’ he said, ‘it is a bit like having thirty hysterical women know your phone number.’” Kathy in Shatter had a similar relationship to the phone. She “picked up the telephone book, and then the phone, and started dialing. Even when she was depressed, she was usually able to function on the phone; picking it up was like turning an internal switch. She became a public person, a voice on the phone, and a persuasive one too…” Never mind the implications of the Internet; apparently we’re still processing the changes wrought on our mental landscapes by the telephone.

Having more than one identity sometimes worked for the multiples. Said Andrea, “It is important to note that I did not only maintain the ‘appearance’ of a normal working person during these crazy times — I was actually a highly capable and productive worker at whatever I attempted. I could also perform a variety of complex tasks, for example, supervising a staff, administering a budget, meeting with various agencies, and designing new programs.” Multi-tasking, and successful time management strategies combined with the typical existence of at least one fairly ruthless and dominating personality who could close the deal, play hardball, get people to do things for them. In Cameron West’s First Person Plural (1999) he describes an alter named Leif, “tough as a nickel steak”, and in Marcia Cameron’s Broken Child (1995), there is Emily, who would cheat, steal, manipulate and lie to survive, “a human coyote who survived where other life forms withered away.”

“There'd be a really innocent little girl, and a mean guy, and a mean little girl,” Dennis Cooper remembered about JT’s different phone persona. When Asia Argento consulted J.T., while writing the screenplay for The Heart is Deceitful, he would become Roy, "this mean, more masculine person"; it was the only way, Argento said, that JT could be "firm" and "judgmental." That firm and judgmental personality hasn’t gone away with the disappearance of JT. When Marjorie Sturm recently received a phone call from Laura, Laura said that her lawyers were laughing that Marjorie would go ahead with a documentary without Laura’s approval. Laura mentioned that she had the same lawyers who worked for the Rolling Stones, and accused Marjorie of being an opportunistic bottom feeder. “I’m a Jew, and you’re a Jew,” she said, “I will sue you for all you are worth.”

As a basis for interpersonal relationships, a realm of shadows, reflections, mean personalities and constantly mutating lies isn’t very satisfying, but as literature, it can be a thrilling kind of ride. It’s been 30 years since Kathy Acker started mingling her sex work tales with the plagiarized remains of the literary canon to become the darling of the literary avant-garde. Acker considered herself the literary heir to William Burroughs’ extreme subject matter and magical language techniques, and Acker’s graphic, if more metaphorically understood tales of father-rape, abortions, suicides and sado-masochism were mirrored in the tales of the multibiographies. Even the covers of fragmented women were similar. But while the fractured Kathys gracing the Grove editions of her books were powerful and sexy figures, shoving their tattoos at potential readers, the fragmented faces on the covers of Prism and When Rabbit Howls and The Flock were more alarmed and alarming, childlike, cringing and mystified. Acker never bothered to disguise her own monstrous ambition, but disclosed it and analyzed it as part of the larger project. She also always made it clear what passages she’d stolen and from where.

JT served as a bridge between mass market abuse stories and transgressive literature, while supposedly not even sure what “transgressive literature” meant; it’s a term the charming naif reported throwing around in a bookstore one day, to an employee who’d been cruising him; one of the contradictory stories of how he ended up reading Dennis Cooper’s novel Try. Acker’s literary world in the 80s consisted of many of the same people JT would try to latch onto in the 90s — Cooper, Silverberg, Rinaldi, Joel Rose, Eileen Myles -- along with a writer who died before JT could get to him, but whose life JT’s seemed to be a shoddy imitation of, David Wojnarowicz. In his angry and politically overheated memoirs, Wojnarowicz detailed an abusive childhood in New Jersey, a life on the streets as a runaway and child prostitute, his work as a visual artist, and his own disintegration from AIDS. Wojnarowicz was a character who had self-consciously based himself on the model provided by Rimbaud and Genet. Whatever the circumstances of their births, at times shrouded in mystery, these artists had all positioned themselves as outsiders, as trickster figures, and were acutely conscious of the allure those apparent biographies could carry.

Acker once described her interest in what she called “the other tradition” of writing, writing that did what, according to Acker, Poe said a writer should do. “They present the human heart naked so that our world, for a second, explodes into flames. This human heart is not only the individual heart: the American literary tradition of Thoreau, Emerson, even Miller, presents the individual and communal heart as a unity. Any appearance of the individual heart is a political occurrence.” Great writing, she was saying, melts down the solid structures of the world to reveal that our world isn’t safe; that safety isn’t even possible; that death is tangible; and that the interconnected web of organic life, with its freakish eruptions of forms and bizarre modes of consciousness, is infinitely more complex than we could ever describe. The idea of a book composed of reflections and lies covering truths, stories within stories multiplying in an absurd complexity, a constantly mutating book reflecting back at its readers only the parameters of their own soul, a book in which sentences lead down tunnels, bottomless shafts, seeming to open up in the middle to the night air, the stars overhead, moonlight on the sea – the simple idea of such a book is considerably more interesting than the shoddy shape-shifting of Laura/JT. JT’s writing is interesting not because it does any of those things, but because it is itself a freakish mask constructed to hide that world and those feelings. Savannah’s sweet disposition and Geoffrey’s “aw shucks” demeanor were aspects of that mask that made the two of them more sympathetic to many observers; Laura, the dominatrix, always served as the witchy-poo figure. She was the center of an efficient and profitable operation, a sort of fabricating machine, spinning out cliches, but not just any cliches; the ones that influential people in San Francisco, New York, and all across the country, were hungering for. Her success is in part due to the willful gullibility of a readership ready to believe colorful stories about white trash, schizophrenic mommas with coveted lipstick, child-belting southerners, hookers with hearts of gold, and adventurous boy hustlers. The simulation of depth in those books is created by the simple fact of abuse. There are no insights about what the abuse might mean, no evocations of loss or death. The human heart in JT’s books and in his life was never collective, only self-interested.

Interviewing Suzanne Vega, JT once said, “I always hated drag queens, they disgusted me. I always thought they were freaks and gross. I used to hang out with skinheads and they’d go out and beat up fags and then go do tricks themselves. I guess you kind of hate what’s close to you, you know?” Laura knew better than to make JT an angel. The idea that it is fags themselves, closeted or uncomfortable, who mostly fag-bash, is common enough; it comes, in part, from the Frankfurt school’s post-WWII versions of psychoanalysis that saw closeted gay men as primarily responsible for fascism. It is one of those cliches, manufactured by the mental health industry, that has filtered into American culture without ever being sufficiently examined. The sophistication of Laura’s stories was considerable; she was chewing up a world of received ideas and spitting it back out at us.

If we read JT’s biography as Laura’s primary artistic work, one of the subjects with which it speaks with considerable authority is that of dominance and submission. Laura had trained as a dominant, and was often described, by those who believed her to be JT’s unpleasant friend/manager, as bossy. But, like most fascists and fag-bashers, she didn’t only terrorize people; she also charmed them and seduced them. She was very good at getting people to do things for her. She was very good at finding those who would get pleasure from doing things for her. The pleasures of submission aren’t only those of giving up power to a more powerful Other; there is also the pleasure of submitting to one’s own conscience or to one’s desire to be perceived as a good person, helping the less fortunate. There is the pleasure of submitting to an established hierarchy of celebrities. Laura was very good at finding people who would accept whatever story justified their submission – since submitting is probably what they’d wanted to do all along.

Recently, as I was going through a box of old papers, I came across a story called Dominant written by my friend Rick Jacobsen in the mid-90s:

The week in which I was dying my friend Brian officially became a dominant. A dominant attends to the needs of people desperate to feel; in this case, desperate to feel danger, humiliation and pain. Many of his more creative friends made their living this way, so that it was just a matter of time before he joined their ranks. He needed the money and his flair for the dramatic was notable… The week previous, when I was still at home with energy to nod, he pitched his plans: to take out an ad in a free gay weekly, to purchase a crop, an enema bag, a uniform, and to stop shaving his balls. His enthusiasm exhausted me. And it made me a little blue; I knew I’d never work again. Brian offered to bathe me, which I declined and soon he was gone.

Later, “Brian” comes back.

I drifted in and out as Bri rubbed my feet and divulged excited details of sessions of dominance with his first clients. Harry wanted cop-play with a full cavity search. Charlie, infantile, got spanked. Fred’s desire was to be immobilized with phone cord. And Jim, just rape. I asked about bruises and Brian said many, but no blood, no sweat, good tips and call-backs. They all got what they asked for, but it was only Brian who could turn it all in for a bag of groceries.

Rick’s story was autobiographical, his voice a ghost from another time; he died in 1996, from AIDS, around the time that JT was supposed to be living on the streets. I wondered about this “Brian”. I imagined him as a dashing, dangerous, and romantic figure.

A few days later, my partner Jonathan picked up the story. He commented on how well Rick had captured Darrell’s body movements. For a moment, I was confused. Darrell? Oh, of course. “Brian” was in fact based on a friend of ours. He was a writer and an artist too; I remembered Darrell doing an impersonation of Lucille Ball chatting with Merv Griffin on his talk show. Gracias, Merv. Darrell lived in a storefront across from the projects, Valencia Gardens; maybe the romantic aura of poverty added to the experience of Darrell’s clients. Darrell had some weird dental chair he’d purchased at a wholesale medical supply store and all manner of scary implements. It wasn’t as if I’d forgotten that Darrell had worked as a sadistic escort, or that I’d forgotten that he was Rick’s best friend. One summer we were always driving around with Darrell in a 1968 Ford Falcon convertible, a car possessed by Satan. We used to eat cheap Salvadorean food at Panchita’s, and one night he got sick after eating some pot brownies, and Jonathan and I spent the evening cleaning up his vomit. As I’d read the story, I’d suspended my real world experiences; the image of a “dominant” didn’t gel with the real thing I’d known. The only other dominant I’d known was May, the “old friend” of Jonathan’s Auntie Vera, who’d whipped white men back in the 50s; by the time I knew her she was getting close to 90. The word “dominant” didn’t bring either May or Darrell to mind, most of the time. This is how language and images work perhaps: the mythic archetypes, which are grandiose, eclipse the specific realities, which are familiar to the point of banality. It’s not that Darrell wasn’t charming; he certainly had a dramatic flair. He tried to cloak himself with mystery sometimes, but he would never seem dangerous or romantic to me. I knew him too well.

The fantasy world of a dominant’s client can turn the real horror and boredom of something like a rape or a cop’s cavity search into a romantic image. We can find the face of God anywhere; even something as banal as “shit” can be turned into a magic cipher, a symbol of danger and darkness. The fantasy world of JT’s readers could turn Laura’s poorly imagined version of life on Polk Street into stock footage. Those streets for JT were never real places, physical locales where he might have made friends, shared stories, been witnessed. They were dreams. Night is falling on Polk Street… The image of a waif with girly hands and no adam's apple going on violent rampages with skinheads — a relic of 80s San Francisco in any case — was another lapse in plausibility that only seemed to reaffirm the willing suspension of disbelief all the more. How could we not believe that it is tranny youth themselves who are most disgusted by drag queens, and who routinely participate in the violence our society sanctions against effeminate men?

Laura’s JT identity was born in the spaces between telephones and Internet connections, born in a dream of white trash West Virginia and raised on a dream of Polk Street -- a neighborhood where it is obvious both what has been separated from society in the imagination and what has been completely integrated with it in reality: drugs, prostitution, and poverty. Is it possible to write or to read about drugs or prostitution or poverty without creating an imaginary world that seems so much more exciting than the real thing? Is it possible to experience drugs or prostitution or poverty without creating an imaginary world that seems so much more exciting than the real thing? Maybe a game of hide and seek with mystery is a necessary diversion. Otherwise the world is too trite and relentless to keep our attention; we have to dress it up with magic uniforms. Maybe it’s the same way that hip hop lyrics make standing on the corner selling crack seem like a continual thrill, when the actual crack dealers you see on Mission Street seem bored out of their minds. Maybe it’s the way that I could read about a neighborhood filled with crack dealers in the newspaper, and I’d immediately picture a street where night was always falling, neon lights blinking, cars racing past, gunshots sounding from abandoned buildings. But when I lived on 18th Street, and walked past the crack dealers every day on the way to the BART station they were always so polite. Was I looking? they always asked. No, no, just skinny and tired, not strung out and in need of a fix.

Like Laura, I was a writer born in 1965, a child of the middle class who found himself at home, in the 90s, in San Francisco’s pre-dotcom culture of “transgressive” writers, runaway gay children, outreach workers, and sex worker/artists. Like JT, my first agent was Henry Dunow. Like JT, my second agent was Ira Silverberg, my agent during the time that JT hit it big, as Ira was, for a moment, considered the best agent for “dark” or “edgy” or “queer” fiction. Like Laura, my partner attended Lowell High in the 80s – before Jonathan dropped out, an actual gay teen spending time in the sorts of institutions that JT would pretend to. Like Laura, I had a crush on Aquaman as a child. Like JT, and not unlike myself, Laura is a kind of mystic; like JT, and not unlike myself, Laura believes in her own destiny; Laura’s destiny became mine through the circumstances that brought us together, as pursuer and pursued. OK, so maybe Laura had created an evil destiny. Maybe I had too. I can recognize in Laura my secret, monstrous ambition, as a writer. I can recognize in JT my own tendency to exaggerate my aura of street cred, to make use of the most sordid elements of my own history to the exclusion of all others. I can recognize the easy way that one can spin a romantic aura, by controlling information. Simple omissions can do wonders. Condensation and elision can make most any life seem hard and fascinating, and I know I’ve used that stylistic technique to my own advantage. In the process, how do I mask the psychological operations, perhaps less sympathetic but more interesting, that draw middle class children, like myself and Laura Albert, into lives in closer proximity to the streets, and all the romance promised by homelessness, drugs, and prostitution?

* * *

Gullibility is not exactly a moral issue. Being conned does not make anyone a bad person. We’ve all been made fools of, humiliated, certainly; it’s how we grow up, transformed from trusting do-gooders into jaded bitches, each and every one of us. Once, in 1991, in Uruguay, I spent an evening being robbed. It was a long, drawn-out process, which involved my being held hostage in my hotel room, and it lasted late into the night. The punchline to this tiresome story is that it was revealed to me, at the end of the ordeal, that I’d been cowering in the face of a toy gun. My face-off with Death had been rendered absurd and entirely a mental construct, like JT, a hoax or a prank perhaps. At the time, however, it felt like the low point of my life, and maybe it was.

I lost some money on that night, but more importantly, I was thrown into a kind of ego despair like I’d never before experienced. Having been a victim, and a fool, having let some stranger psychologize me and get inside my head so that he could make off with the only thing he really wanted from me — my American dollars — left me feeling physically ill and mentally tormented for weeks, a paranoia that lasted through Brazil, and into Colombia. At times, I identified with the man who’d ripped me off. At times, I filled my head with revenge fantasies, plots to track the man down and kill him. At times I did what I’m doing right now: imagining “it”, the event, the big con, as an opportunity for learning. What else could I do? I could learn not just the easy lessons about “the world”, and how bad it is, and how duplicitous people are, but the hard lessons about myself. By examining the false beliefs and assumptions that had allowed me to get into the mess, by examining the lies the thief told me, a web of contradictory stories that pointed in a multitude of directions simultaneously, sowing the sort of confusion that could only be stabilized by my own projections and assumptions — I could understand myself a little bit better, and “grow” in whatever necessary way, from a naïve young man, into a jaded bitch.

I imagine that JT had the extreme psychological effect on many of his supporters that the Uruguayan thief had on me. I recognize the way some of his marks apologized for him, rationalized the behavior, dismissed it as a valuable prank, publicly displayed their good humor at the process of having been made a fool. JT also made people complicit -- as JT was hitching himself to every rising star he could find, a lot of people never unhitched themselves from JT for the same reason. Many saw their own ambitions mirrored by the meteoric rise of the wünderkind. What is more interesting to me are the very specific projections JT made use of. Maybe most of us aren’t as invested in bonding with teenagers who fantasize about being murdered as Cooper, or as invested in the notion of our own street cred as John Waters or Nan Goldin, who blurbed his books with proclamations of his “authenticity”. Perhaps not all of us are as thrilled as Joel Rose by the prospect of “participating in the formation of a talent.” And only those of us who have achieved some measure of success ourselves can possibly be encouraged by the prevalent idea in America that talent rises to the top, even if it’s been tortured and pimped out by its mother. Or especially if its been tortured and pimped out by its mother.

So what did we want to believe in? Did we long for another white hero, legitimated by their oppression? Are we particularly fond these days of an image of Americans, any Americans, as tortured victims? Could it be true that as the American empire was rising, uncontested in power globally, its population was coming to feel more and more victimized, or to express that victimization to greater degrees than ever before? It is fair to say that we, Americans, are also victims of the American empire, some of us more than others; some of us much, much more than others. But an impulse that was born in the 60s, as a socially and politically understood need to listen to our own oppressed, to make space for our own people to “speak truth to power”, and to understand that “the personal is political,” has been seemingly hijacked by way of abuse narratives that provide before/after role models, while depicting an imaginary degree of social mobility.

I remember ACT UP meetings in the early 90s, where argumentative points were sometimes preceded by a speaker’s declaration of their medical status. Positives were understood to have more authority than negatives, an AIDS diagnosis trumped the asymptomatic, and who could deny the palpable power of a speaker who declared he had zero t-cells and didn’t expect to live through the month? That man’s proximity to death vibrated in that room with a real intensity. Writers of that era, who shared that proximity to death, understood that power and sometimes used it to great effect. “Sometimes I come to hate people because they can’t see where I am,” wrote David Wojnarowicz, in Memories That Smell Like Gasoline. “I’ve gone empty, completely empty and all they see is the visual form… I am a stranger to others and to myself and I refuse to pretend that I am familiar or that I have history attached to my heels. I am glass, clear empty glass. I see the world spinning behind and through me. I see casualness and mundane effects of gesture made by constant populations. I look familiar but I am a complete stranger being mistaken for my former selves…”

We like to think that death and suffering have something to teach us, and they do, certainly. Of course dull and inarticulate and mean-spirited and delusional people suffer and die too. And fairly quickly, those of us who are granted the right to display our self-righteous indignation in public learn how to use it for own ego ends. We learn what power we might accrue, by defining ourselves in terms of our most “oppressed” characteristics; the booby prize of identity politics. “As an HIV+ gay man…” I learned I could precede my arguments in certain subcultures in America — although not in the gay ones, where I was hardly a novelty — and be accorded authority. The impulse of identity politics to understand ourselves in terms of our most visible oppressions could never, in America, be far removed from the practice of marketing ourselves in those ways. The Republican right has always already understood histories of oppression only as caricatures, so who was being served? In any case, the very invisibility of the virus lent itself well to those who coveted that power, and that self-righteous indignation, but who didn’t have the agreed-upon markers of political despair readily available.

The flip side of self-righteous indignation in the national theater of celebrity humiliation is the tearful confession. Frey’s journey from his belligerent refusals to concede he’d been bad, in his exaggeration of his badness, to his abashed submission to Oprah’s wrath, owed more to Hillary Clinton than to Karl Rove, and made perfect sense. We’ve clearly conceded that “remorse” is simply the performance we require for forgiveness, no matter how unconvincing. In the case of Frey, his bad lying could be understood as what JT would call a metaphorical truth. Hadn’t he told us he was no good? What did we expect from a criminal and a drug addict? Didn’t we know that everyone performs at 12-step meetings, that AA has created a style of self-presentation that owes as much to the exaggerated criminal antics and ego glorification of hip hop as to the Christian confessional? The performance of shame can be a kind of glory, but we wouldn’t dream of asking anyone to act it out until they’d been not only caught but convicted.

To give Laura some credit, she hasn’t stooped so low as to publicly apologize. Asked if she felt any shame about misleading people she said, “I bleed but it’s a different kind of shame. I’m sad I was so injured.” She was sorry if anyone misunderstood her benevolent intent, and she spun it as an issue of age. “If knowing that I’m fifteen years older than Jeremy devalues the work, then I’m sorry they feel that way.” I do believe that Laura has lived, and perhaps still lives, in a psychological hell. During one of my phone conversations with JT, I suggested that sometimes our friends come disguised as our enemies, or vice versa. What I was probably trying to say was that exposure might serve as a liberation from hell. As mistrusting as I am of that particular notion, with its Christian and AA connotations, that confession frees us and makes us pure again, and that the glass we see through darkly might be transformed on some apocalyptic day, when we’ll really see face-to-face… I do hope that somehow in this process that dark place might be transformed, and that my Evil Twin might be transformed, and that, pathetic and hopeless as it seems, I will be too.

But maybe the only lessons that really matter are marketing lessons. It took the promoters of The Heart is Deceitful film a few seconds to put a slash through the word “true” and to sell the film as part of the greatest literary hoax of the century. Some who’d hired JT as a writer or editor simply put quotation marks around his name, and the franchise was almost good as new. Recently, the marketing of 50 Cent’s movie Get Rich or Die Tryin used the word “semi-autobiographical” to describe the product, solving that problem almost effortlessly. And Laura seems to be emerging from her shell with her reputation as a writer almost in tact. I wish her the best of luck, although, personally, I hope to never read another word she writes. As strangely sympathetic as I find her at times, and as intricate and fascinating as her psychology might be, I hope to never see her or speak to her again in my life. I can’t quite imagine why anyone would believe a word that she says. But maybe all it will require, once again, for the sake of our own pleasures or ambitions or carefully armored identities, is the willing suspension of disbelief.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Abstraction and porn

Today I‘ve been thinking about Neuromancer and abstraction and the Amish and porn. Neuromancer, because I’m re-reading William Gibson’s novel for the first time in twenty years. Is that why I decided to start a blog? Because in 1989 he totally sold me on the future, he made technology seem sexy and potentially subversive and reassured me that there would be a place for rebels and outsiders to make their way through a virtual world that he imagined as having large subcultures devoted to crime and art and the zones where the two intersected. In 1989 I was like totally into crime and art! (In the meantime, however, I’ve developed into a technophobic curmudgeon. When people are surprised or even miffed by the fact that I don’t usually carry a cell phone and I’m not on facebook, I sometimes joke that it’s my Amish genes. ((This is a joke not because I don’t in fact have Amish genes, but because I’m not a genetic determinist.)) While there are a variety of complicated reasons, probably, for this technophobia, the most visceral and pressing in my daily life is that sitting in front of a computer makes me ill. It fucks up my spine and gives me headaches. I know, I should work on my posture, I should go to IKEA and buy some ergonomic chair – there aren’t any problems that purchasing a product won’t solve, are there? But I am stubbornly resistant and so, in the world that William Gibson envisioned, I would be a total dinosaur, overly tied to the petty complaints and suffering of the meat, as his narrator dismisses the human body. It’s true.) In the preface to this edition, Gibson discusses one of the things he totally missed in his 80s vision of the future, cell phones. He doesn’t discuss another glaring omission from cyberspace: the prevalence of porn. Oh, sure, there are some fetishistic zones and erotic pleasures in WG’s cyberspace, but nothing to suggest the vast circuits of information constantly feeding us more and more images of the poor, suffering meat, in various postures of pleasure and abuse.

But what got me started thinking about porn was the show of quilts at the DeYoung, Amish Abstraction, which I wrote about last month for the Bay Guardian. At the time, I was thinking a great deal about how the show was packaged as being reminiscent of 20th century abstract art – as opposed to, say, Islamic abstract art, and I was thinking about how both the Amish and Muslims have issues with figuration. For the Amish, you don’t represent the self (or any other self) because it would be a form of self-aggrandizement. And you don’t want to aggrandize any selves but the great big daddy self in the sky. Ego is bad, at least human ego – God ego is what we’re here to praise and celebrate and make the best of. And in Islam, the non-representational character of Islamic art is apparently related to the prohibition against “imitating God’s works”. A common critique leveled against America (meaning global capitalism) by Islamic ne’er-do-wells is the pornographic nature of our culture. Figurative images are inherently erotic, inherently pornographic and global capitalism/techno-culture is swimming in images.

Although these issues with representation are justified quite differently in the two cultures, they both end up on the same abstract spectrum as the abstract expressionists. So then I’m thinking about the analysis that ties the rise of abstract art in America to corporate sponsorship and its push to embrace art that wasn’t figurative or political. (Ideas developed, for example, in Bram Dijkstra’s American Expressionism: Art and Social Change 1920 – 1950 and which I’m grossly simplifying.) Abstraction then serves to counter politics, porn and ego. Three of my favorite things. You want a tightly controlled social order (as with the Amish or Saudi Arabia or 50’s America) you don’t want figuration, you want abstraction. You want conformity and erotics invested in established forms of social organization. Despite "the inevitability of Amish porn," that’s an easy enough binary to make us all feel happy about embracing politics, porn and ego, right? But the pornographic social order of global capitalism isn’t very satisfying either and I’m thinking of how Baudrillard and Virilio have mapped out the ways that we are living at the mercy of a rapidly evolving and uncontrollable proliferation of images that doesn’t necessarily share the same goals and pleasures as the life-world. An autonomous set of images that doesn’t serve many actual creature’s interests. Not just the human meat, but all the other unfortunate species that share the world with us in this configuration. And it feels pretty bleak and so maybe I’m nostalgic for the hope I had in 1989, reading Neuromancer for the first time, that technology would open up creepy and hilarious and sexy new spaces for cerebral and erotic interaction instead of the depressing computer screen I’m staring at with its links to Facebook and Twitter. I don’t think we can very well pretend that the democratization of porn has proliferated an abundance of strange and liberating new possibilities for eros. I think it can do better. Porn seems crucial as a space in which the desires of the present and the future are not just mirrored (a very unsatisfying role to imagine for representation) but created. Porn is the operative metaphor for advertising and consumer culture. Pornographic appeal is the over-arching factor in the creation of celebrity. But porn can be allied not only with ego, but with politics. Therefore… what? I don’t know, I’m still thinking about it.