Ern Malley and The LeRoy Legacy

04.13.2006 | Jeremy Axelrod | Literature, Media Affairs | 2 Comments

Heroin addiction, sexual abuse, child prostitution and AIDS darken the biography of JT LeRoy, who at 12 was inducted into a world of “lot lizard” truck-stop prostitution by his own mother, and later roamed the streets of San Francisco as a drug-dependent whore. Semi-autobiographical, LeRoy’s perverse fiction interlocks with the twisted, fascinating details of his youth. That’s the story behind the stories, anyway, which originally curtsied as fiction but sold as memoirs: the life-inspired, therapeutic ventilations of a young talent whose emotional scarring yielded a miracle oeuvre. LeRoy claimed that Dr. Terrence Owens, a real therapist from the San Francisco McAuley Medical center at St. Mary’s Heart, helped to rescue him from the streets and to coax him into writing—Owens confirmed a series of telephone sessions, and one brief meeting in person. Taken in by Laura Albert and Geoffrey Knoop, a young couple in a rock band, LeRoy slowly began putting his words together.

The rest is a much more public history, and it takes place, rather than recollects, in print. Debuting in 1997, Jeremy Terminator LeRoy published a short story called “Baby Doll” in Close to the Bone, an anthology of memoirs of abuse and suffering. Since then LeRoy has written for Rolling Stone, New York Times, New York Press, Spin, Nerve and McSweeney’s, among others. He’s done a photo shoot in Vanity Fair and his short story collection The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (2001) is now a film. As Stephen Beachy of New York Magazine notes, “LeRoy” was only 16 when this success began exploding. With fame came celebrity, and with celebrity arrived other celebrities, like benign vultures settling supportively over a growing body of disturbing writing. LeRoy’s sympathetic, admiring fans and friends have included literary lights Dave Eggers, Tobias Wolff, Sharon Olds, Mary Karr and Mary Gaitskill. Major editors and publishers have exchanged intimate electronic or telephone correspondences with the figure. Paul Simon’s son Harper played guitar with LeRoy when Guardian writer Laura Barton visited—the night before, Sean Lennon stopped by for sake and sushi. So inadvertently magnetic is this shy, ethereal personality that he easily enlisted the likes of Winona Ryder and Tatum O’Neal to perform his readings for him. And though the writing itself has taken a bit of a back seat to its sensational author(s), one shouldn’t forget how well these deftly composed books have sold to the public, scattered lucratively among beaches and bookstores.

In a world that frequently seems to feel that fiction is not vital enough to capture reality, it pays to breathe life into literature with a living cast and crew. Not long after publishing his first novel, Sarah (2000), LeRoy began making rare, sneaky public appearances. He wore his distinctive sunglasses, wig and hat ensemble, looking generally like the late-90’s Michael Jackson crossed with a blonde Blues Brother. These appearances did not dispel, however, the rising suspicion over LeRoy’s conspicuously scarce identity. LeRoy’s southern accent sounded counterfeit; he seemed not to recognize in person the names of those he’d intensely emailed with; his gender had changed, by a supposed operation and hormone treatment; his checks went to other people, such as Laura Albert’s sister. Barton notes how inarticulate LeRoy was in person, “the delivery stilted, the distinctive LeRoy vocabulary neutered.” As LeRoy’s cult following became incensed with the mystery, journalists stabbed at and struggled for the truth. The above is old news: I owe all my information to reporting by journalists Stephen Beachy, Laura Barton, and Warren St. John of the New York Times.

Warren St. John’s February 7th article for the Times eventually offered accounts from “five intimates” of LeRoy’s that give us what is probably a legitimate unveiling: Geoffrey Knoop worked with Laura Albert, the actual writer, to fax, email and telephone LeRoy into existence. The notoriety of their rock band Thistle, for which “LeRoy” wrote lyrics, grew with their checkbook. Savannah Knoop, Geoffrey’s half-sister, acted the public, in-person role, hence the androgyny LeRoy exhibited. Yet even after Warren St. John’s expose, conclusions are frustratingly difficult to pin down. Various stories, competing or corroborating, weave together and detach again with the atmosphere of a soap operatic, detective noir gossip column. Is Laura Albert really the writer? Answers are obscured by articles more often, it seems, than they are offered. But the questions remain clear and compelling, and indeed the greatness of a literary hoax should be judged by the questions it provokes in its readership.

These questions widen beyond their concrete content. What is the role of an author’s autogenesis in the way we read? How integral is or should honesty be to a book’s backstory? Are the ethical implications of dishonesty at all literary? Soaking up the concern of those who believed there was an AIDS-infected LeRoy, and accepting the sympathies of all blanching at his background, Albert and the Knoops formed a tripod of insensitivity to those real abuse victims, AIDS patients and drug–users who were disillusioned to find an inspiring struggle dissolve into trickery—though what sensitivity and responsibility is owed by writers to anyone is tough to debate. Nothing recent contextualizes these questions, because no recent hoax has gone so far and fooled so many so provocatively. When was such an elaborate, impressive, dramatic dagger last thrust into the body-literary? When was such a deception last worth talking about so much more than it was worth groaning about? We ought to peer once more back to War-time Sydney, over the shoulders of the low-brow rabble, for a clue to the intellectual story behind New York’s latest, loudest, least well-dressed author-turned-pumpkin-at-midnight.

Deceitful above all things, the 1944 Ern Malley hoax was perpetrated in Australia by youths James McAuley and Harold Stewart. The hoax involved duping editor Max Harris of “The Angry Penguins” into publishing an enigmatic, fictional poet’s posthumous masterpieces. The Writings of Ern Malley were the bullets of McAuley and Stewart, fired at a literary “fashion” with the intent to reveal inauthenticity. The duo believed that writers in the style of Dylan Thomas and Henry Treece indulged obscurity and incoherence, dressing their muddled doggerel in the emperor’s robes of poetic conceit. To McAuley and Stewart, much of modern poetry had degraded into a cesspool of solipsism, in which little or no meaning could reasonably have been intended by the author: editors were reading impenetrable poems like tea leaves, sycophantically attributing dense and subtle metaphors to poets who in reality were mere place-holders for readers’ own generations of authorial intent. In response, the hoaxers produced sixteen of their own faintly parodic poems, purportedly written in a single afternoon and with as little attention given to meaning as possible. With written rules demanding “no coherent theme” and “general sloppiness” of technique, the hoaxers made supposedly random use of various magazine and text book quotations. In actuality, these poems were far more artfully concocted than either hoaxer would admit: both were avid poets, and there is a point at which competent efforts towards believably coherent poetry result in the genuine article.

The acceptance and effusive praise of these poems—which Max Harris trumpeted to dazzled contemporaries—was supposed to embarrass all hoodwinked readers and editors, proving that the School of Obscurity read meaning into randomness. More importantly, it was meant to expose how destitute in meaning modern poetry had become. But it didn’t. Despite the considerable sensation created by the hoaxers’ unveiling, the Ern Malley poems did not lose legitimacy. For many sophisticated readers discovering the nonsense-intentions of the authors didn’t undermine the art at all. Nobody stopped drinking champagne from the glass slipper, and Malley remains at least as compelling as LeRoy. For in the effort of critiquing modern poetry, McAuley and Stewart had in fact created it. They produced an art that was conscious of its form and creative process, tacitly in dialogue with where modern poetry should be headed. Like Albert, the Ern Malley team made something “real” and readable, though unlike Albert they were mortified to be taken seriously. Ignited by a fiction, the poems’ voice weirdly outsung its authors. Similarly, in her rare interviews Albert still remains backgrounded to LeRoy, whose future fiction will no doubt continue to present a more coherent and persuasive story than the truth behind the hoax.

Why was Malley so captivating in the first place, even though he didn’t masquerade? Dying is a great career move for a writer. It is difficult sometimes to reconcile genius with the yet-living poet who also burps, trips and sits on the toilet, occasionally rupturing the romantic image of literary celebrity. As with the Catholic canonization procedure, death is usually a necessary step for what is another kind of mythologizing. Max Harris was dramatically introduced to Malley by a letter from his “sister,” Miss Ethel Malley, who reported finding dusty old manuscripts of uncertain quality. The work seemed just waiting for a young editor to discover, to imagine himself bursting like Indiana Jones onto the literary scene to rescue Malley’s poems from the dead. Also important is the extent to which death removes the adversarial relationship which living writers often share. New writers wrestle against the intimidating burden of their past. However, a living writer can extol his or her dead predecessor without having to kneel before an active contemporary; that near-mythologization comes in handy, because legend doesn’t threaten the usual realm of pride. For this reason, among others, it was multifariously wise of McAuley and Stewart to mail in the work of someone excused from interviews; someone who would never flub lines and raise doubt like Savannah Knoop did.

Yet LeRoy’s identity parallels closely with Malley’s deceased one, and has been alluring for many of the same shrewd reasons. Though living, LeRoy desired none of the attention his writing garnered. Like Malley, others made the initial effort of publishing for him. Conveniently shy, LeRoy had no off-putting ego which might shake his admirers. Like a dead person, he was quiet, meek and unthreatening. Today’s audience avoids arrogance like pesticide, so LeRoy’s reluctant brilliance was winning. And because he was apparently goaded into writing for the purposes of therapy, LeRoy’s voice seemed all the more credible: his fiction was the inadvertent by-product of an authentic life and a doctor’s orders. In interviews, LeRoy likes to cite “purity of intent” as the final factor for an artist; because he started writing for therapy, he did so without any of the lust for attention and sympathy that smacks of a perversion of intention. What must be obvious by now is that the ex-child prostitute has the primacy for LeRoy’s readers, and that the writer comes second—almost an afterthought or a misleading accoutrement to the addict. As Barton writes, “his stories themselves bear the hallmark of authenticity because the author himself was a genuine lizard, plucked from the streets of San Francisco by an outreach worker named Emily Frasier, cultivated by Owen, and redeemed by literature.”

A further parallel: in the romantic tradition of poetic genius tragically nipped too soon, Malley died at 25 of Grave’s Disease; just as Thomas Chatterton (also an early hoaxer) did at 17 of self-administered poison, John Keats at 26 of tuberculosis, and Percy Bysshe Shelley at 30 of drowning. Later, the brilliant Australian poet Michael Dransfield (1948-1972) would die at 24 of a heroin overdose. And so, addicted to heroin and doomed with AIDs, young LeRoy’s condition tapped all the right heart-strings and echoed with the archetypes of greatness. It didn’t hurt either to offer artful, first-hand details from the seedy underworlds of drugs and sexual deviancy.

I’ve yet to encounter any recognition of the coincidence that Dr. Owen’s McAuley medical center at St. Mary’s Heart bears Harold McAuley’s namesake. Even Barton, whose article both names the medical center and briefly mentions the Ern Malley affair, misses this uncanny oddity. Such real-world connections are in key with this ubiquitous hoax. The story of LeRoy extended outside of the text and into role-playing, costume design, conspiracy; it is a post-, hyper-, or otherwise modern, multi-media work of fiction. To merely note that people like Albert’s writing because of who they imagine the author to be misses the point, that this identity which arouses so much interest in the work is Albert’s textual pièce de résistance. Revised according to the skepticism of friends and admirers, LeRoy’s story deepened like a draft, gathering tenacity and complexity before finally collapsing under inquiry.

Both hoaxes are unique spaces for originality. Prompted by the will for absolutely wild writing, a will to appear ecstatically modern, McAuley and Stewart were untethered by convention. Thus they stumbled upon the creative flexibility which is so fertile for innovation. Likewise, Albert wrote worry-free from behind the persona of authenticity, making whatever aesthetic choices she wished about how to construct a painful past: nobody would yet reprehend her for daring to make up memories. Normally we think of an author’s reputation as earned by artistic success. Yet in both cases it was very much the author who validated the work and gave it such charisma. Of course, these authors were fiction too, so the equation still stands. In a way, many authors are hoaxers. Some wear the berets, shake the right hands, and attend the award dinners: whether acting the dog-walking, thoughtful memoirist or living the alcoholism of the profusive versifier, many authors end up larger than life, like their art.

The realization that the author which a work represents does not exist can, rightly or wrongly, be negative: it is like mulling over the phone number left to you by a girl at a bar, only to find it wasn’t hers, and that her wink was meant for somebody else. Where the Malley hoax raised the issues of interpretation and artistic agency, the LeRoy hoax seems to have ruffled the emotional feathers of those who supported Albert’s writing for the “wrong” reasons. In either case, it would seem that art prevails,no matter how our illusion of meaning inherent to text is undermined. It would seem that nobody should care. Postmodernists will divorce author from text as quickly as they will marry Foucault to Roland Barthes – even as region, gender, and sexual orientation continue to convoy our hippest syllabi. Our thoughts are ours, but once written their ends are none of our own. The impulse to discard the outcries of today’s disillusioned LeRoy literati as naïve may seem erudite in view of how fictive all authorial representation really is. One may also surmise that hoaxes continue to crop up with fresh success because readers have not yet grown out of an antiquated theory of meaning and are slow to learn from previous hoaxers’ guile and an older generation’s mistakes. Yet despite how generative of meaning the Malley poems remained and despite how rightly we distrust the old constructions, we should still be as concerned today, as McAuley and Stewart were, with how modern readers orient towards the process of reading.

After all, the Malley legacy was never meant to be the burial of the author. By now the hoax’s history reads like an epitaph for authorial intent; one that also marks the birthplace of Australian postmodernism. It was supposed to expose to ridicule all the writing which lacked credible meaning and all the reading which indulged it. McAuley and Stewart were disgusted with the idea that writers might successfully write without a vested interest in how they were interpreted. Irony of ironies, the contingency of meaning fated opposite ends for their intentions – what was meant as an act of prescription is remembered for its authorial nihilism. The necessity to prick complacency out of the academy is vital, but the intimacy of our relationship with good writing is not a farce. The ends that justify hoaxes as valuable assume that literature has some honesty worth saving from the oblivion of intellectual or aesthetic ossification, some crucial capacity worth jabbing back onto a course in which we all share a stake. More than just sadistic pleasure in blowing cold air up the emperor’s clothes, hoaxes serve to enforce integrity upon our relationship with a text. Witness Alan Socal, the NYU physicist who in 1996 published a jargon-stuffed parody article in Social Text which, unbeknownst to the editors, was logical and scientific nonsense. Socal, bent on restoring intellectual rigor to the postmodern Left, announced his senseless article’s acceptance “not in glee but in sadness.”

So what should the LeRoy legacy be? If nothing else, it should be a reaction that concerns us in being so morally misdirected, so entirely focused on whom the author swindled for sympathy, rather than on what she shortchanged in print.

Much of the response has been, if not emotional and unrelated to literary issues, one of carnivalesque delight. A warning sign waits in the meekness of such expectations for literature. Recognizing the unreality of inherent meaning does not entail ruining our sense that writing should do something and be something more than a trick. And it has been more, from the Bible to Blake to Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics.Take Milton’s sonnet “On the late Massacre in Piedmont” (1655). It begins with a command, “Avenge,” and vividly bemoans how peasants were “slaughter’d” in a recent religious persecution by the “bloody Piedmontese that rolled / Mother with infant down the rocks.” Hearty iambs are little help in the heat of things, but they do sometimes prick complacency out of politicians. More broadly, such sonnets unify a society’s awareness and appreciation of suffering. These kinds of passionate responses, intended to persuade and provoke, trust in literature as a medium where intentional expression is heightened and preserved, not abandoned as arbitrary to the game. Even intentional ambiguity is a statement on the questions involved. Milton’s sonnet exercised language to convey a rich, urgent meaning, and depends on the reader to stand in a relationship with the text that is sensitive to this meaning.

Though it is witless to contend that fiction owes us sincerity, there is merit in the notion that we owe literature our lives. We should not leave ourselves at the doorstep of the act of writing, nor ask the author to wait outside as we welcome in her prose. I do not mean that biographical information should lasso artistic output; I mean that the attitude which disregards an author’s intent resigns his product to the margins of society. In a telephone interview with Litsa Demousis of Bookslut, LeRoy mused, “I think I went into a universal unconscious type place, and wrote about themes that went beyond these stories, their content.” That’s the power an author has to transcend the pedestrian facts of his or her life: to glance at white whales from a land-locked writing desk. But the intent of the author transcending his or her identity must be significant to us if we are to treat literature as an act, even a speech act, instead of a solitary dream. The same goes for how we disarm or dismiss authorial intent. Reading which treats meaning as a choice is intellectually bankrupt; it trades talk for tea-leaves; it treats our pages like blank checks which can be signed by no one and so flutter valueless.

We should object to the Malley and LeRoy scenarios of interpretation morally, because to approach literature without a care to its source is to forfeit the role of writing in the sharedness of experience. To approach it without a care to authorial intent is to damn the aesthetic life of our civilization to the ends of diversion and decoration. If we read meaning into randomness then we are no more than star-gazers picking out constellations for gods. If we abandon concern as to the truth of our relationship with the text and its author, we implicitly degrade the value of expression in literature, reducing the active community granted by our literary inheritance to mere literary loneliness. Laura Albert’s literature remains the same, its quality obviously unchanged since before its author’s discovery. However, we must always care who is behind a book and why—this is crucial to the integrity of reading—no matter who, it turns out, is writing.

Hopefully our next cunning hoaxers will mean, like the Malley brothers, to set us straight—and hopefully we’ll read the final chapter, that felix culpa of instructive unveiling, with an ear to their intent.



McAuley and Stewart are instuctive to us. They had to make the poems good enough to be believable--which actually meant good enough, period. It was history that had the last laugh on the pair. None of their subsequent works eclipsed the fame, or merit, of poor old Ern.

That they were able to do such great poetry so quickly, tells us much about the liberating quality of a false persona.
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