June 22, 2007 — -- This afternoon, jurors in New York federal court spent several hours getting to the bottom of one of literature's most enduring questions: Is the literary truth more important than the literal truth?
Their answer determined the fate of Laura Albert, a talented 41-year-old writer who created the fictional identity of a writer named J.T. LeRoy — the drug-addicted son of a truck-stop prostitute — to publish several acclaimed books, including the supposedly partial autobiography "Sarah" and a collection of short stories titled "The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Else."
When LeRoy's identity was revealed last year, Hollywood friends were shocked, fellow literati were stunned and readers couldn't stop chattering about it.
And a film production company that optioned "Sarah" to make a movie of the book, potentially starring Winona Ryder, was outraged, eventually suing Albert and her publisher, Bloomsbury, for fraud.
Today, Antidote International Films won their suit as jurors awarded the production company $116,000, the amount that it had spent on the film project plus damages.
The company claimed that the contract signed by LeRoy was null and void because he doesn't exist. Albert's lawyers claimed that the author did not intend to defraud anyone and that LeRoy was simply a fictional device that allowed Albert to exorcise her personal demons.
For two days this week, Albert told a rapt jury about her troubled childhood: sexual abuse by a family friend, getting teased as "Fat Albert" in school, refusing to leave her bedroom for months at a time, running away from home to New York's East Village punk scene and hospitalization for psychiatric problems.
After moving to San Francisco in 1989, Albert worked as a phone-sex operator and often called suicide hot lines, pretending to be troubled teenage boys. One of those personas, a runaway from West Virginia, eventually became J.T. LeRoy when she started writing.
When her work started to win acclaim and reporters requested interviews with LeRoy, Albert coaxed her former boyfriend's sister into donning a wig and playing the part of LeRoy. The blond-haired, awkward kid with the high-pitched voice became a literary sensation, socializing with celebrities like Ryder, Marilyn Manson, Courtney Love and filmmaker Gus Van Sant.
The whole fiction collapsed when reporters from New York magazine and The New York Times exposed LeRoy's identity last year.
Thursday afternoon, lawyers from both sides made their closing arguments, invoking literary legends from Herman Melville to William Shakespeare to make their points.
The film production company had a "profound misunderstanding of fiction in general and Laura Albert," argued her lawyer, Eric Weinstein, calling her work "magical realism" in the tradition of the "Wizard of Oz."
Weinstein mocked Antidote's claim that Albert's hoax was comparable to someone pretending to be an Iraq War veteran and selling books based on that fiction, saying that no one would be deceived by an account of Iraq where "polar bears fly through the air and lemonade rains from the sky."
Albert sat at the defense table, wearing a gray suit with her hands tucked under her hips, nodding her head in agreement and shyly smiling at the jury.
"We see that J.T. LeRoy was not created for vanity or riches but for survival," said Weinstein, explaining that Albert had psychiatric problems that required her to seek care every day of the week. "The word hoax implies a willingness to deceive, which Laura didn't have. … Laura used J.T. LeRoy as a respirator. She created him so that she could breathe."
Antidote's lawyer argued the case was simply financial fraud in that Albert had defrauded the film company by signing an option contract and claiming that LeRoy was the sole author of "Sarah."
"It was a lie from the moment it was signed," argued Gregory Curtner. "Everything about it was false."
Toward the end of his argument, Curtner may have misfired by comparing Albert to Shakespeare in an attempt to claim that authorship matters.
"You think Shakespeare would be Shakespeare if he didn't write it — whoever Shakespeare really is?" he asked.
In fact, the authorship of Shakespeare's works has been debated for centuries, and many literary historians believe that William Shakespeare was not the genius behind many of the great works attributed to the Bard.
Another lingering question surrounds the fate of LeRoy's next project, a novel titled "Labour," the publication of which has been delayed since April 2006. Albert shrugged off questions at the end of the trial, her auburn hair trailing behind her in the hallways of the courthouse.