J T LeRoy: A brutally frank autobiography

Hooked on drugs at seven, a child prostitute by his teens, abandoned at the age of 15, J T LeRoy hasn't had it easy. But his experiences informed a brutally frank autobiography, and helped create a literary prodigy. Chris Sullivan talks to the cult author
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Both film and book begin with the young Jeremiah (J T), aged four, being dragged from the convivial bosom of his foster parents (who have looked after him since birth) by Sarah, his drug-addled, 18-year-old prostitute mother. At first the young boy, thoroughly bemused by the proceedings, is mercilessly teased by his mother. She fakes phone calls from the boy's foster parents telling him that they don't want to speak to him; when he wets himself for the first time she leaves him to wallow in soiled pyjamas; and after he tries to run away she tells the gullible infant that the police are out to electrocute him. Such malice is truly hard to swallow but is only the beginning of a series of cruelties so harrowing that they are almost impossible to envisage.

"The movie is true to the book," says the gently spoken author, resplendent in his trademark oversized dark glasses and platinum blonde wig. "At one point I didn't want anyone to see this part of my life and didn't really want to remember it myself. I look back now and I am shocked by what happened to me. I had a hard time dealing with my past for so long. I just wanted to hide away from the heavy emotional baggage but I eventually confronted it and faced my fears."

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things is all the more powerful for its thoroughly convincing performances, not least from Argento, who as Jeremiah's mother must surely be the nastiest harridan to grace the silver screen since Bette Davis in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?. "Now that I've watched the movie so many times, every time I look at Asia, I see my mother," reflects LeRoy. "I warned Asia not to use my mother's name as I knew she would suck Asia into her world ... and she did ... and she became her. The movie was very intense for me. I saw it in Cannes and broke down afterwards."

After just one of his mother's many lapses of concentration, Jeremiah is thrown into the care of his Christian fundamentalist grandparents, wonderfully realised on screen by Peter Fonda and Ornella Muti, who forcefeed him scripture, blood and brimstone and push him out on to the streets to preach the gospel. "I used to think that the time with my grandparents was worse than the time with my mom, as the only time they touched me was to hurt me," whispers LeRoy. "But now I think differently. I think that at least with my grandparents I got a routine, and even though there was a lot of physical violence, with the strap an' all, there was no sexual violence. There was structure and boundaries, which kids need. They crave boundaries. Now I use those boundaries to help me."

Whatever stability he garnered from his stern grandparents would soon come to an abrupt end when his ma snatched him off the streets of West Virginia - as he preached of the fires of hell - and dragged him back into the clutches of Beelzebub, as he became her pill-popping shop-lifting partner. "She started me on speed when I was seven," says Leroy, looking up from under his black fedora as if ice cream wouldn't melt in his mouth. "We did a lot of different drugs - they were just around all the time. I was really young when I first got shot up and I liked it and learnt to do it myself. The problem was that I couldn't get heroin all the time and so used to go through withdrawal quite often but because I was taking so many different drugs all the time [coming down] wasn't as bad as it might have been.

"My mother rebelled against her parents in every possible way," he adds. "She was attracted to the dark side. If someone was too healthy or well adjusted she wouldn't like them."

By now his mother had, via her penchant for all things nasty, become a fully-fledged truck-stop hooker, trudging the diners and petrol stations of the Southern highways picking up change from the many bored and desperate drivers. "Me and my mom travelled all over the States staying in motels and cars picking up tricks," he remembers. "She always said I was her sister. It was psychological. She couldn't say I was her son as it would put a lot of men off me and her, as no one wants a mother f with a kid and a son is like competition. A sister allows a lot more scope. She just worked that out instinctively."

As LeRoy became older he became more and more accustomed to the sister routine until at the age of 10, absorbed by this game of sexual corruption, he used his mother's make-up and underwear to seduce her boyfriend. "Dressing as a girl didn't feel one way or the other as it was all I knew," LeRoy recalls so slowly and so quietly that I have to stretch to catch his words. "It was what was given to me. And I kinda liked it and didn't even think it was strange. You have to remember I was just a kid and I was isolated. I didn't know what other kids did and so that was the life that was presented to me and I didn't question it."

It was LeRoy's story of the seduction of his mother's boyfriend, entitled Baby Doll, that brought him to the attention of the American public. The New York Times had applauded the story as part of an anthology, Close To The Bone, and announced that the writer was a 17-year-old boy named Terminator. "Terminator was what they called me on the lots," laughs LeRoy, who stands 5ft 5in and weighs 7st (with more fat on a chip). "Because I was so ... dangerous."

The tale, as part of LeRoy's then unrealised anthology, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, was never meant to be published. It had been a vital part of the therapy employed by LeRoy's doctor and mentor Terrence Owens to release the young boy from the clutches of his myriad demons. "Writing really helped me deal with my past," says LeRoy, nervously fingering the raccoon's penis-bone talisman - as worn by Southern Fried truck-stop hookers - that he carries as a potent reminder of his past. "The only way I could function was by writing about it. Terry kept telling me, 'Write, write, write!' And that energised me and I sort of vomited the stories out. I didn't try to get published. My next-door neighbour was doing a literary magazine and wanted a story so I gave him that. My whole thing has happened in a very organic way. When I wrote Heart I was offered a publishing deal, but I refused it because I knew I wasn't ready. I thought they would just promote me as some poor street kid and that was just crass."

LEROY HAD ended up on the good doctor's doorstep after his mother, tired of the double act, dumped LeRoy, aged 15, in San Francisco, where he had to fend for himself as a street hustler, "tricking and doing drugs". Eventually he met Emily Frasier, an outreach worker who took him in, made him part of her family and, to help him recover from his heroin habit, introduced him to Dr Owen. Impressed by the quality of LeRoy's prose Owen introduced him to the poet Sharon Olds, the author Tobias Wolf and the head of Viking Books Karen Rinaldi. From there a contract emerged and in 1997 LeRoy published his first book, Sarah, to enormous acclaim. Covering his period as a bona-fide lot lizard, Sarah's style is perhaps less harsh than its chronological predecessor, Heart. "Sarah used to dress me up herself," LeRoy writes in the book. "She would do my make-up. I loved watching her lick her finger and run it gently under my eyes. It always reminded me of those nature films of a mother bird regurgitating food into its baby's mouth and left me feeling as full as if she had. When we'd go shoplifting, it was better for me to be a girl, even if I couldn't be as pretty as her."

One of the strengths of LeRoy's work is its seemingly permissive approach that sneakily condemns paedophiles by its seemingly liberal attitude. "I just present my world on my terms," says the writer for once ever so slightly animated. "I don't apologise; I don't judge; I don't say that child prostitution is good - that's obvious. But, there is condemnation between the lines and although I don't say that child prostitution is bad outright, at the same time the paedophiles get punished and the morality is in my books, but it is not overt."

Sarah, an instant cult hit, soon attracted an array of celebrity followers, including Debbie Harry, Winona Ryder and Shirley Manson, all of whose attentions have been accused of overshadowing LeRoy's obvious talent. In a much celebrated shot in Vanity Fair in 2003, Tatum O'Neal, Debbie Harry, Rosario Dawson, Winona Ryder and Asia Argento surrounded the glowing writer; Madonna sends him notes on the Kabbalah, Shirley Manson wrote a song about him and Carrie Fisher is a confidant. "I am very flattered by the people who support me," states LeRoy, leaning forward in his oversized chair, his wig slipping slightly to the left. "They are all well respected in their own fields and are all artists in their own right. It's not as if Paris Hilton is following me about. I [like to] hang around with other artists. It's a great thing for me - it's not at all vacuous."

"Anyway," he adds after a pause. "The literary world is very up its own arse, and they hate newcomers, whereas the rock'n'roll world thrives on new blood. That is why the rock'n'roll world has been more open to me."

It was through such double-groovy New York rock'n'roll connections that I first met J T some years ago. He was polite, sweet and impressively well mannered, and gave me a bag of typical J T gifts: a Raccoon's penis-bone necklace, a jewellery case and a signed copy of Sarah. Such was the power of both prose and subject matter that suddenly his cult status and celebrity patronage made total sense. J T is the real McCoy. In the years between our first meeting and now I had never got the chance to question how he could have survived such abject hell and emerged a seemingly balanced chap, so I asked him. "You think I'm balanced?" answers the bemused LeRoy, his voice for once rising above a whisper. "Whatever I am, I turned out as I did because of my foster parents. For the first four years of my life I had a real steady foundation and connection. I have met people on the streets who haven't got this founding and those are the ones who are really broken, so that no amount of help will heal them. Those are the people who kill people. They are the psychopaths.

"Also, when I went to Dr Owen," he adds, "it was like going back to that strong foundation. If he hadn't have come along I would probably be dead by now."

However LeRoy has got over his past, and I am not so sure that he has, one cannot fail to remember that he missed out on an important part of most people's lives. I ask him if he regrets not having a recognisable childhood among other children. "I used to look at other kids but I was scared of them," he sighs. "I would have liked to have had their upbringing but I knew that they could see that I was not normal. This was not open to me. I felt that it was better to watch than join in. They would have seen something and picked at it until I hurt."

Still ensconced in San Francisco, LeRoy now lives with Emily Frasier, her boyfriend Astor Jones and their seven-year-old son Thor. "They are like the family I never had," says the writer. "I love them so much. They keep me grounded and Thor I like to think is like my son as well, and I want to give him everything I missed."

As busy as ever, LeRoy is currently working on a new book, Labour, that he describes as "a long novella or a short book that will be a surprise". He's also collaborating with Gus Van Sant on a play and has ambitions to turn Sarah into a Broadway musical. But most importantly he is concentrating on honing his craft. "My commitment is to become better. If [my writing] is good, it shouldn't matter who I am or what I look like, it should just live on its own merit. If my work is that shitty, I don't think I would have survived the idea of people I don't know commenting on it. Like recently, I read this article and they were talking about some book and it uses my name as a comparison, like a benchmark. My name has become almost like a cultural branding that denotes a certain style. I think that says something, don't you?" E

The movie of 'The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things' is released in selected cinemas on 15 July. 'Sarah', 'The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things' and 'Harold's End' are published by Bloomsbury