It’s amazing how nice and civilized the security guards are down at the Federal Court building on Pearl Street (pleasantly correcting me when I asked if this was 500 “Worth Street”), probably due to the fact that they don’t have to actually sit in a courtroom listening to the bullshit legalese spewing from the mouths of guys making four times their salaries. Which is what I was subjected to at the hearing for “Antidote Films vs. Laura Albert” and her alter ego JT Leroy, who I’m sure would have been dragged into court as well had he existed.
So Antidote Films is ostensibly suing for fraud because the author name on the cover of the book they optioned doesn’t belong to the author. And to make the point that the author’s identity is relevant – no, essential! – the plaintiff’s lawyer brought up no less a literary legend than Shakespeare himself. “Of course author matters! Would people read Shakespeare if it wasn’t Shakespeare?” the three-piece suit mused rhetorically as Christopher Marlowe had a good hearty laugh from the grave. Catching himself, he quickly moved on to the example of horror icon Stephen King, who would never use a pseudo…well, you get the picture. (To add insult to injury, Antidote is also trying to collect 110 thousand dollars in “punitive” damages – though the lawyer assured the jury they “weren’t out to punish anyone.” What part of “punitive” do you not understand, sir? Are we talking “pseudo-punitive” damages here?)
I guess I’m trying to find the humor in all this because, frankly, Laura Albert’s Kafkaesque nightmare scares the hell out of me. I view JT Leroy’s life in the limelight as one spectacular, performance-art piece, a collaboration between author and audience like a singer and his fans – with the fans unfortunately turning on their idol when “tough gangsta rapper” is revealed to have grown up in a quiet New Jersey suburb. But does that make the tune itself any less catchy? That the lyrics can speak to someone’s experience so deeply is what keeps the music “real.” Which is why this demand for apologies, for remorse, outrages me so.
The defense lawyers are pounding hard the subject of Albert’s psychiatric history on the stand but Albert’s mental health is irrelevant. (Though as a good friend of mine pointed out, amputees who run marathons are called inspirational for turning disability into creative pursuit, so why isn’t Laura Albert being held up as a hero for turning her emotional “disability” into art?) No, this case is solely about a book – published as fiction, optioned as fiction, end of story. And this is why even the sanest of artists needs to heed the wake-up call, this frightening cautionary tale. As an author who published a 100% nonfiction memoir as fiction (only because my U.K. publisher’s “brand” is erotic fiction so I didn’t have much of a choice), will I one day be sued because my story happened, because I actually exist? Sound crazy? Laura Albert’s being sued right now because she exists and JT Leroy doesn’t. Fact is the only hoax, the only fraud perpetrated, is by a judicial system that could allow a baseless case like this to even come to trial.