Preface to the 2019 Movie Tie-in Edition of Girl Boy Girl
We are standing in an empty warehouse in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. It is the first day on the set of the movie based on Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy. I don’t know exactly who is clamoring toward the monitors, I just know that we all are. Later, I will come to realize that many who kneel down toward the light of the screens to take a snapshot with their smartphones are, in form, called Continuity People.
And so am I, I think, obliquely.
A Continuity Person keeps the reality of the artificial world of the film intact, maintains the integrity of the fiction by making sure that glasses don’t fill themselves, ashes don’t reconstitute themselves into cigarettes, and time works in only one way—forward. In writing this memoir shortly after the experience of embodying JT LeRoy had ended, I had a similar expectation: that the conventions of the form would impose a linear shape to the mass of memory and emotion coalescing and diffusing within me.
I wanted to trace how I had come from point A, agreeing to do a one-time appearance as a fictional alter ego of my brother’s partner at the time, writer Laura Albert, to point Q, six years of becoming so deeply entangled with this fictional character and the writer that I could barely think of myself without him or his creator. Writing down the story from memory became a process, not of convincing, thankfully, but of specificity in viewpoint.
This viewpoint is told from the perspective and experience of the object. Yes, I just called myself an object. That’s the thing about getting inside of your own meta-world—you become your own disassociated ant moving through space in service to the story, and any detail of your life is always readily available to pluck and plunk into the master script. Sometimes you have to address whether the story is running roughshod over what you want as an actual object in the world. I became used to referring to myself—even existing in—the third-person, which, it turns out, is exactly as liberatory and circumscribed as the first person. I just ran up against parameters in different places.
My story is the story of multiple bodies trying to occupy one body; specifically, Laura and her fictional alter ego JT and me all trying to occupy my body. Things get tricky when there is no space. And that is maybe the challenge that kept me coming back for more JT experiences. I wanted to see how much could be housed in this body. At moments, like a chorus, these multiple voices come together to share one consciousness in sync. At other moments, the story holds just one person trying to fit into another’s very specific set of terms; another person trying to cram everything they need in the world into another’s set of terms. The story, told from memory, ends up being the messiness and complication of two people’s intimacy, the constant testing of each other’s boundaries. Savannah and Laura’s desires fuel the action in the story— why they want what they want, potentially a series of pathologized reasons tethered to the past, becomes irrelevant. It is what they want, in the present and in the future, that keeps them with each other and with JT, and propels them through time. At the moment of the reveal, this tenuous balancing act collapses. When the world crowds in, that is when I discover the limits of what my body can hold.
In writing the screenplay for Girl Boy Girl, cowritten with the film’s director, Justin Kelly, once again I found myself retelling the story, and felt the changing shape of it under my fingers. Story glitches—an outsized emotion, an unforgettable image, a motivation that once felt so personal and now can barely be remembered—are smoothed and traced over again, transposing memories until the logistics fade and the emotions materialize as one clear trajectory. Stepping away from the cluster at the monitor, I zoom in on the actors’ faces on my handheld device—dumbstruck by the familiar yet alien gestures caught on screen, the spazz-out campy stress mouth of Laura’s fictional author, JT, the knee bend, the hands up dramatically toward the sky of Laura’s fictional best friend/manager of JT, Speedie.
A day and a half before the movie begins shooting, I am driving with my sweetheart, Lee, through the blinding light and low scrub brush of the Badlands when I receive a text from Justin. He wonders if I could make up a few sentences of JT prose for the reading scheduled to shoot the following Monday. As Lee drives, I pull out my old beat-up laptop from the backseat, and stretch my legs up on the dashboard, staring at my socks, feeling absolutely hopeless. A few pithy sentences. That’s all. Think about style. Think about . . . emotion. I try to move my mind toward the proposed word puzzle—something that points to the prose, but is not the prose itself. I look out at the side mirror, the plumes of dust rising in the wake of our car. I haven’t read the JT books in a while, but they are, to some degree, seared into my brain. There is a part, I mumble, where JT and his mom are on a road trip, and she anoints him as her map reader, and he can’t really read the map, but he pretends he can so that he can hold his mother’s attention. I look ahead. Fill me up, spirit, fill me with some idea, with words! Lee starts to say something about there is a blade of light, an ashtray flying through the air. I type rapidly. And the cigarette butts scattered on the ground, words dart like small fish from our mouths and we catch them, and transfer them into different vessels, like we are cleaning the water in a fish bowl. The sun has risen to its highest point, and the land shivers around us as if we’re surrounded by a lake. JT, he arranges them . . . in a row . . . tap tap tap . . . color-coding them with . . . circles . . . with rings, with lipstick rings . . . we pour the bright fish back into their bowl. Each shade a different secret need. As we hit a main artery road, we speed down the freshly paved highway. Whizzing past the freshly rolled haystacks, we are elated, ready to start another piece of text—Lee blurts out, My buddy Lucky’s got the goods!
And then abruptly we are pulled over by a cop for speeding. Fuck! The car is a mess, full of crap from both of our lives commuting back and forth between coasts. I look down to notice my seat smeared with chocolate, my feet wading in corn husks (raw corn a favorite of this trip), orange peels, trash, and cracker crumbs. By happenstance we are white, and not by happenstance, the cop lets us move on without too much ado.
That night we get in to Bowbells, North Dakota, and find the number of a woman advertising that she has a few cabins on a lot for rent. There is a constant steady cool wind blowing, like a kiss. In bed with the window open, we hold each other. I lie awake. Now in the night, as the wind floats through the curtains toward our heads, it feels more pressing, insistent, I can feel my anxiety matching it. The winds of memory glitching. Into the future and into the past.
When I wrote the memoir, one of the last things that Laura said to me was, “Just because you played a writer doesn’t mean you are one.” Looking back on it, I wonder about that. It feels mysterious to me. Writing fiction is a space of possibility for inhabiting different consciousnesses. For impersonation. Is writing only in the saying, or can it also be in the doing, out in the world? Speeding down that highway with Lee, writing under deadline, about to arrive at the movie set, which felt like some approaching mirage, there was something about that moment that felt—not exactly like playing a writer, but like living inside some reality that was not quite my own. Because the proposal of the day had been to write someone else’s words, I was free to imagine and to speak with a different voice. I had tapped into the joy of pretending. Joy— which enters suddenly, and then leaves as fast as it came.
Granted, the pact on the “page” between author and reader is quite different from the terms with which individuals out in the world interact. Out in JT land the boundaries are blurry, hard to read, and ever shifting. There might, indeed, be a reason why people don’t often “play” with this sort of writing/performance vérité out in the world—and that is that the complete blurring of the lines between fiction and lived experience can fundamentally fuck with you and everyone around you.
There are other versions of the story, from other points of view. I’m vaguely certain that art cannot be everything for everyone, and in telling the story as specifically as I can I hope it inspires others toward their own individual perspectives.
Girl Boy Girl is a portrait of a young person’s life in which an artist (Laura) upends my core belief system and changes the way I think about the world and the making of art and life forever. My life with Laura, with JT, and many experiences since have shown me that one set of terms does not work for everyone else. Lived experience, felt experience, and imagined experience all combine to construct our idea of reality. The hard drawing of the line between truth and fiction is artificial and will always work to empower some voices and muzzle others, regardless of where the division is made.
I used to feel certain that reality was a complete construction. These days, whether because I have grown older, or because current events in our political climate have gotten so fantastical (with real consequences), I’m not certain. To quote the Savannah character in the movie, “All I’m sure about is that I am not so sure.” But every time I revisit this story it reminds me that truth is a constructed reality formed by many sources, that the most pointed moments of reveal are usually a convergence of years of multiple actions, often, a tangle of call and response from multiple parties that rarely fit tidily into a headline or a sound bite.