“It is not a hoax.”
In the 1990s, JT LeRoy was a literary sensation: a young man born and raised by a truck-stop prostitute; pimped out at young age, strung out on drugs and possessed by demons of the soul, JT channelled his tumultuous roots into his writing, becoming an overnight celebrity that counted famous actors and rockstars as well as the literati as his biggest fans.
There was just one problem: JT LeRoy didn’t exist. He was the construct of Laura Albert, and when the secret got out, everything came crashing down. But before that happened, Albert, her husband and her sister-in-law put on an act that would make even the most seasoned con artists’ head spin. Albert posed as JT LeRoy’s manager, adopting a questionable British accent in the process, and Savannah Knoop, Albert’s sister-in-law, took on the persona of LeRoy, a gender-fluid individual decked out like Breaking Bad’s Walter White, dark hat, dark sunglasses, sallow complexion. In retrospect it seems ludicrous, but at the time, it worked, and it worked well.
This is the subject of Jeff Feuerzeig’s utterly fascinating documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story. With Albert, a lively presences in leather fingerless gloves, narrating and archival answering machine messages filling in the blanks (question: why did Albert seemingly record every single phone call she’s ever had?), Author: The JT LeRoy Story paints a wild picture of the push of celebrity and the price of fame. The film isn’t so much an examination of how Albert pulled all this off, but instead a quest to get to the heart of why this all happened.
We learn about Albert’s troubled upbringing, her time institutionalized, her general self-loathing and her identity crisis. The author is never presented as someone scheming or conniving to fool millions; rather, she felt more comfortable in the skin of her pseudonym. Of course, lots of writers have used pseudonyms, but very few faced the same outrage that Albert did once the truth came out. It begs the question: did Albert and “JT LeRoy” become famous for their literary prowess, or because their fake backstory was too good to pass up?
Albert would like you to believe that it was the strength of her writing that launched her literary career. And it can’t be denied that she possesses a great talent with the printed word. But does her prose pack as much of a punch without the tragic, Southern Gothic backstory created for its author? Worse, there was an air of exploitation at work here, as in the early days of JT LeRoy, Albert claimed that she, as LeRoy, was HIV positive. Albert defends herself by saying the HIV angle got dropped from LeRoy’s story early on — but that doesn’t change the fact that it was there to begin with.
Author: The JT LeRoy Story isn’t passing judgement, though. Feuerzeig’s film remains neutral, instead letting the craziness of the story speak for itself. There’s a surreal moment late in the narrative: Albert, the real “JT LeRoy”, posing as her manager “Speedy”, starts a band with her husband Geoff. The band opens for “JT LeRoy” (actually Geoff’s half-sister Savanna in disguise as LeRoy) at readings, while claiming LeRoy wrote all of their lyrics. An outsider looking in could easily think that Speedy and her husband were exploiting JT LeRoy to get famous on their own; riding JT’s coat-tails, as it were. But of course, there was no JT, so there were no coat-tails to ride. The film is peppered with moments like this, some of which become so complex that you feel as if you need a flowchart to keep track of what’s going on.
As JT LeRoy’s acclaim rises, he/she picks up celebrities like Billy Corgan, Asia Argento, Gus Van Sant, David Milch and Courtney Love as hardcore fans (one of the most laugh-out-loud-funny scenes in the film is the result of a recorded call with Love where she pauses the conversation to loudly snort cocaine over the phone). But when the truth came out, many of these personalities were knocked for a loop and felt betrayed. More than betrayed, they felt confused: they had spent hours with JT LeRoy — how could he not be real?
And that’s the thing: to Laura Albert, he was very much real. It’s difficult to fully grasp Albert’s point-of-view, but Feuerzeig’s film perfectly conveys that to Albert, this wasn’t deception — it was just an extension of the truth. You may find that hard to swallow, but you’ll never doubt that Albert believes it. Author: The JT LeRoy Story is a difficult, thought-provoking doc that will leave your head-spinning. It’s the living proof that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.