Author: The JT LeRoy Story: Fact, Fiction, and Everything in Between, by Ian Brill
In Author: The JT LeRoy Story, documentarian Jeff Feuerzeig attempts to untangle the strange story of deception and identity that is the JT LeRoy phenomenon. In doing so, he raises questions of the kind of truth that can be found in literature, and what is the personal cost in finding this truth.
There is no JT LeRoy. There never was. LeRoy is a creation of Laura Albert, an identity that arose from her compulsion to speak to crisis hotlines. As LeRoy, Albert confessed to the life of a HIV-positive teen male prostitute, working the truck stops of Virginia. In reality, Albert was a married woman from New York, living in San Francisco now. One therapist, only knowing LeRoy as a voice over the phone, recommend writing stories. LeRoy, or Albert—yes, keeping the names straight does get confusing – faxed a story in, and a literary career began. The novel Sarah was published, followed by the short story collection The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. Both were published under the name JT LeRoy. Both were widely-praised hits. People thought these books were LeRoy chronicling his life story. Soon, Albert had her sister-in-law Savannah Knoop dress as the androgynous LeRoy, while Albert played LeRoy’s English assistant Speedie. LeRoy was entrenched in the world of celebrity, until the hoax was exposed in 2005.
Albert is the main interview subject in the documentary and it is the first time she has spoken publicly about this affair. Feuerzeig structures the film by going back and forth between Albert discussing LeRoy’s “career” and her own life. Albert’s own life is marked by sadness. She was raised by neglectful parents, made fun of for her weight as a kid, and stayed in youth group homes. Feuerzeig knits together the two narratives to make it clear that Albert took on the role of LeRoy to process her own life. He edits Albert’s interviews to find moments in the LeRoy hoax that mirror events in Albert’s younger life, such as when teen Albert dressed her sister as a punk fashion icon so the sister would go out in her stead. It’s clear this is an antecedent to what Albert and Knoop would do to create LeRoy.
Author is not a purely sorrowful tale, though. Much of the film is a surreal trip into the world of celebrity. Feuerzeig fills the film with recorded phone call between LeRoy and the many celebrity friends he garnered. It’s ironic that such a guarded persona, Knoop always wore wigs and large sunglasses, would yield such candid moments from Courtney Love and Billy Corgan. Those are just some of the amazing recorded moments Feuerzeig utilizes. The film has incredible footage, such as Albert attending the first reading of LeRoy material…as a totally anonymous audience member. The film transports the audience back to the late-90s and early-00’s with its footage of film festivals and other celerity soirees.
Feuerzeig’s editorial hand is strongly felt but it’s necessary. Albert often speaks elliptically of the LeRoy affair, often coming up to edge of insight and then drawing back. She remains captivating nevertheless, looking at the camera with a combination of vulnerability and confidence. It’s almost scary how she goes into these different personas.
The one moment where Feuerzeig’s narrative feels overstated is at the very end, where a traumatic event in Albert’s life is treated as a “twist” or “grand reveal.” It takes a tragic moment, one many people have gone through, and makes it feel like something unspeakable, when speaking about such things is vitally important. But I do see what Feuerzeig is doing. He’s taking a startling aspect his subject’s life and turning it into a literary device (indeed, he said as much in his WTF with Marc Maron podcast interview). This is what Albert did herself, not with a real person but with circumstances that real people go through. Albert can invent LeRoy’s HIV-positive status, and then discard it just as easily. Those living with HIV cannot discard what they are living with. So both the subject and director are taking deeply personal matters and using them as storytelling devices. Do they do so to reveal deeper personal truths? Do they go about it in exploitative ways? Are such things mutually exclusive? Feuerzeig leaves those answers to the audience. It creates an unsettling but always-fascinating film.