Indiewire Sundance Review: ‘Author: The JT LeRoy Story’ Casts a Major Literary Scandal in New Light

JT Leroy Story

By Eric Kohn | Indiewire
January 25, 2016

The tale of the brilliant non-fiction writer who didn’t exist is retold by his inventor.

The world first knew bestselling teen author JT LeRoy as a truck stop prostitute who started writing at the age of 15, not the 40-year-old mother from Brooklyn who invented him. By the time the truth came out in 2005, San Francisco-based writer Laura Albert had already published several alleged memoirs and attained global stardom. In “Author: The JT LeRoy Story,” director Jeff Feuerzeig tracks Albert’s bizarre scheme in her own words, constructing a fascinating treatise on creative desire, internal grievances and fame as compelling as anything the writer herself dreamed up.

Initially writing under the pseudonym “Terminator,” Albert garnered the interest of the publishing industry for genuine reasons. As one of her early agents puts it, her writing “spoke to an aspect of American culture we hadn’t heard before.” While these talking heads flesh out Albert’s process of shielding her identity, Feuerzeig mainly takes cues from Albert herself, a lively leather-clad woman who narrates her unorthodox rise against a backdrop of her own writing. The visual metaphor is clear enough — she lives in the confines of her own made-up stories — but the twists keep coming. Even those familiar with the basics won’t anticipate every detail Albert offers up.

In her terms, Terminator comes to her as a kind of alternate identity eager to express itself; she often discusses him in the third person. But the most compelling storytelling ingredient here comes from the bountiful tapes of phone calls between Albert and various figures from her real life drama. Slipping in and out of character, Albert initially talks through her personality issues with a therapist, but in short order she’s donning her avatar for conversations with a wide spectrum of big names who admire her work — even if they don’t realize the reality of its conception.

Worshipful callers range from Tom Waits and Courtney Love to Gus Van Sant and Asia Argento, with the last two eagerly pursuing film adaptations of LeRoy’s work. The tapes provide so much insight into Albert’s ability to play her part over the phone that they raise questions of their authenticity, though this uncertainty only adds to the allure of the subject matter.

While hardly a straightforward look at the LeRoy saga, “Author” crams in the highlights, from the immediate ripple effect of fandom surrounding Albert’s first novel “Sarah” to the even greater embrace of “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things.” By the time LeRoy becomes a bonafide rock star of the literary scene, Albert has constructed an entire infrastructure to support the plan, including her husband Geoff and Savannah Knoop, who grows more accustomed to playing LeRoy in public than Albert would like. To hear her tell it, even she can’t believe how much she gets away with the idea.

Because “Author” remains in the grip of an unreliable narrator, it leaves many questions on the table.
“It was like magic,” she says, and “Author” allows you to get swept up in it, as Feuerzeig threads together her story with a lively pileup of images, animation and those ubiquitous tapes. The fragmented approach mirrors Albert’s piecemeal construction of her public image.

“Author” hits its most compelling notes as Albert recalls her ability to hack the showbiz circuit, watching her sister-in-law receive praise from U2 (“the Bono talk”) and hang with the seductive Argento. But it’s Albert’s decision to confide in Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan and “Deadwood” creator David Milch about her identity that stands out, less for her candor than their reactions to it. While many felt betrayed by Albert’s choices, the open-minded perspectives of this pair suggest a deeper reading of her decision. Was JT LeRoy truly a hoax — or, in an era defined by slippery personalities hiding behind digital veils, somehow also real?

Because “Author” remains in the grip of an unreliable narrator, it leaves many questions on the table. Albert’s family — her husband and young child — remain shadowy figures only discussed through Albert’s asides. The specifics of her finances and legal processes remain underserved. But Feuerzeig, who previously explored a troubled artistic recluse with the comparatively traditional “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” does a fine job of keeping the focus on the abstract, existential dilemma as Albert faces it. Visiting the set of Argento’s “Heart” adaptation, she recalls the strangeness of watching Argento play an invented character as if it had once existed. Albert is especially adroit at explaining her conundrum. “My Barbie dolls have come to life,” she says.

As “Author” wrestles with the nature of identity as well as Albert’s shaky moral standing, it builds toward a finale in which everything falls apart. It’s tricky to parse the extent to which Albert deserves the ire sent her way, given how much she presents herself as a victim of a fragile emotional state. Even Albert can’t sort it all out. “The levels of it are absurd,” she says, and at least this much we know to be true.

Grade: A-

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Vulture The Documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story Is As Riveting As the Events That Inspired It

JT Leroy Story

By Bilge Ebiri
January 22, 2016

A very emotional Laura Albert, who once wrote (and fooled the entire literary world) as renegade, former-hustler-turned-teen-punk author JT LeRoy, took the stage to a warm round of applause this afternoon in Park City, at the end of the Sundance world premiere of Jeff Feuerzeig’s film Author: The JT LeRoy Story. How was she? Teary. Relieved. Maybe even at peace. She told the audience that she’s working on a memoir and continued to insist that, for her, JT LeRoy remains very real as a persona. Her appearance was a touching, intriguing moment, but it was also slightly anticlimactic — in a good way. Because Feuerzeig’s documentary makes Albert’s case about as thoroughly and eloquently as possible, even while chronicling the unthinkable strangeness of this tale, which might be considered one of the greatest literary hoaxes of all time.

The doozy of a story is hard to summarize. JT LeRoy was a literary sensation in the late 1990s and early 2000s, his energetic, incantatory prose painting vivid portraits of horror and abuse in a rough, dead-end world. All that, we were told, had come from real life experience: JT had been made to dress as a girl and pimped out at truck stops by his hustler mother, and had later been homeless on the streets of San Francisco. Once his fame took off, however, people like Billy Corgan and Winona Ryder and Tom Waits and Courtney Love came calling. Gus Van Sant optioned a novel and had him write much of Elephant. Asia Argento adapted his collection of short stories The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things and premiered it at Cannes. Bono spoke in interviews about his books, and gave the young author the famed “Bono Talk” backstage at one of his shows, warning him about the perils of fame.

Of course, JT’s stories were really the work of Laura Albert. She was fifteen years older than JT, married with a child, and had never even seen a truck stop. (“A Brooklyn housewife” was how one outlet referred to her when the story finally broke.) But it was a bit more complicated than that. Though JT had initially refused to show himself to the public, he started making appearances as his fame spun out of control. It turned out, later, that the person pretending to be the physical manifestation of JT LeRoy was in fact Laura Albert’s sister-in-law Savannah Knoop, a petite, pretty, boyish partner-in-crime who wound up doing a remarkable job channeling LeRoy’s voice. Albert, however, continued to be the one writing the stories and having the phone conversations, and in public, she would accompany “JT” as his close friend and manager Speedie, speaking with a somewhat ridiculous British accent.

The film includes a wealth of phone recordings, which are pure gold: LeRoy apparently had a very tender, long-running relationship with Billy Corgan (or “The Corganator,” as he calls himself), who turns out to have been thoroughly supportive even when the truth came out. Deadwood creator David Milch was also an admirer, and found out early about Albert’s true identity — and gave her a gig writing on his show. Courtney Love was also a frequent caller and confidante, and in what must be the film’s biggest laugh, we hear her interrupt a talk about redemption to snort some cocaine; “there’s a really small line of coke here and I don’t want to put you on hold,” she tells JT.

Even those familiar with the details of the JT LeRoy story probably don’t know all its many folds. Bedeviled by body image issues and an almost galactic sense of self-loathing, Albert wasn’t exactly the product of a happy youth. Abused as a young girl, she had been committed multiple times as a teen, eventually becoming a ward of the state and living in a group home. She’d also been calling suicide hotlines and crisis centers all her life, always posing as someone else. “It never occurred to me to call as myself,” she says in a recording made as a young girl. “What other response would there be other than, ‘You’re fat and ugly and disgusting and you deserve it’?” When JT eventually emerged out of her, Albert claims, he wasn’t just an identity and a voice, but a virtually autonomous persona living inside her. (Right down to his first name, Terminator, which Albert herself says she would never have chosen, “because it was a stupid name … But that was his name.”)

It’s a maze of identity: A girl who dreams of herself as a boy who dreams of himself as a girl, played by a girl pretending to be a boy, all overseen by the girl herself, playing another, different girl. But there’s a fascinating, timeless artistic question here, too. Albert wrote the stories (which, she points out, were always labeled as fiction). Albert adopted the voice. Albert created everything about JT LeRoy that drew people to JT LeRoy. Does the revelation that a physical entity named JT LeRoy didn’t actually experience those things in real life tangibly change the fiction on the page? And LeRoy wasn’t willed out of pure fancy, either. He emerged from a stew of influences — the troubled kids at Albert’s group home, the fuck-all creative destruction of punk, as well as the real-life author’s own encounter with childhood sexual abuse.

That Feuerzeig can navigate this hall of mirrors so cleanly and effectively is positively supernatural. We’re never bored or confused during Author. We get brief reenactments, animated interludes, home movies, glimpses from films both random and pertinent. But Author’s core, the thing that holds it all together, is twofold: Albert herself, interviewed on camera, talking in frank detail about her life and work; and those scrupulously recorded phone conversations, most of them as JT, with everybody from her shrinks and her publishers to (later) her celebrity friends and collaborators.

It’s an ingenious approach, for it takes the film out of the realm of exposé or straight journalism and essentially turns it into a poetically inflected conversation between Laura Albert and JT LeRoy — a kind of freewheeling meditation on the liminal self. The resulting film is wildly entertaining and informative, but also alive and ever-changing, provoking new questions at each turn. It’s the movie this crazy, endlessly fascinating story deserves.

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Thompson on Hollywood Sundance: Truth Battles Fiction in Amazon Pickup ‘Author,’ Starring Laura Albert, the Real JT LeRoy, Sundance: Truth Battles Fiction in Amazon Pickup ‘Author,’ Starring Laura Albert, the Real JT LeRoy

Albert choked up at the Sundance Q & A for Jeff Feuerzeig’s fascinating portrait of the damaged writer behind JT LeRoy.

Laura Albert

I sat in the Amazon Studios row at the Park City Library with execs Roy Price, Ted Hope and the Amazon team, who are finalizing a deal to acquire their first documentary pickup, “Author: The JT Leroy Story.” Backed by A&E IndieFilms, Brett Ratner’s RatPac Documentary Films and Vice, writer-director Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary weaves in and out of the mind of novelist Laura Albert, who finally steps forward to explain why she created several alternate personas, including novelist JT (Jeremiah Terminator) LeRoy.

Marie Therese Guirgis, Head of Documentary at Ratpac Entertainment, read Feuerzeig’s project proposal two years ago, “one of the most brilliant I’ve ever read,” she told me on the phone. “We jumped right in, it all came together with Vice and A & E. It’s been a long crazy journey.”

Albert’s many personas started first as characters on the written page, then as characters she would deploy on the phone. Some she played herself, others were taken on by her musician husband Geoffrey Knoop and his sister, Samantha, who played LeRoy in public.

JT Leroy Story

As always, past is prologue, and Albert couldn’t have concocted many of the narratives in “Author” (her novel “Sarah” and short story collection “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things” were published in 1999) if she hadn’t suffered some dramatic abuse herself, with a single, promiscuous mother and others who neglected her in various ways, sending her in and out of mental hospitals and group homes. She coped by writing down her vivid fantasies. The film reenacts her playing with her Barbie dolls, naked and upside down, bloodied and maimed.

Feuerzeig reveals her back story in various ways, aided visually by Asia Argento’s film adaptation of LeRoy’s “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things,” in which the director played LeRoy’s mother, a truck stop prostitute. Albert’s persona Speedie, an Australian assistant/manager to LeRoy, had to take a step back when the fetching young author/Knoop, who had announced he was undergoing a sex change, embarked on a sexy affair with Argento.

The movie lays bare that Albert herself was an ordinary looking fat girl who intuited that people, whether suicide hotline shrinks — one talked to her for years about her multiple personalities — literary agents, publishers or celebrities, would take her more seriously if she was male. LeRoy was a voice, a character inside her, and when Albert’s books took off, she first had celebrities fill in at readings for the shy writer (while she sat in the audience) and then dressed up Samantha Knoop, the sister of her husband, in a blonde wig and glasses. It worked like a charm.

Albert narrates the story, sometimes as herself, and often in voiceover as LeRoy. The most amazing thing that Feuerzeig was able to do was use all the telephone audio and video tapes Albert saved of many, many conversations, including with Gus Van Sant — who flirted with adapting “Sarah” and based “Elephant” on Albert’s uncredited screenplay — and Courtney Love, who talks about doing a line of coke on the audio.

LeRoy’s celebrity allure is another aspect of this story, as they were attracted to him like a moth to flame, from Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine to Shirley Manson and Bono. Of course in 2005 when the media investigated various hoaxes that arose about who LeRoy really was, his celebrity friends felt betrayed and angry, and Albert withdrew from the fray, supported by the chums who had divined her secret: “Smashing Pumpkins” frontman Brian Corgan and David Milch, who had hired her to write on “Deadwood.”

Feuerzeig was intrigued when a friend turned him onto the story, which was reported at length in Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Salon, The New York Times and New York Magazine, “these amazing massive pieces by great journalists who weighed in on the story,” he said at Sundance. “But one voice was glaringly missing from all this journalism: the voice of the person who wrote these books, a voice I’d love to hear.”

Jeff Feuerzeig and Laura Albert at Sundance

He reached out to Laura Albert, who checked out his 2005 film “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” and agreed to talk. She told him she liked two things about him: “You’re Jewish and you’re punk rock.”

Feuerzeig went out of his way to not judge her: “I wanted her to tell it, it’s a very subjective film, the theme of fiction and where does fiction come from came out of my research. It meant a lot to me to go deep into why did this happen and try to understand it, her back story, which was never told, and she shared that. That made me think about where fiction comes from, and writing; I write, have friends who write, anyone who has ever written channels voices and characters male and female.”

The director was impressed with two POV docs with unreliable narrators, “The Kid Stays in the Picture” and James Toback’s “Tyson,” as well as Jerry Stahl’s Fatty Arbuckle novel “I Fatty.” “Those are singular, strong choices,” he said. “Sometimes perhaps you want an outside perspective. I respect directors who stick to this idea of a story told in a singular voice. Everybody complains that they hate talking head documentaries: then don’t make one!”

Feuerzeig uses animation to bring some of Albert’s JT LeRoy stories to life, and did massive amounts of research, digging into Albert’s archive, “the largest on the planet, there’s nothing not saved. I went through it carefully. I tried to make sense of it for myself. Hopefully I will be able to tell it, it’s so complex, with layers of understanding. The onion kept unfolding, even watching it tonight, there are things I’m still discovering — what happened in the layers of her heart, all these great stories are hidden in the books, I had to find those pieces and work them into the narrative, like finding Paul is Dead on Beatles recordings.”

Clearly, the process of collaborating on the film has made it possible for Albert to continue the work in progress that is growing into her own body, so that her voice is her own. “This is a ‘This is Your Life’ moment,” she said as she joined the conversation after the first Sundance screening. “It’s such a complex opening. It’s difficult. An amazing night.” She chokes up. “This will take a lot of therapy to process.” She cited David Milch, who advised her to “give yourself over to the process of life.” “David Milch told me to shut the fuck up, I had to learn to do that,” she said. “Whenever there was pain I would eat. Whenever I needed to tell something I needed to go to another [persona]… If I could have I would have. I couldn’t turn this body into a boy.”

She thanked Feuerzeig for using his “craft and technique to allow me to come face to face with the story. I have a lot of loving people around me, who held my hand through the entire process. It’s a complex story, it could make a television series, this is like a piece of me. It’s phenomenal to be here. People laughed at shit I found funny. That’s really cool. It’s amazing to see people open to finding me.”

Feuerzeig “got hold of my paradigm,” she said. “Being Jewish was important, a certain way of being, there’s a way of rejecting societal norms or standards. My motives were not the motives attributed to me. I had somebody looking at it from the outside, who I felt I could trust. I trusted his artwork and his genius, I was grateful I didn’t have to do it, I was so down deep stuck in the hole I needed someone to get me out, I did not have the ability to get myself out.”

Thanks to the movie Albert feels safe again, and is writing a memoir, she said: “That to me is the biggest gift of this, I’m writing again, and I didn’t think that would happen. When everything gets crazy and I get into my shit, all this helps me to come more into myself. When I get to that point, I have a tool to write in an ordered universe that makes sense. Now I am going back and writing a memoir. It’s phenomenally powerful. I always had a directive. I don’t completely understand what I am here to do, but I know it’s of service. I hold so many peoples’ stories, from the group home and all the people I went through institutions with — ‘tell my fucking story.’ I can’t be bought, I know what I am here to do. By any means necessary it will get done.”

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