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.