Exposing the writer behind the notorious pseudonym, Jeff Feuerzeig’s Author: The JT LeRoy Story provides a documentary cross-examination.
Hiddenby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
In 1999, the books The Heart is Deceitful Above All Else and Sarah by an unknown author were published to great acclaim. They were credited to JT LeRoy, allegedly based on his experiences as a teenage male HIV-positive transgender truck-stop prostitute from the southern states of America. LeRoy quickly became a cult author celebrated by alternative-leaning, gushing celebrities such as Winona Ryder, Courtney Love, Bono, Madonna and Tom Waits.
In fact, JT LeRoy was Laura Albert, an overweight 40-year-old from Brooklyn living in San Francisco with her musician partner Geoff Knoop, who had invented the persona when she called a telephone crisis line for children. As LeRoy, she was encouraged to write by the therapist on the other end of the line, Dr Terrence Owens, who was taken in by her and continued to advise her on the phone for years.
Jeff Feuerzeig’s fascinating documentary unpicks what was behind the phenomenon. Was this, as it has been called, a great literary hoax? LeRoy’s work, though marketed as memoir, was published as fiction. So rather than hoax, should it be considered as simply being by an author writing under a pseudonym? Does it matter how the works came into being if they still have literary merit? Or were they acclaimed under false pretences?
The story is told to a large extent through numerous answering machine messages recorded on cassette – presumably done by Albert and, if so, seemingly rather calculated. Posing as JT LeRoy, she cleverly cultivated telephone relationships with authors such as Bruce Benderson and Dennis Spooner, film director Gus Van Sant (for whom she drafted part of the screenplay of Elephant), Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan and Deadwood creator David Milch. Once her books were published, it seems too that an astonishing number of celebrities had her phone number because she recorded intimate messages from them.
For obvious reasons, she restricted herself to phone contacts, but when JT LeRoy’s fame spread and calls for a public appearance became impossible to ignore, she enrolled Geoff’s sister Samantha to impersonate LeRoy in public as a shy androgynous figure in a blond Warhol-esque wig, dark glasses and hat. She herself now posed in public as his British assistant Speedie, with an accent about as convincing as Dick Van Dyke’s in Mary Poppins, though still maintaining her JT LeRoy identity for phone calls. They were even involved in promoting a sexual relationship with Italian actress Asia Argento as she sought to buy the rights to film the books – which she eventually did. Amazingly, they got away with the deception for over six years until Geoff spilled the beans and everything came crashing down through a New York Times exposé in 2005.
We don’t have interviews with hindsight from any of the celebrities who were taken in, and there’s only a confused and recriminatory message from Argento, but Albert speaks extensively to camera, explaining and justifying her actions. Possibly self-deluding, certainly not as sympathetic as she thinks she is, she denies she has multiple personality disorder and tries to portray herself as a victim of childhood abuse. Feuerzigg moves back and forth in time as he investigates each new development that’s revealed as the story unfolds, and there’s a lot of – presumably real – home movie footage of her as a child and a younger adult.
Author is well made and the animations of some of the stories work well. Though Albert is articulate, she’s also implicitly unreliable and the film lacks the other perspectives on her which it needs. Undeniably she has talent as a writer, but it seems she can only express herself through the medium of another personality. Is she a liar, a fantasist? Was this all a cynical ploy? A deliberate performance to seek fame? The film looks at the nature of identity on many levels but even so Feuerzeig’s unravelling of Albert’s story ultimately seems a little overlong.
Author: The JT LeRoy Story premiered at the Sundance London Festival, London and is released in the UK on 29 July 2016.