As ’90s “it” author JT Leroy once put it in a book title, the heart is deceitful above all things. But not as deceitful as LeRoy himself ended up being. Embraced as a hard-living, gender-bending literary wunderkind by everyone from Bruce Benderson to Bono, the troubled teen author was famously outed as a fabrication of Laura Albert, a somewhat less troubled 40-year-old woman. A new documentary about this bizarro episode in literary history, Author: The JT LeRoy Story, recently premiered at BAMcinemaFest– if you missed it there, Rooftop Films is offering another chance to see it, Aug. 18, with Albert and filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig in attendance.
This epic doc, clocking in at just under two hours, isn’t the first to tell the LeRoy story. An earlier one, The Cult of JT LeRoy, relied more heavily on interviews with folks like JT’s duped agent, Ira Silverberg, and Dr. Terrence Owens, the therapist who counseled “JT” over the phone and encouraged him to turn his lemon of a life into literary lemonade.
Thanks in part to snazzy animation, Author is considerably more polished than the 2014 doc, and it benefits from Albert’s participation and personal source material, including notebooks, home videos, and audio recordings. We listen along as she calls a suicide prevention hotline and speaks, for the first time, in the timid Southern drawl of the abused child who went by Jeremy and “Terminator.” JT (Albert took the name LeRoy from one of her phone-sex clients) claimed to be a gender-fluid teen who followed in the footsteps of his “lot lizard” mother, Sarah, and turned tricks at truck stops.
As JT rises to cult fame, we hear audio recordings of his phone conversations with fans like Courtney Love (who says she checked into her hotel under the name A.F. Right, as in Always Fucking Right, and nonchalantly does a line of coke on the phone), Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins (one of the select few to be eventually let in on Albert’s secret), Dennis Cooper (one of JT’s earliest literary boosters), and Tom Waits (who tells JT his stories are “very wet– and alive”).
For the most part, JT sounds star-struck and faux naive during these audio clips, but he sometimes gets feisty– like when he describes the time he locked himself in a restroom with a fax machine that one of his tricks gave him, and he had to tell someone banging on the door, “I’m not fixin’, I’m faxin’.”
Clearly, this film is a wonderful throwback to the ’90s and early aughts, when literally darlings and faxes still existed, and when a book party at Fez Cafe could draw the likes of Matthew Modine, Debbie Harry, and, hey, remember that bright young McSweeney’s thing, Arthur Bradford? As JT’s (i.e. Albert’s) gritty writing about raccoon penis totems and the like became more and more celebrated by people like Mary Karr and Lou Reed, Albert conscripted her boyfriend’s androgynous half-sister, Savannah Knoop, to play JT in public, and Knoop attended celebrity readings wearing the wig, sunglasses and hat that would become as iconic as Hunter S. Thompson’s aviators and cigarette (don’t be surprised if the JT costumes outnumber the HST ones this Halloween). Albert, meanwhile, rode her creation’s coattails by passing herself off in public as Speedy, JT’s gregarious British assistant.
This is where Author gets interesting: Somewhat disappointingly, we don’t hear much from Knoop about what it was like to be the public face of JT and hang with Asia Argento, who developed a fondness for the wigged one and adapted The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things into a movie. (For that, you’ll have to turn to Knoop’s memoir). But we do hear a good deal from Albert, who describes how adolescent issues with weight and molestation caused her to retreat into the shadows and use others as avatars. Albert thought of people like her sister, whom she would dress up for punk shows, as human Barbie dolls. But Knoop becomes more of a Frankenstein’s monster, relishing her role as JT to such a degree that she ends up making out with Argento and Michael Pitt while Knoop gets pushed out of the limelight.
A lot of people were pissed off when it was revealed in New York magazine that it was all a hoax. (Silverberg and others were particularly disgusted that JT had, early on, won sympathy by claiming to have AIDS.) But Albert didn’t consider it a hoax so much as a pseudonym gone awry (keep in mind, though JT’s work was thought to be based on his life story, it was categorized as fiction). And while Albert’s childhood (if we can trust her account of it) wasn’t as turbulent and sordid as the one she made up for JT, it’s clear that her act, and her writing, arose from a troubled place.
While some may have felt betrayed by the JT LeRoy fiasco at the time, it endures as an epic catfishing of literary gatekeepers and celebrity charlatans who sought “authenticity” and found it exactly where it wasn’t. Years later, there’s probably more value (if only entertainment value) in this twisted experiment than there would have been in the writing alone, had it remained untarnished. (Which is why James Franco apparently has a JT LeRoy biopic in the works.) But then again, I say this as someone who would probably pass up the New Yorker‘s fiction issue for a new episode of Nathan For You. There may be some who are still devastated that their literary hero fell from grace, just like many a Hole fan would be crushed if, say, it turned out that “the Corginator” had written Courtney’s best songs.
“Author: The JT LeRoy Story” will screen Aug. 18 at Industry City, 274 36th St., Sunset Park, Brooklyn; doors at 8pm, live music at 8:30pm, and film at 9pm, to be followed by a Q&A and after-party with free beer. Tickets here.