Film Review: Author: The JT LeRoy Story

Fascinating first-person account from the author herself of a complex masquerade that stunned the literary and celebrity worlds.
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If this election season isn’t enough to support the adage that truth is stranger than fiction, there’s more evidence of that notion to be found in Author: The JT LeRoy Story, Jeff Feuerzeig’s fascinating documentary giving voice to the person behind a sensational literary scandal that erupted a decade ago.

JT LeRoy earned critical raves and a huge celebrity cult following in 1999, first for his novel Sarah and then for his collection of short stories entitled The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. The writing was sensational, but even more remarkable was who LeRoy was: a gender-fluid teenager from West Virginia with a past as a drug addict and truck-stop hustler. His talent and his singular background led to adoration from an extremely hip coterie of famous fans, including Lou Reed, Courtney Love, Tom Waits and Gus Van Sant. But, following investigations by writers from New York magazine and The New York Times, it was ultimately revealed that JT LeRoy was actually Laura Albert, a middle-aged mother from Brooklyn. The person making public appearances as the shy, reclusive JT was Albert’s sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, sporting sunglasses and a blonde wig. In an instant, Albert was shunned and disgraced.

Feuerzeig sensed there was more to this story than a devious woman punking the literary and glitterati world; when the scandal broke, the one figure absent from the conversation was Laura Albert herself. The director won over Albert after she viewed his 2005 doc The Devil and Daniel Johnston, about the cult singer-songwriter and his battle with schizophrenia—it spoke to her own personal struggles. A fan of first-person documentaries like Tyson and The Kid Stays in the Picture, Feuerzeig decided to let Albert narrate her own story and her strange, whirlwind journey.

As befits a talented writer, Albert proves a compelling storyteller—and a frank one, detailing a painful childhood as an obese, self-loathing girl who would craft elaborate identities and become dependent on telephone hotlines for desperate callers. (The film’s final passages reveal that she was a victim of sexual abuse at a very young age.) The JT persona emerged during those calls, and the gifted author was born when a sympathetic online therapist suggested that this young man take up writing. When JT sent “his” fiction to writers he admired for feedback, the response was overwhelming: A literary star was born, but one unprepared to face the world as herself. Yet the allure of all that A-list praise was irresistible; Albert got a taste of that world as “Speedie,” JT’s frumpy confidant with a fake British accent.

Yes, some egos were bruised by the misrepresentation, particularly Asia Argento, who made a film of The Heart Is Deceitful and became a lover of Knoop’s JT surrogate. But Albert makes a strong case that much of this dizzying ride was beyond her control and she had no choice but to follow its treacherous path. (Ironically, when the crash came, Albert had begun confiding in champions like rock star Billy Corgan and “Deadwood” creator David Milch.)

Like so many stories that make headlines, the saga of Laura Albert is much more complex and nuanced than that of the craven opportunist that was portrayed. And Feuerzeig makes all those wild twists and tangents remarkably clear within his artfully kaleidoscopic treatment of this one-of-a-kind tale, aided by the voluminous archives of photos, diary entries, doodles and phone messages that Albert herself compiled over the years.

Ten years on, some young people at screenings of Author are baffled by the media’s outrage, so accustomed they’ve become to the usage of online avatars. And, though there surely was subterfuge involved, the scandal does not extend to the writing itself—all penned by Albert and prime for rediscovery.

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