The lively documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story purports to explain and defend the phenomenon that was “Jeremiah ‘Terminator’ LeRoy,” the socially phobic, southern-accented, homeless, transgender (male-born), HIV-positive teenage prostitute and transgressive novelist who turned out to be a fat Jewish 30-something woman from Brooklyn.
I use the adjective fat advisedly, because that’s the word Laura Albert — the woman who was JT but pretended to be “Speedie,” JT’s working-class British confidante — repeats in the lengthy interview that shapes the movie. At her peak, Albert weighed 320 pounds, and the most sympathetic way to frame her choices is that she refused to let a body that caused her shame derail her drive to be accepted. Onscreen, Albert recounts how, in the early ’80s, she fell in love with punk culture, but because there was “nothing worse than a big, fat punk,” she dressed up her less-heavy younger sister and sent the girl off to have adventures in clubs and report back. She cultivated multiple accents to present herself on the phone as anyone she pleased. And when she decided to write in the mode of William Burroughs or the Rimbaud-esque gay boundary-flouter Dennis Cooper, she figured she had a better chance of acceptance by the likes of Cooper himself, Bono, Gus Van Sant, Courtney Love, Tom Waits, Lou Reed, Winona Ryder, etc. as a homeless, southern-accented, transgender, AIDS-suffering teenage prostitute than as the overweight, 35-year-old mother of a small boy. Was she wrong? Easy answer: No. The more complicated question centers on the nature of literary “authenticity,” and whether “LeRoy’s” work — principally two novels, Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Else — was graded, thanks to her bogus autobiography, on a Brobdingnagian curve.
The director, Jeff Feuerzeig, is best known for his clear-eyed biographical doc The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which also centers on an outsider embraced by hipsters. In that case, though, he had the real thing: a manic-psychotic singer-songwriter whose lo-fi recordings sound like messages beamed from another planet. In Author: The JT LeRoy Story, Feuerzeig offers plenty of photos and home movies to prove that Albert was indeed the hefty, unpopular child of an unsupportive mother and to begin laying the case that a fictional persona — when sufficiently heartfelt — can be as psychologically truthful as its nonfiction counterpart. Given Albert’s avid and unprecedented input, the film can’t help but seem a rejoinder to Marjorie Sturm’s 2014 doc The Cult of JT LeRoy, which portrays its subject as, among other things, lying, manipulative, sadistic, reckless, demented, and evil.
The truth is likely somewhere in the middle, but if you can detach yourself from the morality of the situation (the worst injuries were not to embarrassed scenesters but struggling adolescents who revered JT for sublimating childhood trauma into art), both films are madly entertaining. This one gives you less of Albert’s more incisive critics (among them the literary agent Ira Silverberg) and more of her own zany voices and the Moth–like monologues of life on the high wire. While the public face of JT was her 20-something sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop — in sunglasses, dressed and coiffed to suggest an alluring Cousin It — Albert underwent gastric-bypass surgery (and cheekbone augmentation? That’s how it looks to me) and came out looking more the way she saw herself. A cap, gloves, a sleeveless mesh top, and lots of makeup completed the effect. But even with a new face and body, she had to stand back and watch little Savannah thronged by paps on the red carpet at Cannes and get whisked away by celebs. She consoled herself with the two important people to whom she blurted the truth: Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins and David Milch, who would hire her to write for his HBO series Deadwood.
The film lingers on the word that bugs Albert most: hoax, which got thrown at her a lot after Stephen Beachy speculated in this magazine in late 2005 that JT was Laura was JT. (A few months later, a New York Times writer nailed it all down, after which a film company that had bought the rights to Sarah successfully sued her for fraud.) How can it be a hoax, she asks, when the books were labeled “fiction”? And the phenomenon, she insists, wasn’t her doing: “JT LeRoy was an accident.”
What Feuerzeig doesn’t fully come to terms with is her hoaxing of assorted phone buddies (among them, Cooper, Van Sant, Waits, Love, and San Francisco psychologist Terrence Owens, who treated “JT” for years) whose calls she taped and the movie lets us hear. Feuerzeig never gets around to asking “Why did you tape these calls?” and “How do you feel about having strung people along — and in some cases wrung them out?” I suspect he’s taken with her insistence that JT was, on some existential plane, as real as Laura — that “his” voice was “his” own. Maybe that’s why he builds to Laura’s revelation (which isn’t much of one at this point) that she was sexually abused as a little girl. It buttresses the case that JT was the only voice that the victim inside her could use to tell her story.
It’s an appealing idea. Rubbishy, but appealing. I knew exhibitionists like Albert at drama camp many years ago. They were great mimics. They told brilliant stories, some about their own abuse. Give them a Ouija board and they’d have you convinced that there were dead people in the room — and I think some of them might have convinced themselves. There is such a thing as a passionate, headlong phony, and you’ll meet her in Author: The JT LeRoy Story. If only the novels had been less over-the-top in their accumulation of misery and depravity. Hindsight isn’t kind to Sarah, which could be read out loud at parties to much mirth, along with cries of “How could anyone ever have bought this???”
*This article appears in the September 5, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.