I just got home from a documentary that made my head spin. It’s a movie about art, celebrity, identity, the nature of truth, credibility, and also about vicious moral outrage and righteous indignation. That indignation might have faded a touch since this story’s “big reveal”, but the two elderly women across the aisle from me started making murmurs of shock that grew louder and louder as the film progressed until they inevitably walked out about 30 minutes from the movie’s conclusion. These women’s reactions are hard evidence that this tale can still stir up visceral emotions in those who haven’t been previously scandalized by it.
A narrative collaboration between director Jeff Feuerzeig and the saga’s central figure Laura Albert, Author: The JT LeRoy Story shines a light on an unseen facet of a story that rocked the literary world and left even some of the most avant-garde celebrities clutching their pearls in a debatably authentic demonstration of disgust. The speed-blurb version is that an author who published three novels under the name Jeremiah Terminator “JT” LeRoy amassed acclaim, reknown, and celebrity fans while propagating the illusion he was a young boy with gender identity issues and a traumatic past involving prostitution and abuse. LeRoy was eventually unmasked as Laura Albert, who had fashioned herself a part of JT’s entourage by posing as another of her own creations, his personal assistant ‘Speedie’. An additional element that added a bizarre orchestration to the story was that Albert’s sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, had posed as LeRoy in public appearances, claiming crippling anxiety and not wanting to divulge his true identity by showing his face, always hiding behind large dark sunglasses and a blonde wig.
The novels of JT LeRoy encapsulate a slice of life that invented a dark new form of magical realism. The events depicted were clearly inspired by what the author claimed as his own history, but didn’t exist as simply a documented retelling of what was assumed had actually happened. Maybe this is why the sheer outrage sparked by the controversial unveiling of LeRoy’s origins confused me in its intensity. Sarah was dripping with creative license and had people worshiping at jackalope altars and wearing raccoon penis bones around their necks, habits I highly doubt anyone in real life has practiced. It seemed like a reality viewed through a kaleidoscope lens, with familiar stories distorted into new colors and shapes that were beautiful in their newness and oddity.
For a while, JT LeRoy was the toast of the art world, and every self-professed outsider doted on his achievements and clamored for a few minutes of his time. It was these people, the fringes, the queer rebels, the ones who claimed to be both subversive of and alienated from societal norms that were the the most eager to burn Albert at the stake without ever turning the mirror on themselves and examining exactly why they were drawn to this beautiful boy’s poetic tales of woe. In doing research for this review, I revisited the aftermath of the initial shit-storm and pulled up some irate rants from LeRoy’s contemporaries and former friends. One of the most common accusations is exploiting the narrative of abused, homeless, queer youth for profit and personal gain, part of which could possibly hold water considering JT’s “mystique”, as it were, was surrounded by what could be interpreted as a heavy-handed helping of tragedy porn. If this had been a premeditated manipulative act, however, wouldn’t there have been more of a primary focus on money and greed? A particularly brutal 2006 tirade by sex educator Susie Bright compared Albert’s creation of the JT LeRoy persona with gay fanfiction written by what she assumes are heterosexual teenage girls on the internet, except as Bright points out, Albert is a privileged middle-aged woman. Was Albert really all that privileged, though, or was that simply the go-to perception lens of witch-hunters angry that they felt deceived? This new film answers that question and reveals a sad vulnerability in the real individual behind a myth.
All of this may have been shocking in 2006, but it’s 10 years later and our universe have evolved. We live in a post-Catfish world where stories of secret alter-egos and false identities are nothing new, and technology has progressed to a point where the nest of anonymity that gave Albert’s fictional persona a chance to thrive is now an almost completely obsolete reality. That’s probably why the younger demographic of the audience I saw the film with actually laughed out loud at some of the more dramatic retellings of the story, and I can’t necessarily fault them for that. It’s something that sounds absurd, over the top, almost fictional in and of itself and that’s probably why the events still hold enough attention to deserve their own documentary. It’s a story so bizarre you can hardly believe it was real, and you get sane-person brownie points for washing your hands of the strangeness of it all, reacting in dumbfounded exaggeration and exclaiming “why would anyone DO that?”
That’s just the backstory, though. I have barely even gotten to the film itself, and this is supposed to be a review. Maybe it’s fitting in a way, since LeRoy’s detractors claim that his tragic backstory is what made him famous and not the quality of Albert’s writing. I don’t believe it, but some people do. I wonder sometimes if they’ve actually read the work. The idea of whether art can stand independently from its creator is something that is often under debate. Is a story a nebulous thing that exists without the influence of the person who dreamed it into being? I think the sensational elements of the backstory are why it was necessary to tell this story from Laura Albert’s specific point of view, and as a film it certainly packs a gut-punch of drama and plot twists that would make her alter-ego proud. New controversies even sparked from the documentary’s release. The main narrative is framed around recorded conversations and answering machine messages that Albert has collected and saved over the course of her time posing as LeRoy, including dialogue with Asia Argento, the Italian actress that directed and starred in the 2004 film adaptation of LeRoy’s novel The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. Argento has recently stated her anger that Albert recorded the conversations without her knowledge, as well as insinuations presented in the movie that allude to a possible affair between her and Savannah Knoop.
Argento may have a right to be indignant, but to me the film strongly succeeds in portraying Albert as a sympathetic character and her meticulous hoarding of these audio recordings is one of the minor clues as to why. It could be argued that these recordings were simply a way of providing documentation of the situation, but to me it presents a picture of a person existing in a place outside of reality and at the same time desperately wanting concrete ties to it. As the film progresses, we are made aware that Laura Albert and JT LeRoy are similar in certain ways. They both feel out of place in their own identity, and both lived through a childhood rife with abuse and neglect. One could easily call Albert an unreliable narrator and accuse her of being the modern day equivalent of the boy who cried wolf, and I’m sure many have questioned her stories of sexual abuse and institutionalization due to what they believe is an inability to distinguish reality from fiction. However, doubting Albert’s credibility seems to add an element of malice to those disgusted by her very existence. That might be the saddest and strangest component to this story: that people loved an imaginary character so much that they gleefully found every possible reason to tear the real person behind him apart.
A lot of LeRoy’s contemporaries in the queer literary scene have gone on at length about how she fetishized the struggles of at-risk queer youth, and that does not sit right with me. There’s a point in the film where after the curtain has been torn away and Albert’s identity has been leaked to the press, someone leaves her a voice message saying “the transgender community is going to fucking lynch you.” At this point, I might as well reveal my personal stake in this odd story, which is that I am a transgender man who did not come out publicly until I was 30 years old. Even though Albert is a woman and I’m a gay man, I relate to her because I know what it’s like to hate your own identity and believe you can never be the person you are inside of your head. Albert gives an impression of having made peace with herself, and after getting gastric bypass surgery and losing extensive amounts of weight, she almost thought that maybe it was possible to be loved for her own merit by this community of weirdos and misfits that set her creation on such a sky-high pedestal, and that was ultimately her undoing.
The film’s narrative, while well composed, isn’t without some minor flaws and holes. One does wonder why Albert’s closest confidant and the first person she came clean to about the charade was Smashing Pumpkins front man Billy Corgan. Anyone familiar his recent social media comments on his mistrust and dislike of transgender women might doubt whether he’d express any sympathy for a gender-variant individual, even if Albert confessed the truth to him shortly after he was introduced to LeRoy. It’s also a bit anti-climactic. After Albert’s castle of tall tales is burned to the ground, we don’t exactly have a clear picture of her life beyond the fall, other than a short line of text at the end stating that “she now writes under her own name.” The documentary definitely would have won points with me if it showed the ferocity of how she was excommunicated, the avalanche of vitriolic think-pieces by former friends that continued as recently as 2013. That’s the most important talking point that’s missing: Author is all about how how fantasy can inspire intense devotion, and how deeply people loathe a reality that doesn’t match the fantasy they constructed for themselves.
Albert seems happy being herself now, but I’m not always sure I am. I’m solid in my male identity, but I haven’t wiped away all traces of self-loathing. I remember a time when the internet was truly an escape and not just an extension of the cruelties of real life. It wasn’t possible for a hate-mob of strangers to find your home address and stalk you IRL just because you wrote a tweet someone didn’t like. It was a space where you were free to disclose or not disclose whichever parts of your identity you saw fit, and as a person who did not feel at home in my own body I took great comfort in it. For me, it was the only safe place in all the world because I could re-organize the building blocks of who I was and construct my identity from the inside out. I didn’t have to hate my entire physical presence and I could delete abusive relationships and parts of my past I no longer wanted to acknowledge by simply never mentioning them. When I started interacting with other people, I wasn’t prepared for what happened next: people listened to me, took me seriously, celebrated me, loved me. It was on a much smaller scale, but I can see why Albert was so infatuated by the attention. JT LeRoy was an amalgam of her own personality quirks and society’s obsession with youth and beauty, an obsession highly exacerbated in artist communities with a healthy helping of melodrama. JT was the perfect androgynous boy that stepped out of the collective fantasies of modern queer fiction, the product of the outsider-creative culture that heaped adoration on Albert married with the punk scene she loved as a teen. These people built a Frankenstein monster from their own desires and then ripped out its stitches to watch with fascination and faux aghast as its body parts fell to the ground.
Beyond the fanfare and the drama, a person made art that still exists in and of itself. I feel that the flipped identity narrative might potentially have a silver lining and positive spin: new readers are going to be drawn to these books who already know all the details and aren’t simply expressing their cultish adoration for a celebrity persona, but actually absorbing art that was impacting enough to shape a man in its own image. JT LeRoy as a flesh-and-blood creation may be gone now, but he still exists between the lines for those who care to look.
Author: The JT LeRoy Story opened September 9th at select theatres in the US.