Here Lies Author: The JT LeRoy Story

Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy was born to a truck-stop prostitute in West Virginia on Halloween 1980. He was later molested and eventually became, like his mother, a heroin addict and “lot lizard” (although, unlike her, a transgender one). HIV-positive and insane in the membrane, Terminator was encouraged by a suicide-hotline therapist to write, and what he came up with set the literary world on fire at the turn of the millennium.

For those who know nothing of JT LeRoy—spoiler alert—he was not a young man but an older woman. Actually, two women: Savannah Knoop was the in-person JT LeRoy, and her sister-in-law Laura Albert was the widely acclaimed writer JT LeRoy. Albert was not born in West Virginia on Halloween but in Brooklyn on Nov. 2, 1965. Her mother was neither a prostitute nor an addict.

But as shown with great style and flair in Author: The JT Leroy Story, Albert is, as is her “it boy” author, deeply disturbed.

Deception has long been a rich plot device in narrative features, from The Usual Suspects to The Spanish Prisoner to Hitchcock's Strangers On a Train. It has been equally compelling in documentaries such as Enron: The Smartest Guys In the Room, the phony 9/11-survivor story The Woman Who Wasn't There and, perhaps the most obvious choice, The Art of Deception.

That last one is about how documentaries can be constructed to seem as if they are educating the audience with facts when they are actually brainwashing them to accept a particular point of view. Author: The JT LeRoy Story swims in these deceptive waters as it unfolds nearly entirely from Albert's point of view.

Writer/director Jeff Feuerzeig (The Devil and Daniel Johnston) has said that was by design. It seemed as if everyone had—sorry—written off Albert as the literary hoaxer of a generation. The filmmaker aimed with his project to find out what drove her, and what he came up with is a far more complex story.

That is, it's much more complex if you swallow what Albert is serving, which is that she's a child of divorce who was molested by an uncle and gained weight to make herself more repulsive to him. Bullied as a fatty on the schoolyard, she would go on to be institutionalized multiple times during her teenage years. As an adult, she often called suicide hotlines to spill her guts, but she felt so unworthy of caring that she would do so with different names and voices.

It was while working as a phone-sex operator in San Francisco that she is said to have posed as a younger boy to talk with a suicide-prevention therapist, who encouraged “him” to write to unleash the inner demons. It's a bit murky because, at this point in the film, Albert says that writing never occurred to her, but she later notes she read everything she could find and wrote prolifically since childhood and even won awards and was published—under her real name.

But the contention that Albert had to use her “avatar” to express herself folds in nicely with her use of pen names for magazine articles, short stories and novels. Besides Terminator and JT LeRoy, Albert has written as Emily Frasier, Laura Victoria and Gluttenberg.

Albert argues that “literary hoax” does not fit her because many authors use pen names and she always labeled her work as fiction. Feuerzeig has said that the spotlight came to her, not the other way around.

That is when things got wacky. Albert spoke on the phone as LeRoy and fed the narrative that her fiction was grounded in life experience. When it became necessary to meet LeRoy's adoring writers, rock gods and movie stars, “he” finally emerged—under a hat and blond wig and behind sunglasses. By that time, Albert weighed too much and was too old to pass as a skinny young man. Knoop, who already sported a cropped hairstyle, was recruited to pose as the painfully shy LeRoy.

Soon LeRoy/Knoop was backstage with Bono, smooching with actor Michael Pitt and passing second base with actress Asia Argento. Albert, as LeRoy, collaborated with Gus Van Sant over the phone. When the filmmaker met LeRoy in person, Albert put on a British accent and posed as the author's manager “Speedie.”

Some famous former pals now disavow Albert and object to being in Feuerzeig's film. But as Author shows, they had appeared in an awful lot of footage praising and commiserating with JT. Meanwhile, Albert kept a tape of every phone call with the famous and the therapist—and she and her mother kept tons of photos, videos and Super 8 mm home movies. All of it was at Feuerzeig's disposal.

A half dozen or so years after the first of four fictional books by LeRoy was published in 1999, the truth about “him” was revealed by investigative journalists.

Feuerzeig has maintained it should have been old news by then, pointing to the title of JT LeRoy's book The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story was written and directed by Jeff Feuerzeig. Now playing at Edwards University in Irvine; opens Friday at Rancho Niguel Cinemas in Laguna Niguel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *