First published in 2000 under the pseudonymn JT LeRoy by author Laura Albert, “Sarah” became a transgressive fiction literary sensation. After holding court with such seminal writers of the sub-genre such as Bruce Benderson and Dennis Cooper, the rising writer of American letters seemed destined for superstardom. Whisked away on the coattails of celebrities impressed with her abilities on the page, Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy become the queer it lit boy of a generation.
Except JT LeRoy didn’t exist. He was an imagined character, who Albert had summoned from the depths of her own fractured psyche. But when the book she had penned under LeRoy’s name became an international sensation, Albert’s self-proclaimed “avatar” was cast in real life in corporeal form. Calling upon her androgynous sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, to play the part of LeRoy at various media events and speaking engagements, Albert began playing supporting players to her own writing’s legacy, including LeRoy’s personal handler Speedie and rock band lead singer Emily Frasier.
Enter documentary filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig, whose impressive pedigree as a New Journalism auteur on such works as The Devil and Daniel Johnston from 2005, makes him the perfect candidate to tell Albert’s tumultuous tale of creative identities. In Author: The JT LeRoy Story, Feuerzeig presents a convoluted story that’s stranger than fiction, as it occurred according to Albert. What results is a highly contentious and controversial spin on the intersection of celebrity, art, and genius.
In 2005, New York magazine published a bombshell piece that blew open the case on JT LeRoy and Laura Albert for everyone to see. Written by Stephen Beachy, the article called into question the validity of LeRoy the author as an actual person. Shortly thereafter, The New York Times journalist Warren St. John published a piece citing evidence that the person who had been appearing in public up to that point as LeRoy was actually Albert’s sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop.
From there, the entire legacy of JT LeRoy began to unravel. What began as an exercise in personal therapy undertaken over the phone by Albert with Dr. Terrence Owens had become an unprecedented literary sensation. LeRoy was essentially a pseudonym in the same sense that best-selling author Stephen King wrote as Richard Bachman for years in order to reattain a sense of anonymity. Except that Albert was doing the same thing for even more personal reasons. LeRoy was an “avatar” that allowed her to express things that she wasn’t ready to own up to as herself.
Despite the legally questionable extent to which Albert operated under the public fiction that LeRoy was a person separate from herself, Feuerzeig manages to make her into an unsung hero. Yet the entire film is dependent on Albert’s word over anyone else’s. The film incorporates several taped conversations with various celebrities and public figures who had no knowledge that their personal correspondence was being recorded. The fact that they believed they were speaking to LeRoy at the time only serves to further damn Albert’s character in the public eye.
Nevertheless, Author: The JT LeRoy Story is fascinating and sympathetic. Citing several formative moments of emotional and physical abuse from her own childhood, Albert indirectly apologizes to anyone she might have hurt. As a director of her story, Feuerzeig leans back from dictating the nature in which Albert justifies and explains her own actions, however misguided and damaging they may be perceived.
JT LeRoy is a figure who drew acclaim and notoriety from a wide array of celebrities. From independent filmmaker Gus Van Sant and Italian actress Asia Argento, to popular recording artist Billy Corgan and Deadwood creator and showrunner David Milch, LeRoy’s name and work is still socially relevant and culturally fascinating. In Author: The JT LeRoy Story, Feuerzeig and Albert appear to believe that the work should stand on its own outside of the controversy surrounding the name JT LeRoy, however complicated the surrounding social and cultural context has become in retrospect.
Masterpiece & Mastermind
The novel Sarah and the book of short stories The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things are permanent reminders of Albert’s prowess as a writer. On the pages of her two bestselling works of fiction, the fictional story of JT LeRoy unwinds in a steady stream of Appalachian working class malaise. The lurid and graphic nature of a young boy/girl truck stop prostitute raised by an abusive mother in West Virginia is still an arresting work of transgressive fiction, to match the likes of contemporary writing icon Chuck Palahniuk.
Except Albert was unable to extricate herself from the fiction that she had produced on the page. Instead of publishing the books under her own name, JT LeRoy became an “avatar” instead of a character, and the stories he created were their own separate entity. It would be as if Junot Díaz cast someone to play the role of Yunior de Las Casas in real life, and then pretended that the character had written The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao of his own independent volition.
In casting Savannah Knoop in the role of LeRoy in the public eye, Albert opens herself up to being judged intellectually dishonest and emotionally manipulative. Professionally, the fact that LeRoy was never an actual person is a purely legal issue to be addressed behind closed doors, with little consequence when it comes to the artistic integrity of the authored books themselves. Personally, the matter is far more complicated, as Albert actively duped several people into believing that they were in a relationship with a fictional character. People like Van Sant and Argento entered into creative and personal partnerships with LeRoy under the assumption that he was an actual person.
It’s easy to dismiss the claims that the entire JT LeRoy debacle was a “hoax,” as Albert forcefully contends throughout Feuerzeig‘s film. The idea that anyone would come away from the grandly orchestrated acts of performance art put on by Knoop as LeRoy as being a malicious theater piece is ridiculous in Albert’s eyes. But thanks in no small part to Feuerzeig‘s impassive role as a spectator to Albert’s genius, sanity gives way to subtle madness, tragedy, and a very public humiliation, years after the initial controversy.
Author: The JT LeRoy Story does a remarkable job of casting a sympathetic lens towards the work of Albert and LeRoy as the fruits of an unrivaled literary masterpiece. LeRoy might not be a real person, but Albert’s ability to conjure his voice and life’s story onto the page is a feat of extraordinary brilliance, destined to be admired. At the same time, Albert plays the part of the desperate mastermind forced to pretend that LeRoy is an actual person due to personal feelings of self-hatred and unprocessed psychological abuse. The question the film thus poses is whether or not any of the surrounding controversy matters, and if LeRoy should still be celebrated as a part of the fascinating life story of one Laura Albert.
Feuerzeig is an impressive spokesperson for the bizarre intersection of genius and madness in the pursuit of artistic self-expression. Like his 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston did for its own titular singer-songwriter misfit of the 1980s, Author: The JT LeRoy Story manages to present its own pop cultural phenomenon according to his/her own terms. How much of the story anyone might believe is entirely up to the individual viewer’s discretion, as Laura Albert makes the case for the defense of JT LeRoy under the auspices of her own assumed genius and madness.
Following the theatrical release of Author: The JT LeRoy Story over the course of the last month, several parties who had a direct part to play in the infamously reported “hoax” have come forward to either defend or defame Feuerzeig and Albert for unfairly representing their side of the story. Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction, and nothing is more peculiar than the legacy of JT LeRoy ten years later. Regardless of how you feel coming away from Feuerzeig‘s controversial new film, you’ll be hard pressed to forget Albert’s impressively articulated story anytime soon.
Do you remember reading about JT LeRoy? Are you interested in seeing Author: The JT LeRoy Story?
Author: The JT LeRoy Story is currently in limited release in the U.S. Find international release dates here.
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