Author: The JT Leroy Story is full of jaw-dropping revelations, multiple fictions, role playing, and complicated psychological gamesmanship.
By Tim Jackson
Author: The JT Leroy Story is a documentary (screening at the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge) about a hoax that rocked the literary world in 2006. Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, the film is full of jaw-dropping revelations, multiple fictions, role playing, and complicated psychological gamesmanship. Like many people, including the director, I had not heard about the scandal, though when it erupted it was deemed the “litereary hoax of the century.” In 1999, JT Leroy published Sara, a horrific story of a young boy, a homeless runaway and drug addict, who worked as truck-stop prostitute in San Francisco. Ultimately, Sara is a story of triumph and resilience that introduced a gifted writer to an appreciative readership. JT Leroy published three books in all. The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things was made into a movie starring Asia Argento. Leroy became an inspiration to fans as well as a cult favorite among writers and celebrities. Dennis Cooper, Mary Gaitskill, and Mary Karr offered to assist Leroy’s literary career. A-list music and film celebrities such as Courtney Love, Tatum O’Neal, Winona Rider, Billy Corgan, and Carrie Fisher were followers. An HIV positive diagnosis added poignancy to his story. But the young author was shy and reclusive. Eventually, at 25, he began to make public appearances at readings and parties, always disguised in a wig and sunglasses and accompanied by his manager, Speedy, a woman with a British accent who exhibited a strange of influence over Leroy.
The author’s identity was first seriously questioned in an extensive article in a 2005 New York Magazine article and in other publications including The New York Times. Eventually, it was revealed that Speedy (writer Laura Albert) was the author of the faux memoirs. For six years, the ‘public’ JT Leroy had been Savannah Knoop, the sister of Albert’s boyfriend, musician Geoff Knoop. Albert was sued for fraud.
Literary agent Ira Silverberg articulated the dark side of this hoax in a 2006 NYTimes article: “To present yourself as a person who is dying of AIDS in a culture which has lost so many writers and voices of great meaning, to take advantage of that sympathy and empathy, is the most unfortunate part of all of this. A lot of people believed they were supporting not only a good and innovative and adventurous voice, but that we were supporting a person.”
Stephen Beachy in New York Magazine drew a different conclusion: “There are writers I love who create intricate layers of stories that only imply an unstated psychological reality grounding the dizzying production of narrative; others self-consciously play with the boundary between fiction and non. LeRoy has written about the way prostitutes fulfill other people’s fantasies and about the way the literary world can seem like simply a different form of prostitution.”
I sat with director Feuerzeig to discuss these issues and the genesis of his film. After reading about the scandal — and sensing a good yarn — he devoured all the JT Leroy/Laura Albert books. A fan of Southern Gothic fiction, he appreciated Leroy’s writing as a kind of update on the genre, with its “humor, darkness and obsession with gourmet food.” “I was very impressed with the writing,” he recalls, “which was important.” He decided to make a film about the JT Leroy scandal and contacted the author. He sent her a copy of his first film, The Devil and Daniel Johnson, which she loved because the film sat at the “intersection of art, madness, and creativity.”
Feuerzeig says that there were unexpected and fortuitous similarities in the creation of both films: “Daniel Johnson was a massive archival dig. Johnson had documented his entire life with audio verite, lots of cassette recordings, super-8 films, hundreds of photos, writing – you name it, he had it. It took 5 years to make. Coincidentally, Laura Albert had also documented her entire life with thousands of photos, super-8 films, childhood notebooks, letters (revealing Albert’s early abuse as a child) and a massive number of audio recordings and answering machine tapes. Furthermore, her mom was a scrapbooker.”
It became evident that themes in the books concerning physical and sexual abuse and gender fluidity reflected events in Albert’s life. She had had a long-term food and phone hotline addiction; she relentlessly called different hotlines, posing as a boy. In her adolescent notebooks there were hundreds of hotline numbers, along with doodles in the margins. “Her addiction was such that she often had to choose between eating and making a call,” Feuerzeig explains. He had many of these pictures animated for the film. But Albert was also writing continually, eventually entering The New School to study her craft. There she had a breakdown after her teachers refused to let her write in a male voice. “After three years of phone therapy, Dr. Terrence Owens suggested that she start to write again,” says Feuerzeig, “and that started to snowball because now she had an audience. People started passing around the writing and she ultimately got published.”
Albert’s life story, with its layers of obsession and deception, helps explain her authorial embrace of deceit, fabrication. and role playing. Feuerzeig doesn’t try to make sense of the various deceptions, in and out of her books. The film is filled with revelations and quirky ideas that are left open to interpretation: “I love subjective filmmaking. I come out of New Journalism. As I try to show in the film, there is a mosaic of responses to Laura coming out as JT Leroy along with other identities – ‘Terminator,’ ‘Emily Fraser,’ and ‘Speedy’ (Leroy’s British handler). Based on your proximity to the story is how you were affected. There was outrage, but there were readers who were ambivalent or who liked it even more.”
While there is undoubtedly deceit in Albert’s journey, the degree to which she was creating a hoax is an open question. At least to Feuerzeig: “Laura did write the volumes, no question. The clues are right in the books. In The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, I started finding cues that were just staring at me. They were like the “Paul is Dead” rumor that captivated me as boy (the rumor among Beatles fans that McCartney was dead and for which clues were allegedly discovered). In Sara, the townspeople discover he is not who he says he is and come after him with torches. Laura knew that she was going to get found out one day. It’s like the ‘Ecstatic Truth’ hidden in the deceit.” “Ecstatic Truth” is documentarian Werner Herzog’s term for revelations that exceed our expectations, disclosures that reveal larger truths than the mere facts alone.
Of his own search for the truth of the JT Leroy story, Feuerzeig concludes: “The problem with the documentary form is that it doesn’t have a cool new name anymore. I get lumped in with infotainment, issue films, and things like that. I’m very political, and want to hear about the issues, but those aren’t the films I’m making. I’ve always thought of non-fiction as the last vestige of true independent filmmaking. You have much lower budgets and a larger blank canvas, the freedom to throw all kinds of ideas on the screen. This film does not let up. My goal was a cinematic and immersive experience.”
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.