The literary sensation that was JT LeRoy, who wrote two heralded works of fiction about his life as an abused, drug addicted, teenage truck-stop prostitute with HIV, imploded on January 9, 2006. In a piece in The New York Times, Warren St. John revealed that the author of the books was Laura Albert, a 40-year-old Brooklyn native, living in San Francisco with her husband, Geoff Knoop, and son, Thor, and that JT LeRoy was no realer than Holden Caulfield.
Intense outrage followed as many of JT’s fans, bold-faced names (some of whom had viewed JT almost as a mascot) were furious at what they saw as a bald-faced lie. Cooler heads were few: notably Jon Stewart who wondered why people were surprised that fiction writers wrote fiction, and Courtney Love who offered Albert what she saw as a sure path to redemption: “I’ll take you on Oprah.”
Absent from the controversy over the decade-long deception was Laura Albert’s voice, “the voice I wanted to hear,” says filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig, “so I reached out to her.” Albert screened Feuerzeig’s great 2005 documentary (which took top honors at Sundance), “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” a portrait of a gifted musician and artist who came to terms with his mental illness. The film, and that Feurerzieg “was Jewish and he was punk rock,” (which to Albert meant unconventional) made her feel safe with letting him tell her story.
In his compelling, stranger-than-fiction new film, “Author: The JT LeRoy Story,” Feuerzeig uses Albert’s subjectivity to “seek a deeper truth,” having her speak directly to the camera and through her lifetime trove of archival materials (photo albums, early writing, Super 8mm home movies, photos, audio and videotapes).
Albert survived a difficult childhood of abuse and eating disorders and was institutionalized as a teenager. She wrote stories and JT LeRoy wasn’t the first male character she channeled. For three years as an adult, she called Dr. Terrence Owens, a San Francisco helpline therapist, and identified herself as Jeremiah Terminator, 17, homeless, and struggling with AIDS. Encouraged to write as therapy, Albert, in persona, eventually sent the work to writers she admired and Ira Silverberg, Dennis Cooper’s agent, seeking critique and advice.
“Sarah” was published in 2000 and Albert was unprepared for the sensation created by it and “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things” (2001). She could do phone interviews as JT LeRoy (she was skilled at created personas, using voices and accents, having supported herself doing phone sex). But as a 35-year-old woman, overweight with wavy hair, she couldn’t pass in person as the character she’s called her “avatar,” created to allow her to “say things she couldn’t have said as Laura Albert.”
Eager to, as Feurezeig says, “surf the wave of JT’s success, because it was validation for the art she had created,” Albert birthed JT 3D, the “real life” version, incarnated by her husband’s younger half sister, Savannah. And Albert, to keep the story going (and to keep all of the strands of the story straight), convincingly slipped into her newest character, Speedie, an English musician and JT’s ubiquitous assistant.
“I’m not a hoax, I’m a metaphor,” Albert says in the film. Feuerzeig offers, “There’s no doubt that she’s a complex mind who’s brilliant on the page…a one-of-a-kind storyteller who took her fiction way off the page.”
“Author: The JT LeRoy Story” will open on Friday, September 9 at Film Society of Lincoln Center‘s Francesca Beale Theater (Q&As with Jeff Feuerzeig on Saturday, September 10 and Sunday, September 11 at 4:30 pm) and Landmark Sunshine Cinema.
My shoot with Jeff and Laura was one of this summer’s best. The studio was filled with energy, ideas and laughter (and a raccoon penis bone pendant). Thanks to all.