Nobody comes out clean in Jeff Feuerzeig’s Author: The JT LeRoy Story, with the exception, maybe, of Zwan-era Billy Corgan.
In the documentary, Laura Albert stares at the camera and tells the gripping, name-droppy, gossipy, brutal, tangled story she’s told before. Her analyst, Dr. Terrance Owens, suggested she try writing as a way to deal with trauma related to serial childhood abuse. She invented the suicidal, HIV-positive, genderfluid literary persona Jeremy “Terminator” Leroy, who would go on to write the best-selling novel Sarah and story collection The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, pieces of purple prose about underage “lot lizards” and other vaguely country outcasts.
Leroy was, to her, a real person who lived inside her along with many other young boys. But when her first book got popular, people needed a face. Albert put a cheap blond wig and big sunglasses on her boyfriend’s half-sister, Savannah Knoop, and sent her out into the world. Albert took on the public persona of Speedie, JT Leroy’s vaguely British agent, and her boyfriend, Geoff Knoop, played a hanger-on musician named Astor. As the embodiment of JT Leroy, Savannah Knoop became a literary celebrity. In 2006, a few articles in the New York Times revealed JT Leroy as a “literary hoax,” and the jig was up.
Feuerzeig (who directed the excellent The Devil and Daniel Johnston) lets Albert control the narrative for the most part, cutting her story with surreptitiously recorded phone conversations that Albert taped while talking with friends, authors, and celebrities such as Courtney Love, Gus Van Sant, Asia Argento, Mary Karr, Dennis Cooper, Lou Reed, and nearly every other person who wanted to be taken seriously as an artist in the 1990s. Courtney Love in particular comes off as a self-interested, strung-out, fame scavenger—and thank GOD. At least she was upfront about it. From Albert’s perspective, everybody else—with the exception of Billy Corgan and Deadwood creator David Milch—seemed to want of piece of Leroy, a disturbing if relatively anodyne parallel to Albert’s stated history of child abuse.
Albert’s argument is that the controversy was not a hoax. Leroy was big before the wig. The books were real. The boys inside her are real, too. And who did Albert really hurt? Did her alleged AIDSface prevent the rise of some other young Appalachian sex-worker novelist?
The documentary is, among many things, a test of trust and sympathy. Can you really feel bad for wealthy celebrities getting punked by a poor kid? Can you feel sympathy for the pain of a twentysomething boy inside of a thirtysomething woman? (Billy Corgan can. And he did it before it was cool to honor people’s truths.) And, at the end of the day, which is the bigger con: a single mom from Brooklyn pretending to be a young androgen with a history in sex work so she can sell books, or Winona Ryder’s acting career?
But the biggest question is this: Are you going to believe every aspect of the “tell-all” documentary of a woman who created and maintained a super complex and very public literary persona for a decade? If you are prepared to do that, then you need to have a conversation with yourself about your expectations for the facts you find in fiction.
Here are some facts. Robert Frost wasn’t a New England farmer; he was born the son of a newspaperman in San Francisco. Ezra Pound was from Idaho. Walt Whitman dubbed himself America’s great poet and wrote positive reviews of his own book, Leaves of Grass, until he became America’s great poet. Fernando Pessoa created more than 70 “heteronyms,” distinct literary entities who would viciously argue with each other in the pages of Portuguese newspapers and journals. And that’s not to mention the million women writers who pretended to be men in order to get their work published. The creation of an elaborate, public-facing persona is a well-known formula for success in the literary world. Granted, Albert’s illusion was way more complex than Frost’s, say, but that might speak to her genius in the eyes of some.
And yet people are giving/have given Albert shit for what they’re calling a con. This frustration emerges every time the truths of a story don’t align with the facts of the same story. In journalism, that’s a big problem, obviously. But in the world of fiction—both on and off the page—the rules are a little different. Regardless of whether the facts are accurate, one of the truths of JT Leroy’s story, as Albert tells it, is that nobody really knows anything, least of all another person. Writing, though, seems to be a good way to really connect with someone, to really figure out how someone else’s brain works. After all, Albert says in the documentary, the whole “hoax” was spelled out in the stories. If people were reading closely enough, they would have seen it all along.