Though key events in the real-life and very public saga of literary sensation JT Leroy happened 10 to 15 years ago, the subject remains a sore one for many who played a part in LeRoy's complex and multilayered story.
JT LeRoy's novel Sarah and short-story collection The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things earned praise from critics and passionate devotion among readers drawn to Leroy's gritty tales of prostitution and drug abuse, all told from the perspective of a preteen boy thrust onto the streets by an abusive mother. It didn't hurt that LeRoy's stories were presented as the semi-autobiographical work of an unschooled 20-year-old writer. Top artists and celebrities — from Winona Ryder to Tom Waits — were drawn to LeRoy's extraordinary work and his authenticity, befriending the writer as he slowly emerged from self-imposed seclusion.
But JT LeRoy wasn't real. A troubled woman named Laura Albert, then in her thirties, wrote LeRoy's celebrated books at the suggestion of her therapist. As depicted in painstaking detail by director Jeff Feuerzeig's fascinating documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story, Albert believed she could only write these stories through the "avatar" of LeRoy.
As pressure mounted for the writer to appear in public, Albert asked Savannah Knoop, the sister of Albert's longtime partner Geoffrey Knoop, to take on the physical role of the famously androgynous LeRoy. One thing led to another, and by the time Albert was exposed years later by stories in New York magazine and The New York Times, many public figures who supported the fictitious LeRoy felt burned by the experience.
The Albert we get to know through Author: The JT LeRoy Story seems anything but a con artist looking to exploit the goodwill of famous friends. But that may be a function of Feuerzeig's methods. The director builds on the nonjudgmental, fly-on-the-wall approach so prevalent in documentaries today by mounting a film driven almost entirely by Arnold's voice. Feuerzeig seeks to uncover a "deeper truth" by presenting Arnold on her own terms and allowing audiences to make up their own minds about the meaning of her story — and its veracity.
The director takes us on a dense, visually imaginative and fast-paced tour of Albert's damaged psyche, aided by truckloads of materials Albert saved from each phase of her life: photos, Super 8 movies, early writings and illicit audio tapes. Albert seems to have recorded every celebrity phone call LeRoy ever received, which supplies the film with unexpected bursts of hilarity. Gorgeous animated sequences crafted for the film bring Albert's writing to life. It all works beautifully until the film's final half-hour, when a sordid and familiar tale of stalking reporters, media distortions and personal betrayals takes over as Albert's identity is revealed.
As recently as last month, The New York Times referred to the JT LeRoy story as a "literary hoax," not coincidentally in a story about LeRoy's celebrity friends and their unhappiness with the film. That phrase implies that Albert's writings as LeRoy are somehow false or invalid, which isn't true at all. There's no question Albert is a profoundly unreliable narrator, in the film and elsewhere. But if we're going to start holding artists accountable for their fictionalized backstories and public personas, we've got a very big job ahead of us. Fiction, after all, is what artists do.