If we’ve learned anything in the 21st century, it’s that identity can be as slippery as a fish, and this has never been quite so true and so puzzling as it is in Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story.
Frequently referred to as one of the greatest literary hoaxes of the 20th century, JT LeRoy’s books were filed under fiction, but they more than winked at memoir—especially as JT himself became a bewigged public persona inextricably linked to tales of high Southern Gothic child abuse and drugs and genderfuckery and magical raccoon penis bones. JT is more than a pseudonym and less than an alternate personality; he’s something that isn’t listed in the DSM.
JT LeRoy doesn’t exist—he was embodied by a sweet, soft butch girl named Savannah Knoop whose mouth quirked cutely when she smiled—but as Author shows, JT doesn’t not exist. His books exist; I know, because I own a few. Laura Albert, who posed for years as JT’s kooky British assistant nicknamed Speedie, is the author of JT LeRoy and all of his books, and she speaks of JT like he was a spirit acting of his own accord. When her sister-in-law Savannah dressed up in a wig and sunglasses, it’s as if JT settled in a body and made it his own. JT was jealous of Albert’s friendship with Billy Corgan, who knew the truth about JT’s identity, and JT was heartbroken when he was outed by the press.
Feuerzeig was fresh off his documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a marvelous and fraught film that portrays how mental illness both hinders and fuels the creative genius of musician Daniel Johnston, when a journalist friend told him about the JT LeRoy scandal. As the director began reading about LeRoy and Albert, he said, “There was just much, much more to the story than we were being told… One voice was obviously missing, because she had held her story back, and that was the voice of the author of the fiction on and off the page, Laura Albert.”
Feuerzeig emailed her and sent her a copy of Daniel Johnston, and that was what clinched it. “The film really spoke to her, and then I came to learn that many documentarians as well as Hollywood had approached her over those years and she’d said no to everyone, but because of my work, she agreed to finally share her story with me.” Once they decided to proceed, Feuerzeig read Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful and was blown away.
In Albert’s meta-fiction, Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy was a street hustler who used a fax bought for him by a john to send his transgressive short stories to authors like Mary Karr and Dennis Cooper. His books are filled with tales of homeless kids turning tricks and doing drugs, a sort of Southern Gothic trauma that would make Flannery O’Connor clutch her pearls. JT was crippled by shyness borne of PTSD and gender dysphoria, so fans like Winona Ryder and Gus Van Sant loaned him their voices so that his work might be heard in public. Eventually fame won out, and JT became a literary darling who enjoyed the company of rock stars, film directors, and fashionistas, as did Speedie and JT’s ex-lover, Astor (played by Albert’s husband Geoff Knoop, Savannah’s brother). Sometimes Albert pretended to be other people too, like the singer in JT’s band Thistle, or a writer named Emily Frasier who worked on Deadwood. It is an astounding lie that sprawls across continents and years, and yet somehow there is some truth to it.
Even those of us who remember the days when Terminator penned short smut for Nerve.com, with the dot-com boom on its last ecstatic legs, will find Author a thrilling surprise. The footage and phone messages of JT and hipster luminaries are gobsmacking. Here’s Courtney Love pausing their phone conversation to finish a small line of coke, complete with a caption that reads (SNORTING); here’s Asia Argento, who adapted, directed, and starred in The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things as JT’s mother Sarah, whispering sweet nothings to JT; here’s Tom Waits and Billy Corgan and Mary Karr and Shirley Manson calling to just say hi, pay their respects, or even assure him they know all those stories in the press are a load of bullshit and if he just says the word, they’ll stand up and defend him. There is something disarming about hearing JT’s voice on the phone; Albert pitches her voice just a little lower so she sounds like a feminine teenage boy with a lilting Southern accent, and when she does it on camera, the effect is startling.
Like Daniel Johnston, Albert is an incredible self-chronicler, and she provided the director with a massive amount of old family movies, photos, and journals for context. In the archives, Feuerzeig found evidence of how her experiences laid the groundwork for the creation of JT LeRoy. “It had not all been preconceived. It’s impossible. In her telling, she was incredibly forthcoming about all her deceit, as well as the tragic backstory that she had gone through,” he told me.
Albert, a survivor of child abuse, sought relief from crippling shame and disgust by compulsively eating and calling crisis hotlines in the guise of another person. In the movie she says, “It never occurred to me to call as myself.” It was easier to address such unspeakable things as a boy; she wanted to be a boy. As a young girl, she’d pray to wake up as “a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy that a man would love and want to fuck.” Those were the boys that spoke through her body on these hotlines, and through her writing. Terminator was born the night Laura was connected to Dr. Terrence Owens through a crisis hotline. They began an ongoing counseling relationship, and eventually Owens suggested writing everything down to help with continuity. LeRoy wasn’t the first avatar Albert had created and lived through; he was just the most successful.
“What I came to find was the themes of her literature, her fiction, the central themes of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and gender fluidity turned out to be her own personal themes that she was channeling. That’s what I came to learn, as you see. It’s hard not to have empathy for someone who was sexually abused at such a young age,” Feuerzeig said.
It seems unforgiveable to co-opt the identity of a marginalized person and profit from their pain, and JT was not just queer or just transgender but also a survivor of some sort of trauma Olympics that become increasingly inextricable from JT’s ostensible fiction: his mother worked as an underage prostitute at truck stops; he was sexually abused by her boyfriends; he was a homeless street hustler and a junkie. It’s even mentioned in passing that he was HIV positive, thanks to one of his mom’s boyfriends.
Yet the more we learn about Albert, the hazier things get. It is hard not to have empathy for her as she switches between referring to JT as a persona and as a person, and she describes how becoming a mother and having an irreducibly female body was somehow the ultimate betrayal of JT. Feuerzeig weaves Albert’s own history throughout, leaving the final piece of the puzzle until the last few minutes of the documentary; frontloading the doc with the full weight of Albert’s traumatic history would have inclined us to pity her or see her as a victim from the beginning, but instead we get a good dose of Albert as a complicated, spiky protagonist on a literary grift, which is the impression given in pretty much every article that’s been published on the matter (since Albert refused to talk to reporters).
The question is, of course, what would have happened if Laura Albert had written Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things under her own name. Chances are they wouldn’t have been published at all—and not just because Savannah-as-JT added a layer of magical weirdness to the whole thing that made the horror easier to bear, but because she wouldn’t have been able to write them as herself.
“As we came to learn in the film, [she] always was not able to write as herself, even when she was taking writing courses at the New School when she was at the group home for girls,” Feuerzeig said. In college, when Laura tried to write about abuse from a female point of view at the behest of a professor, she had another nervous breakdown.
Albert was on the cusp of her own creative breakthrough when New York magazine published a feature by Stephen Beachy titled “Who is the Real JT LeRoy?” in 2005, which was followed the next year by several pieces courtesy of Warren St. John in The New York Times, in which Knoop finally dropped the dime on his wife and sister’s ruse. In fact, she was working on Deadwood with David Milch, who knew the true identity of JT and felt it was his responsibility to nurture Laura’s work and separate identity, when everything came crashing down.
Feuerzeig, who compares her journey to that of The Who’s Tommy, reported that Laura Albert has finally broken through. “She’s writing her memoirs. She’s been writing it for the last few years since the making of the film and that will be published, I guess, sometime next year or soon by HarperCollins, who also just re-published her two books—the JT Leroy books,” he said. “So she is writing as herself now. I don’t know how else to say it… but I guess she had to go on this crazy journey to get there, you know?”