In the late 19th century, Southern California attracted misfits, idealists, and entrepreneurs with few ties to anyone or anything. Swamis, spiritualists, and other self-proclaimed religious authorities quickly made their way out West to forge new faiths. Independent book publishers, motivational speakers, and metaphysical-minded artists and writers then became part of the Los Angeles landscape. City of the Seekers examines how the legacy of this spiritual freedom enables artists to make creative work as part of their practices.
Around 20 years ago, an enigmatic, androgynous author by the name of JT LeRoy became a famous literary wunderkind after the publication of his novels, Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. But in 2006, a series of articles revealed that JT LeRoy wasn't just a pen name for a woman named Laura Albert; he was actually personified in public by Albert's sister-in-law, who wore a very obvious disguise while appearing as JT LeRoy. A new documentary called Author: The JT LeRoy Story by Jeff Feuerzeig, director of The Devil and Daniel Johnston, successfully unravels this fascinating, incredibly tangled yarn.
While there are already two other recent documentaries about the JT LeRoy scandal, Author is the first to provide Albert's side of the story. And from the perspective of those who have never heard of JT LeRoy and were never scandalized to learn Albert had actually written his books, Author not only shows the extent that women have had to go through to get their stories heard, but it raises questions about identity, art, and the elusive nature of the creative process itself.
It's strange to think that in the ante-Facebook heyday of Friendster and MySpace, to say nothing of ensuing social apps, people engineered avatars—fractals of their personalities that they projected onto others. In Albert’s case, her real body served as a painful repository of memories that she desperately wanted to forget, and as Author shows, in order to cope with her serious childhood trauma, Albert developed a way to disassociate herself by creating new incarnations, new identities with whom she was more comfortable. In J.T. LeRoy's case, she wrote as one of them.
But what if there's something more going on? What if severe early childhood traumas can leave certain people especially vulnerable and "open" to whatever forces are hanging around the next astral plane, incapable of moving on because of unresolved issues on earth? What if Albert was not only writing as LeRoy, but actually channeling him?
Literary history is full of characters who have supposedly manifested themselves through physical mediums. Pearl Lenore Curran (1883—1937) wrote poetry and prose as a 17th century woman called Patience Worth, whom Curran believed she was corresponding through the spirit world. Years later, American psychic medium and author Jane Roberts (1929—1984) claimed she channeled and wrote as a being called Seth, while J.Z. Knight inspired Shirley MacLaine with her the spiritual entity, Ramtha.
Then there's the fascinating case of journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered a massive stroke and dictated his memoir, The Diving Bell and Butterfly, solely by blinking. Two days after its publication, he died. What if the real JT LeRoy died of AIDS or a heroin overdose before he could tell his story? In terms of creative capacity, what's the difference between a woman who suffered an irreversible loss of innocence as a small child, and a man who couldn't communicate in any other way than with his eyes after a debilitating stroke? They both had stories to tell, and in that sense, JT LeRoy is no more or less real than Jean-Dominique Bauby. It wasn’t a matter of either author wanting to tell their stories, but needing to tell them.
"JT LeRoy definitely lives," Albert tells The Creators Project. "If you came to me and insisted that JT does exist, I wouldn't argue—and not because I'd be humoring you. I'd be agreeing. JT was never realer to anyone than he was to me, so you wouldn't have to sell me on the notion that he enjoys not just life, but existence as well."
After the truth came out about JT LeRoy, however, Albert was accused of exploiting poor southern culture while callously creating a persona that lots of hard-up kids naively looked up to. But if people responded positively to Albert's books just because they believed JT LeRoy was the author, how genuine was the audience's relationship to the work itself? Albert needed to do whatever she had to do in order to tell her stories, and if those stories are suddenly discounted because people feel duped, that says more about the public's own shallowness than the quality of the writing.
In this case, the sexist backlash against Albert reveals more about our image-based, branding-obsessed culture than it does about the actual stories and art those brands represent. It says that a woman whose voice and stories might never otherwise be heard is not allowed to write as a troubled boy just to get her stories out there, and if she does, then it’s perfectly fine for those once-celebrated books to suddenly get lots of one-star reviews on Amazon.
As Albert explains, "I think if a man had been revealed to be the author of the JT LeRoy books, more people would have been quick to ask questions like, 'To what extent could the events in those books actually have been the writer's experience?' and 'What does the creation of this persona say about the writer's own inner identity?' Because I am a woman, these complexities and possibilities were never even imagined. Instead, the press projected a characterization onto me, as the media usually does with women."
In Los Angeles, Albert found support from the likes of Billy Corgan and David Milch of Deadwood, who always knew she was JT LeRoy. (Corgan even wrote the foreword to the new edition of Sarah still defending LeRoy’s existence.) To them, and to those who really care about the books as opposed to the true identity of the author, it doesn’t matter whether Albert was using LeRoy as a way to protect herself and/or channeling him. It doesn’t change the fact that the writing is about the triumph of the soul in its darkest hours. It's about the hope of salvation in the face the most base human experiences, especially the very real horrors that can happen during childhood.
"There are many, many lives like his—including my own," Albert says of JT LeRoy. "That's why people keep responding so powerfully to me after they read the books. In the dedication for the reissue of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, I say that the things I write about are happening to people all the time. I know they're happening and I want to help make it stop. And it can't stop if no one is willing to look at it."
In theaters now, Author: The JT LeRoy is presented by Amazon Studios, Magnolia Pictures, A&E Indie Films, Ratpac Documentary Films, in Association with Complex Corporation & Vice. Visit the film’s website here.