When the story broke in October of 2005 it was described as the greatest literary hoax in recent memory. What had started as the phone calls of a fucked-up 16-year-old boy called "Terminator" to his therapist had turned into a strange literary phenomenon that had drawn in the likes of Gus Van Sant, Tom Waits, Courtney Love, Winona Ryder, Mary Karr, Asia Argento and more. It was the bizarre case of the writer JT Leroy, the subject matter of Jeff Feuerzeig's compulsively watchable Author: The JT LeRoy Story.
Growing up on a West Virginia truck-stop, Jeremiah "Terminator" Leroy had lived through an abusive childhood watching his "lot lizard" mother turn tricks to feed her habit. By the time he was seven she was making him cross dress, using him as bait for the local johns. Soon he was hustling up and down truck-stops of the American South, addicted to heroin and HIV positive.
The mid-90s found "Terminator" in San Francisco. A fateful phone call to a child protection hotline introduced him to a psychologist, Dr Richard Owens, who advised him to write things down in between sessions over the phone (they never met in person) as a form of therapy. In the meantime, between 1994 and 1995, writers Bruce Benderson and Dennis Cooper began receiving phone calls from a troubled boy with a "very soft female voice". Now living with a British woman called "Speedie" and a boyfriend, "Astor","Terminator" began to fax over his writing. Benderson and Cooper were astounded. How could a 14-year-old hustler write this?
His first novel, Sarah, came out in 2000 when JT would have been 17. It was dubbed autobiographical fiction and drew heavily on the gothic details of his upbringing, tying them together in a heightened style that made it an instant classic of transgressive fiction, garnering endless positive reviews. Still, no one had yet met JT in person.
At the height of the success of Sarah, in 2001, an awkward young man with a girlish round face, a blonde wig and glasses debuted before the world as the writer Jeremiah "Terminator" Leroy. Having finally emerged from obscurity, he was now everywhere, feted by a growing tribe of celebrity friends and confidantes.
But in October of 2005, an article entitled "Who is the real JT Leroy?", written by Stephen Beachy for New York Magazine, questioned whether the writer really existed at all and suggested that the "man behind the curtain" was in fact no man at all, but a 40-year-old Brooklyn woman named Laura Albert, otherwise known as JT's British assistant, "Speedie". An article in The New York Times in February of 2006 went on to prove that 24-year-old JT Leroy – or "Wigs and Glasses", as Beachy called him – was actually played in public by a woman called Savannah Knoop, the sister of Laura Albert's husband Geoff Knoop, or "Astor". Instead of JT Leroy there was a cast of characters with shady motives. His books were not the autobiographical product of a West Virginian drug-addicted child prodigy, but the fiction of a mother-of-one in her late-thirties who was writing for American TV series Deadwood by the name Emily Frasier, or "Speedie". The confusion was felt by everyone.
Jeff Feuerzeig's documentary looks at what he calls "the wildest story about 'story'" through the experience of Laura Albert. "What I ended up learning going on this journey with the film was that there was a massive amount of deceit in this story that Laura shares very openly, no doubt," says Feuerzeig over the phone. "But it was a much more organic journey that couldn't possibly have been premeditated."
Albert is unpredictable and fascinating to watch in her pieces to camera. The most unreliable of unreliable narrators, she shares all without remorse, foul-mouthed and wide-eyed, as though she herself cannot quite believe the batshit stuff that happened. "Is it surprising that Laura Albert turned out to be a good storyteller?" Feuerzeig asks. "She clearly was a great storyteller. When it came time to tell her story she shared everything."
Having never heard of the JT Leroy story, when Feuerzeig first read about it a few years ago it bowled him over. He contacted Albert and sent her his critically acclaimed The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a documentary that looked into the relationship between mental illness and art-making in the case of musician Daniel Johnston. Albert liked it and agreed to do the documentary, despite turning down several directors previously. "This was her chance to finally tell," says Feuerzeig.
Via pieces to camera and a staggering volume of self-documentation, we're given an image of a deeply disturbed young woman. Albert's archive of old notebooks, super 8 footage, photographs, doodles (which Feuerzeig animates in Author) and audio recordings could be "the largest known collection of self-documentation, if anyone is keeping score, in documentary film", in Feuerzeig's opinion.
Physically and sexually abused as a young girl, she later developed a food addiction and a hotline addiction that turned into hours of ringing child hotlines posing as different young boys. She used avatars to explore the outside world, often employing her sister while she remained indoors, too ashamed of her "size". She had an affinity for punk culture. We find out that she was institutionalised.
Hiding behind the persona of a young abused boy, far from her own mental illness, her own history of abuse, her weight and her perceived inability to be a true artist, Albert's arc reads almost like a mythical tale of tortured female expression. Feuerzeig tells me that these days she wears a pendant of a typewriter round her neck that says, "Write hard, die free."
There's a relish for the details in the obsolete technologies from the 90s and early 2000s in Author. We watch cassette tapes roll as Tom Waits rings JT to tell him his writing is "so wet, it's alive". We hear the phone calls between Courtney Love and Laura Albert after the "reveal" has happened ("I've a tiny line of coke, I don't want to put you on hold, do you mind if I do it?") and we listen as JT Leroy (Albert) tells Asia Argento that he loves her over the phone. Each little insight offers an explanation to the betrayal felt by many of JT's friends and the bitter fallout that followed, the "Carrie moment" as Albert calls it. "I'm going to be standing there covered in pig's blood."
"A metaphor is different to a fucking hoax," JT Leroy drawls down the phone to Dr Owens towards the end. What is the JT Leroy story a metaphor for then if it isn't a hoax? At the time of the "reveal", the writer Mary Gaitskill, one of JT's earliest supporters, commented that the JT Leroy story represented "the confusion between love and art and publicity", a confusion that seems far more suited to 2016 than to 2005, when the duality between identity and work has never seemed more prescient. As art-making has become increasingly defined by popularity contests played out across platforms, and as the curation of avatars and personae has become standard in celebrity-obsessed culture, the question central to Author is, does the work stand for itself?
Will the work stand for itself without the drug-addicted teen from West Virginia? Feuerzeig thinks so. He begins Author with a Fellini quote. "A created thing is never invented and it is never true: it is always and ever itself." How much does our idea of 'who' wrote 'what' influence our appreciation of it? JT LeRoy's books are being re released to coincide with Author, so there's one way to find out.
'Author: The Jt LeRoy Story' is out today.
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