A decade after the fact, the scandal of JT LeRoy — the HIV-positive, young male (though gender-fluid) writer adored by scores of global alt-celebrities who was revealed to be the creation of a woman named Laura Albert — is relitigated in Jeff Feuerzeig’s queasily absorbing documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story. But only the defense is heard from.
Backdropped by an enormous book spread (an effect typifying the film’s overreliance on dopey visual and aural gimmicks), Albert, now 50, expansively recounts her miserable Brooklyn childhood spent in and out of institutions. One particularly abhorrent episode from her youth is saved for Author’s final minutes, seemingly positioned as the defining incident from which the writer’s most infamous, but certainly not her first, alter ego emerged.
By the time of the publication of the novel Sarah (2000) and the short-story collection The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (2001) — works attributed to LeRoy that, although fiction, were marketed and consumed as having been informed by his “real-life” endurance of Sadean levels of emotional, physical and sexual abuse — Albert was long a veteran of avatar designing. Ashamed of her big body (“There’s nothing worse than being a fat punk,” she says in Feuerzeig’s movie), teenage Sex Pistols fan Albert sent out her sister as her double to mosh for her. It was also sometime during her adolescence that Albert had this wish: “Let me wake up as a blond, blue-eyed boy that a man would like to fuck.”
She became one, in a way, through her multiple calls over several years to hotlines posing as “a boy in trouble,” chats that served as first drafts of the chronicles of abjection that made LeRoy so beloved by, to name only a few, Dennis Cooper, Gus Van Sant, Courtney Love and Asia Argento, whose 2004 adaptation of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, as sordid as its source material, is generously excerpted from here. Feuerzeig — best known for The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005), a complex, empathic portrait of the troubled musician of the title — lets his subject recount, unchallenged, the minutiae of her mythomania, the dizzying jumble of circumventions and feints required to sustain the LeRoy cult. (Savannah Knoop, the half-sister of Albert’s partner who appeared, bewigged and hidden behind enormous sunglasses, as the embodiment of LeRoy, appears for about a minute in the film to answer an anodyne question posed offscreen, presumably by Feuerzeig.)
Admittedly, many of these details are fascinating, and Albert’s lack of repentance over propagating this intricate web of fabrications gives her a kind of tawdry nobility; there is, after all, a long, illustrious history of deception in literature. But what she and Feuerzeig and many others interviewed in the film do not address is why LeRoy’s output — motored by extravagant debasement and centered around unspeakable things done to a child that were recapitulated in lackluster, ersatz Southern Gothic prose — captivated so many. “And with his shame she knows she is recognized,” goes a typically tumid line in The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, written by someone who cynically trafficked in it.