The greatest literary scandal of a century told by the only person who knows it all.
In the 90’s and the aughts, JT LeRoy was the IT kid of the literary world. He was the hot topic, a fashion icon, a bestselling author, and a friend and confidant to every celebrity. Then, in a whirlwind of events, the incredible entity that was JT LeRoy came crashing down. What was left standing? A middle-aged woman named Laura Albert.
Over a decade later, many have forgotten about the saga of JT LeRoy entirely. Among those who haven’t, most still don’t know the exact details of who was behind the ubiquitous celebrity presence that had been JT LeRoy. Now, in a new documentary by Jeff Feuerzeig, director of The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Laura Albert herself sits down to tell the whole story from start to finish.
The most beautiful thing about Author: The JT LeRoy Story is the absolute absurdity of the what you’re watching unfold. Albert sits down in front of the camera and matter-of-factly explains how the persona of JT LeRoy simply came into being one day. From that point forward, she tells, from point A to point B, how one thing led to another until, almost without meaning to, she found herself calling herself Speedie, speaking with a British accent, and singing in a punk band called Thistle, surrounded by people who had no idea that she was the one who had actually written the books that bore the byline of JT LeRoy.
Feuerzeig is a brilliant director for his handling of the sheer breadth of material that Albert’s incredible personality and screen presence provides. The film is loosely organized into several chapters that mark the important sections of JT LeRoy’s ascent into literary mythology. Throughout the film, Feuerzeig never loses hold of the thread of Albert’s narration and makes sure to provide just the right amount of visual storytelling and archival material to prevent the audience from ever losing track of Albert’s story.
Frequent flashbacks to Albert’s childhood reveal a story of a woman who fought with weight, sexual abuse, bullying, and gender confusion. As the events of her personal life come to light, the birth and rise of JT becomes less of a mystery, and more of a misunderstanding gone horribly awry.
The climax of the film is when a New York Times reporter begins to pull rather hard at the tightly knotted web that Albert, her partner Geoff Knoop, and half sister-in-law Savannah Knoop had slowly constructed. As news breaks that the person publicly appearing as JT has been a woman named Savannah Knoop the entire time and that the person who penned the actual novels is another woman named Laura Albert, the entire world and countless celebrities turn their backs on our band of unlikely heroes. The series of events that comprise Author would be almost impossible to believe, were it not for the towering stacks of recordings sampled in the film. Feuerzeig opens with a closeup of Winona Ryder proclaiming her love and thanks for JT. As the film progresses, titans of the literary, film, and music worlds appear in audio, video, and photographs, revealing how entrenched the Albert-Knoop-Knoop triad had become in the public consciousness.
More than anything else, Author incites understanding. Above all, the film is candid. By its conclusion, the audience understands what Albert means when she says, with quiet strength in her voice, that JT was absolutely not a hoax. The audience understands when she says things couldn’t have happened any other way than as they did. The audience also understands the betrayal felt by JT’s fans and the relief that must be felt by Albert to be given the chance to tell her side of it all. Perhaps this clarity stems from Feuerzeig’s superb craftsmanship, greatly praised by Albert herself.
When all is said and done, it’s difficult to say that JT never existed. His novels, Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, did actually exist, after all. And if they were appreciated by thousands, or even millions, of people, then does it really matter whose name it was that put those words on the page? In a way, the story only works because JT was such an enigma, such an amalgam of multiple identities. JT was always real. Never as one single person, but as a collective expression of a group’s collective need for someone like him.
Author: The JT LeRoy Story was directed by Jeff Feuerzeig and its main subject is Laura Albert. The film will open in theaters on September 9, 2016.
Photo credits: Dogwoof.com