‘author: the jt leroy story’ is the unheard story behind the greatest literary scandal of all time
In the early 2000s, the art world erupted when HIV-afflicted teen author JT LeRoy was revealed to be a 40-year-old single mother called Laura Albert. Jeff Feuerzeig's new documentary on the incredible art world scandal tells a previously unheard side...
In 2005, Jeff Feuerzeig's documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston painted a searing portrait of the manic-depressive lo-fi musician who later became a revered cult icon. As the film was hitting theaters, another tormented outsider was causing tidal waves in the art world. But unlike Johnston, JT LeRoy — the HIV-positive transgender teenage prostitute who had recently published two rapturously reviewed books — didn't actually exist. Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things were instead the work of a 40-year-old former phone-sex operator from Brooklyn called Laura Albert. While she sent her step-sister Savannah Knoop to appear as JT LeRoy at fancy events and mingle with Winona Ryder, Courtney Love, Calvin Klein, and Gus Van Sant, Albert watched from the sidelines as "Speedie," the superstar's overweight British manager.
Albert is now at the center of Feuerzeig's new documentary, Author: The JT Leroy Story. The fascinatingly subjective film tells a story that was absent when the New York Times first ripped the lid off the JT LeRoy's identity in 2006. Anyone looking for an unbiased account of the scandal will be disappointed by Author, because Feuerzeig sees Albert's credibility as quite irelevent. He's more interested in the link between madness and creativity, and consequently creates a link between the vilified literary phony and the bipolar musician who recorded otherworldly tapes in his parents' basement.
Through photos, audio tapes, and childhood journals, Feuerzeig reveals that her real backstory isn't any less traumatic than JT LeRoy's fake one. Sometimes, the thematical parallels are searing. Feuerzeig gives particular attention to the sexual abuse that Albert suffered as a child and to her addiction to calling helplines as young boys. The books, as Feuerzeig and Albert repeatedly remind us, were published as fiction. The film questions what that word even means. Here, Feuerzeig speaks to i-D about pretense, identity, and Southern Gothic literature.
Were you following the JT LeRoy scandal as it unfolded?
When the scandal broke in 2006, I did not know what a JT LeRoy was, nor had I read the books. I was a complete blank slate.
How did you become aware of it?
A few years after the scandal broke, a journalist friend of mine turned me on to the story. There is nothing that I love more than a great "truth is stranger than fiction" story, and he thought that it might be of interest to me. The initial hook was that at the time, it was being called "the biggest literary hoax of our time." That definitely caught my attention. The scandal had generated a massive amount of ink in many publications, so I just read them all, and I found it to be beyond fascinating. But I had this feeling, after reading all these accounts, that there was more to the story than we were being told. Perhaps much more to the story. And there was a reason for that, because it turned out that the author of the fiction on and off the page — Laura Albert — had held her story back. So I reached out to Laura and sent her my film The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Its central theme is the intersection of madness and creativity. That film very much resonated and spoke to her.
The story of the scandal starts before Savannah becomes JT LeRoy and ends with the unmasking. Laura's personal story moves in the opposite direction, going backwards towards her abusive childhood. Why did you decide to reveal her traumatic past in that way?
It evolved. First of all, I had no idea what the story really was, and I wanted to hear it, including all the deceit and lies and deception baked into that story. But I'm also really fascinated by backstory. Who is Laura Albert? She didn't exist in the story as it played out 13 years ago. I wanted to try to understand how this all happened, and why it all happened. She revealed a tragic a childhood that included physical and sexual abuse, food addiction, madness — she was institutionalized many times — and a very unique hotline and helpline addiction. She was calling hotlines and helplines as boys when she was a young girl. I found her childhood notebooks and paintings of hotline networks. In the margins were pages and pages of doodles of little boy-girls. Those doodles are what I ended up animating.
There were other very fascinating revelations that came out, for instance during her punk rock salvation she had such bad self-image and body issues that she would send her own sister out as her avatar. That behavior started a long time ago. It was wild to learn that when she was in a band called Girls, she met this British-style hardcore punk and she pretended to be British. That was another revelation, that she became Speedie — the pushy British handler of JT LeRoy — 20-something years later. It was an addiction. The sexual abuse is [also] very much foreshadowed. Those are the themes you're reading in Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. My goal was for that to add up to a whole person at the end of the film.
Do you think that Laura's books — like Daniel Johnston's music — still have great artistic merit?
I can only speak for my own personal reading of the books. I read Sarah first, on a plane — I read it in one sitting. And I absolutely thought it was fantastic writing. But more importantly for me personally, in college, I was really obsessed with Southern Gothic literature. Particularly Flannery O'Connor and Harry Crews — I read every word of Flannery's. I felt like Sarah fell neatly into that tradition, so it happened to be right up my alley. Obviously I knew who the writer was when I read the book, and like any book I read, I wasn't thinking about who wrote it. But there were tells. She was hiding in plain sight right inside the fiction. It was very much like when I was a young boy and heard the Beatles clues — in their work, their album covers, and their audio — that Paul McCartney was dead. I remember hearing the playout groove of "Strawberry Fields Forever" and you hear "I buried Paul." In the climax of Sarah, the townspeople find out that the protagonist, the girl-boy, is not how he-she says he-she was. The townspeople are coming with torches and want to murder the he-she. In the film, Laura says to Gus Van Sant, "I knew I was writing the future." I think it's a powerful piece in the film.
JT LeRoy had a huge and rather close circle of celebrity friends, many of whom feature prominently in the tape recordings — including Courtney Love, in the most memorable one. Why did Laura make all those tape recordings?
Laura has been an incredible self-documenter her whole life — her mom started the process before she did. And so was Daniel Johnston. They both had hundreds and hundreds of photos, films, and audio recordings. The way I understand it is that she felt like a zero, and when she heard her own own voice — her mom was a journalist — it meant she existed. She was also a writer, and collecting ideas, and a lot of stuff she worked into her fiction. It was impossible for me to know this when I reached out to her, but it was an interesting coincidence.
Did you reach out to any of these celebrity friends?
Not Shirley Manson, but Courtney Love absolutely approved that coke-snort you referred to. Gus respectfully declined, and others did the same.
Shirley Manson recently said that she was one of the few people who did not feel angry. She said the scandal felt like a difficult example of when a woman has to pass herself off as something else in order to be taken seriously in literary circles. Do you think that line of thought has any merit?
I never pondered it, but if Shirley felt that way then it's valid. What I can say is that there was a mosaic of responses, and one flavor was very much what Shirley expressed. As the scandal is breaking, you hear some people screaming bloody murder. They were beyond upset. That was a valid response. Other people, as you hear in the film, thought it was absolutely the greatest thing since sliced cheese. Some people, like Gus Van Sant, were very neutral.
Did you, at any point, become aware of the transgender community's response to the scandal?
I have no idea about that. I know for a fact that one of Laura's best friends is trans, Nicole. I know Nicole personally, and she's one of her absolute best friends. But I can't speak for the trans community. But the central themes of those books — sexual abuse, physical abuse, and gender-fluidity — did turn out to be Laura Albert's own personal themes. She was channeling those themes into fiction.
Does it please you that many people with come away from the film still undecided about Laura's credibility?
It's fun to work with subjective truth, because I believe that you can arrive at what Werner Herzog called "the ecstatic truth," and I think that's larger. My whole trip in life has been non-fiction, and particularly new journalism. My main hero is Tom Wolfe. I don't know if you've ever read his book The New Journalism, but he anthologizes Terry Southern, Joan Didion, Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson — and that movement of new journalism from the late 60s and early 70s really affects me. They wanted to take on the great American novel at the time, and they used subjectivity to do it. That blew my mind. I think the film raises the questions, "What is fiction? Where does fiction from?"
Text Hannah Ongley
Images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures