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Author: The JT LeRoy Story

September 16, 2016
Author: The JT LeRoy Story

Unlike the subject of last week’s mainstream release, Sully, nobody would be expected to know offhand who Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy was. The literary wunderkind of 1999, “JT” was revealed in 2005 to be a concoction — somewhere between a pseudonym and an alter ego — of a woman named Laura Albert. It didn’t help that this all came out in the wake of high-profile fabrication scandals like those of Jayson Blair and Michael Finkel in the New York Times, and just as cracks were starting to appear in the façade of James Frey’s “memoir” A Million Little Pieces. Over the last ten years, Albert has largely fallen out of the public eye, but she returns in documentarian Jeff Feuerzig’s Author: The JT LeRoy Story.

And I have to jump in right at the subtitle to nitpick this little rhetorical trick. Positioning this as “the” story presumes a singular, objective truth that is difficult enough to find in a case like this one. But when it’s being relayed in the first-person by the fabulist herself, the idea of objectivity is little more than a joke. Maybe I should be glad that, unlike what we saw in Weiner, Feuerzig doesn’t even try to hold up the fig leaf of fly-on-the-wall verité documentary here. Still, presenting this as “the” story, rather than merely a version curated by Albert herself, is the first of many frustrations.

JT was presented as a teenaged boy, born in 1980 to a West Virginia truck-stop prostitute and later following her into that life. The novel Sarah and the fiction anthology The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things were received as autobiographical, or at least as lightly fictionalized memoirs, and it’s from them that most of the JT character has been derived. Trans before that concept had really hit mainstream awareness the way it has in the last few years, JT was emotionally, physically, and sexually exploited throughout his life, and hustled in truck stops for drug money like his mother had.

In fact, Albert was nearly thirty when she created JT in 1993. She would call San Francisco’s suicide and child crisis helplines, not knowing what persona she would adopt each time. To be clear, these don’t seem to have been prank calls, but actual cries for help from a young woman struggling with some very serious issues of identity and depression. One call was answered by Dr. Terrence Owens, and Albert gave her name as “Terminator” — a name she says she “never would have chosen because it was a stupid name” — a thirteen-year-old homeless male prostitute.

He wasn’t the first young boy Albert had adopted as a persona, but somehow he stuck around. When Dr. Owens asked him to call back the next day, Albert obliged. Or, as she would say, JT did. Soon more details were fleshed out. His “real” name, “Jeremy”, was revealed. When asked to meet, Albert showed up in the inexplicably British persona of “Speedie”, a friend of JT’s. Dr. Owens encouraged JT to write more as a form of therapy.

And then Albert, as JT, contacts a literary agent, who puts her in contact with Dennis Cooper, and from there on to a network of literary memoirists that eventually leads to the first publication of Sarah, using a surname lifted from one of Albert’s phone sex clients. But the jump from Dr. Owens to the agent is never really explored or explained, and it feels like something’s being hidden there.

For that matter, Owens’ own thoughts about JT aren’t ever really explored either. Did he believe JT’s story? or once Speedie showed up did he intuit what was going on and continue to treat Albert for some sort of personality disorder through the persona she was willing to show him? He shows up on camera once to give his name, but the rest of his involvement is through the tapes of JT’s telephone therapy sessions.

Which raises another irritating question: why did Albert record and save seemingly every telephone conversation and answering machine message JT ever got? At some point it starts to feel like some sort of premeditation. Why did she feel like she’d need these recordings? The issue is never even raised, and most audiences will probably never notice.

Once she gets published, Author continues to chronicle JT’s rising star. Fêted by critics and a veritable who’s-who of Gen-X music and film stars, it seems more dangerous than ever to admit the ruse, as unintentionally as she insists it started. She enlists her boyfriend’s half-sister Savannah Knoop to play JT during public appearances, which she also attends in the guise of Speedie. JT’s fame culminated in Asia Argento’s adaptation of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, and its premiere at Cannes. And then, in early 2006, Warren St. John breaks the story in the New York Times.

One thing Laura Albert wants desperately for you to believe is that JT LeRoy was not a hoax. The books published under his name were explicitly positioned as fiction, rather than memoir. But while that’s true, they were clearly being received as memoir, and she hardly went out of her way to correct that misapprehension. It’s hard not to see doubling down and creating a fake person for public appearances as pretty hoaxy.

Albert and her defenders will cite a long history of authors using pseudonyms, and maybe if JT had been just a pseudonym people wouldn’t have had such a problem. Even if the persona was “real” in some gender- and identity-fluid sense, she fabricated an entire history for this person, and carried on dozens of interactions with meticulous documentation that surely helped her keep the stories straight.

Lawerly ruses about whether or not she ever said what she wrote was true don’t hold up. She clearly knew that people believed it was, and that a large part of the praise it garnered was precisely because they believed it. Even if she didn’t set out to, Albert created something that was perfectly designed to appeal to the avant garde sensibilities of the late ’90s and early 2000s. They were all ready to love an abused, queer, teenage junkie — they’d been romanticizing luridly about all of these subjects for years — and that’s exactly what she gave them.

And in playing directly to their preconceptions she drowned out any chance of actual queer youth to speak their own truths. Everyone rushed to embrace as fact what a woman pushing 40, born in Brooklyn and living in northern California, imagined it must be like to be a homeless trans hustler in the heart of Appalachia. She got to hang out with grunge rockers and movie stars as Speedie, and taking their personal calls as JT.

At the very end, almost as an afterthought, Albert speaks of her own abuse. I have no reason to believe that she’s lying, but its inclusion at the tail of her story is a final maddening touch. It comes too late to inform what might have gone through her mind during the rest of the movie. Rather, it seems to hang on like an appendix, useless and vestigial. It may help explain where JT came from, but it makes her writing no more true, and makes her career no less dishonest.

It may come as a surprise that I speak well of Feuerzig’s film. Albert’s story is convenient and self-serving and frustrating and irritating, and Feuerzig allows her to speak for herself. It’s a story — I still object to calling it “the” story — that’s certain to inspire passionate discussions, and there’s little better you can ask from a documentary than that.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: if it applies to documentaries, pass.

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