Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Review: "Author: The JT LeRoy Story"

Some years ago author James Frey was excoriated for exaggerating portions of “A Million Little Pieces,” which was presented as his memoirs, especially the depth of his personal troubles. This led to a tense January 2006 confrontation with Oprah Winfrey on her show, where she had previously celebrated his work, and Frey’s career has never really recovered.

Perhaps because it happened at nearly the exact same time, the unveiling of author JT LeRoy has gained less notice. But it’s a far more compelling story, one well explored in Jeff Feuerzeig’s fascinating new documentary, “Author: The JT LeRoy Story.”

JT was a literary phenomenon and cult figure during the late 1990s and early 2000s, especially in arts and entertainment circles. A gender-fluid boy from West Virginia who grew up the child of a truck-stop prostitute, JT -- short for “Jeremiah Terminator,” his given and adopted names -- was strung out on drugs, HIV positive and selling his own body for money by the age of 13.

After being encouraged to write by a therapist, much of his experiences were illuminated in his first two novels, “Sarah” and “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things,” published while he was still a teenager. An intensely private person who eschewed in-person interviews, JT’s mystery only grew when he started making a few public appearances, clad in a long blonde wig, sunglasses and hat. In one notable event, he conducted a reading from his book onstage while hiding under a table.

Like a moth emerging from its chrysalis, JT’s celebrity grew and grew, until he became featured in photo shoots, worked on the HBO show “Deadwood” and earned a credit as a producer on Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant.” JT befriended other celebrities, including a close kinship with singer Billy Corgan.

Except for one thing: JT was a girl. And he wasn’t even real.

JT was a literary “avatar” created by Laura Albert, a rather nondescript woman from Brooklyn who was 40 at the time of the debunking. The story was widely circulated as a “hoax” -- with Albert even going so far as to dress up her sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, as JT for public appearances. Fractured relationships, lawsuits, fraud charges and loss of status resulted.

Feuerzeig interviews Albert extensively, added to old footage and phone recordings to draw a fuller picture. We learn that Albert really did write as a way of therapy to transcend her own history of abuse and depression. She constructed JT as an outlet for those feelings, and was as surprised as anyone when it turned into a legitimate career as an author.

The only problem: JT wrote with such hard-scoured authenticity, everyone expected him to be the real thing.

Albert and Savannah used the ruse of JT for a German television interview, and things just cascaded from there. Albert continued to sketch out the double life, writing herself and husband Geoff Knoop into the story as JT’s housemates and friends. In public appearances, Albert herself took on the role of “Speedie,” a British-accented singer and always close at-hand confidant.

In one stranger-than-fiction occurrence, Albert attends the premier of the film “The Heart is Deceitful,” directed by and starring Asia Argento, based on her book -- but is banished from the red carpet, while Savannah, as “JT,” basks in the limelight.

If you think that’s unfathomable, things only get weirder. (For instance, a strongly implied sexual liaison between Argento and “JT.”)

I don’t want to say more, because unraveling the pretzel of Albert’s emotional journey is where much of the appeal of “Author” resides. If it’s possible to construct a mountain of lies while genuinely pursuing an inner truth, then that is what Albert was striving to do.

Here’s a mesmerizing tale of a made-up person who moved people’s hearts through words. Does it really matter whose they were?

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