The case of JT LeRoy is one of the great literary hoaxes of recent times: the author, supposedly an androgynous, HIV-positive teen who’d been abandoned In California by his mother Sarah, a West Virginia truckstop prostitute, was embraced by publishers, critics and celebrities alike, but was ultimately revealed to be non-existent. He turned out to be a pseudonym of Laura Albert, a San Francisco woman who wrote all the work published under his name beginning in 1996, spoke as him in telephone interviews (some with a therapist), and orchestrated public appearances by him (an impersonation by Savannah Koop, the half-sister of her boyfriend Geoff Koop, heavily disguised). Albert was unmasked in news reports in 2006, and was eventually convicted of fraud the following year for signing a contract as JT LeRoy.
One might expect that Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary would be an objective account of this whole curious episode, but it’s not. “Author: The JT LeRoy Story” tells the story entirely from Albert’s point of view, and turns out to be pretty much an apologia in which she portrays the imposture not as a deliberate attempt to deceive but as a therapeutic expression of her own inner demons. She’s certainly unrepentant about it all, looking upon those who outed her as traitors and happily providing tapes of those whom she duped as evidence of how successful she was in persuading a great many people—including therapist Terrence Owens, film director Gus Van Sant, pop stars Billy Corgan and Courtney Love and actress Asia Argento, who actually made a film from the LeRoy material—to buy into her elaborate charade. Meanwhile, dissenting voices are conspicuous by their absence; by the close you might be a bit surprised not to find Albert’s name among those of the twelve producers.
So Feuerzeig’s film is by no means a balanced presentation of l’affaire LeRoy, much less an indictment of Laura Albert. But it nonetheless assembles a large amount of fascinating material otherwise unavailable, and as edited by Michelle M. Witten (with some effective animation inserts by Joshua Mulligan and Stefan Nadelman), it’s consistently engrossing, even if it sidesteps the issue of ultimate narrative reliability. And it could be argued that by letting Albert run on in her insistent self-justification, it gradually erodes her credibility. Whether such a goal was in the writer-director’s mind, however, is a question that can’t be resolved on the basis of the documentary he’s made.
So “Author: The JT LeRoy Story” is undoubtedly an intriguing piece on a major recent brouhaha in the literary world. But it’s hardly the last word on the subject, and for now one would be best advised to couple it with Marjorie Storm’s very different “The Cult of JT LeRoy,” released last year.