‘Author: The JT LeRoy Story’ Offers Fans and Foes the Truth. Maybe.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story Offers Fans and Foes the Truth.
Maybe.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story opens with Winona Ryder thanking him, JT LeRoy. What she’s thanking him for is irrelevant because her sincerity sells it. She believes he is owed a thank you, this author, this boy, the son of a truckstop whore. And we cringe because we know the truth. JT LeRoy isn’t real. He was never real at all. He was a creature spawned from the heart of Laura Albert, the mastermind behind one of, if not THE, greatest literary scandal of all time.

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This new documentary, expertly crafted by Jeff Feuerzeig (The Devil and Daniel Johnston), takes viewers behind the book, and pieces together the wild, weird, shocking, and sometimes sad story of, simply, a woman who wasn’t proud of who she was. Instead of only eating her way to obesity – which she also did – the depressed, lonely Laura Albert created safe places for her to be free, which happened to embody the fantasy of someone she liked.  Whether it was a young, abused boy or a rowdy British punk girl, she birthed these inner beings and manifested them, fed them like a mother, until they became the monsters she could not outrun. This documentary lays them out, gives them life again, and ultimately puts them to bed.

What makes it such a delight to watch, though? Is it Laura’s joyful storytelling? Her ambitious climb to fame, and fall from grace? Or is it the peculiar, amusing animations that help unpack the tale? Yes to all of that, but the fun is the true craziness – and the art – of it all. It explores what defines a scandal in the internet age (which, as it turns out, is simply an untruth). JT LeRoy was created from her dream, and became her outlet for her fantasies, dark and shocking as they were. People loved him, and she loved him, much more than she (or maybe anyone) had loved herself. He was a sweet innocent ruined by the cruel hands of fate, but he was a survivor. He told the story of the lesser thans, those of of us who lived by night, and survived almost exclusively on the kindness, and unkindness, of strangers. Through him, he let us live our darkness.

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The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things is a great novel. Not because it’s technically masterful, or because of the scandal that followed it. It’s just a good read. Stories about the shadowy side of life are always good reads to me. I know these people. They are my people. This book spoke to me in volumes, the simple poetry. It’s not the caliber of say, Flannery O’Connor or Truman Capote (southern literary heroes much like JT would be), but with the intimacy in which he tells his tales are executed so well. I was there with JT when the meth house exploded, when he was dipped in the scalding hot bath, when his mother left and came back, only to leave again. I knew him. I felt his pain. We all did.

Laura Albert utters a line in the film when it comes to the moment she realizes that JT had to make an appearance in our world. She says, “JT had to walk among us.” It was as if he hadn’t already been living. But alas, he had to breath. So her sister-in-law, who has a literary name of her own – Savannah Knoop – was a cute, boyish waif with a punk rock sensibility, that embodied the very boy that Laura had dreamt. It was destiny, it seemed. “Let there be life,” she says. Bam, JT in the flesh.

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In one sitting, we get to hear from all of the powerhouses that championed JT, and some who were eventually let down. Gus Van Sant, Courtney Love, Billy Corgan, Michael Pitt, to name a few. The movie adaptation of The Heart is Deceitful…, directed by and starring cult queen Asia Argento, was spawned from the celebrity frenzy. The film was equally as great, and hated, as the book, though not as a harrowing tale, but as a perfect piece of modern exploitation cinema. Not only did Asia allegedly seduce “JT,” aka, Savanah, but she very well could’ve been in on the whole thing. She created something sleazy, artful, and fucked up, on and offscreen, and it fit perfectly into the JT LeRoy narrative.

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Laura and her boyfriend had taped all of their phone conversations over the years, as if they knew this illusion was all tenuous at best. It’s a big part of what reveals so much in the film, but it’s not really ever addressed, and somehow that’s ok. We know. It was as if they were waiting for the bottom to fall out at any moment so they could have proof of it all. And the bottom did fall out. And when it did, they were at the top, and it was a long way back down again. Alliances were broken, hearts shattered, and the media gobbled the story up like french fries. A “literary hoax,” they called it. It was curtains for JT LeRoy.

This wasn’t a hoax for many, though, myself included. It was a perfect piece of art, created by an artist with the bravery and cunning to dupe us all. In the film, Laura clearly points out that the book had always been plainly labeled fiction.  Did she, they, create a fantasy for everyone? Or was everyone, like Billy Corgan later on, in on the show? Who knows, and who cares? I had fun on the ride.

Regardless of outrage, the work lives on. And regardless of who she is – and who she might’ve taken advantage of – Laura created something beautiful. She created JT, a trans boy with AIDS that used to be a prostitute, and Sarah, an unfit mother and beast. She created a wonderful, private world that also became ours. She forged bonds with real people, rock stars and movie stars, darlings of the pop culture world. A former insecure girl turned superstar herself, now, finally, in a spotlight all her own.