Author: The JT LeRoy Story
Laura Albert, Asia Argento, Stephen Beachy, Bill Corgan, Courtney Love
…interesting but ultimately inessential…
Plenty of authors use pen names for one reason or another. Stephen King had Richard Bachman. JK Rowling has her crime fiction nom de plume, Robert Galbraith. Laura Albert, the subject of the film at hand, had JT LeRoy, and the both the reasons for his creation and the sheer scale of the deception go well beyond the norm, as detailed in Author: The JT LeRoy Story.
Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy published his first novel in 2000. Sarah was a rough, raw, emotionally devastating tale of a gender-confused teenage hustler working the truckstop circuit and idolising his junkie mother. LeRoy, gender-fluid, HIV-positive, and hailing from an unimaginably abusive background, based the novel on his own experiences. By the time his follow-up work, the short story collection The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, landed in 2001, LeRoy was a genuine literary sensation, hailed as an uncompromising voice from the underground and amassing a following that included Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan, grunge icon Courtney Love, actress and filmmaker Asia Argento (who would go on to film The Heart is Deceitful) and more.
Of course, LeRoy didn’t exist. It all came out in the wash in 2005/2006. LeRoy was the literary persona of Laura Albert, a housewife in her 40s, who began constructing the avatar as a way to communicate her years of abuse to emergency hotline counselors, and eventually used it to channel her unarguable literary talent. How it all got out of hand, leading to Albert roping in her sister-in-law to play LeRoy at public appearances and cultivating personal and, it seems, sexual relationships with a number of high profile patrons and fans, well, that’s the story we have here.
Director Jeff Feuerzeig lets Laura tell her own tale, supplementing the narrative with snatches of animation and, interestingly, a huge number of answering machine messages and telephone conversations, the latter of which Albert apparently recorded without consent. These are frequently fascinating; at one point Corgan refers to himself as “The Corganator”, at another Love pauses the conversation to bump a quick rail of cocaine.
What’s really arresting, though, is the palpable need people have to believe in whatever fits their narrative. It’s easy to laugh at these bandwagon-jumping celebs as they sing LeRoy’s praises and describe their personal connection to the fictional author (poor Matthew Modine comes off as particularly naive in one clip), but it speaks to something deeper: the desire, found even in the most successful, to attach themselves to something unique and special.
Of course, Albert took advantage of that, but the question is whether through intent or dysfunction. Her own history of abuse and trauma is well documented, but one still wonders if there is a line between expression and exploitation in this case, and where it might lie. Albert herself is no help in locating it; we get a lot of her here, speaking directly to camera, but while she seems open to discussing the fine details of events, what;’s missing is any sense of self-awareness or introspection. She takes no responsibility for any harm she’s caused, and it’s rather damning no matter how sympathetic you may be feeling.
Author fails to hold her to account for that, and that is the film’s central failing. There’s no thesis here, just a recounting of (fascinating, mind you) events. We get the facts, but not their meaning, and that makes the film interesting but ultimately inessential.