Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy, author of Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, burst onto the literary scene with a startling combination of narrative guilelessness and pugilistic prose, stories of truck-stop prostitutes and heroin slinging that seemed to slice open the belly of the American beast. He was, agent Ira Silverberg states in Jeff Feuerzeig’s Author: The JT LeRoy Story, the “torchbearer” for Allen Ginsburg, William S. Burroughs, and Jean Genet, or perhaps the heir, as a roundtable of critics suggests, to Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, and Truman Capote.
“A blond-haired, blue-eyed boy that a man would love, and want to fuck,” LeRoy became the darling of the era’s wounded, confessional indie culture, the grunge- and goth-inflected demimonde of filmmaker Gus Van Sant, actress Asia Argento, memoirist Mary Karr, and Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan. With those large, dark sunglasses and flute-like whisper, that cream-colored skin and diminutive frame, he recalled the poet Paul Valéry’s line about the “shivering of an effaced leaf,” vulnerable to the point of vanishing. And indeed, he did—vanish, that is. He never existed at all.
As a recapitulation of the rise and fall of JT LeRoy, the pen name and persona created by Brooklyn-born writer Laura Albert, Author is imaginative and often engrossing, shifting among Albert’s traumatic past, LeRoy’s strange evolution, and the fiction itself to suggest the loose correspondences that lash them together. At one point, Feuerzeig reconstructs LeRoy’s early “life” in West Virginia with a montage of “home movies” that might’ve been cut together by Quentin Tarantino, run through with romanticized seediness; in a handful of beautiful, roughhewn sequences, animators Joshua Mulligan and Stefan Nadelman reimagine LeRoy’s writing as the scribbling in an adolescent’s sketchbook. In this sense, though Albert admits that the invention of LeRoy was, at least in part, a coping mechanism, a response to the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse she’d suffered as a child, Author refuses to draw a straight line from the autobiographical to the fictional.
In particular, the film underscores the extent to which our obsession with the details of artists’ lives has come to substitute for thoughtful engagement with their art. After the enthusiastic reception of Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, Albert enlists her sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, to pose in public as LeRoy, alongside the growing “cast of characters” that comprised his literary entourage—including Albert herself, sporting a British accent, as LeRoy’s friend and manager, Speedie. It’s here that Author is at its most astute, and the broader culture it depicts at its most dispiriting: So eager are LeRoy’s admirers to see the stories reflected in the writer himself, in the stringy blond hair and retiring mien, that no one notices the ruse. “My fear was that JT LeRoy wouldn’t be taken seriously if the only thing that existed was a veneer of celebrity,” Silverberg says, without irony, of his client’s more famous friends and collaborators, though of course that “veneer of celebrity” is inextricable from LeRoy’s success. One need not doubt the origins or the caliber of the writing to know that Calvin Klein spreads sell books.
If Albert is right to bristle at the term “hoax,” or to reject attempts to diagnose her from afar, Author nonetheless fails to reconcile its notion that the work that matters is what’s on the page with its subject’s determination to sustain the subterfuge. This is, perhaps, a function of the film’s own authorship: With her extensive audio recordings and on-camera interviews, which together constitute a significant portion of the film’s raw materials, Albert often appears to be Feuerzeig’s uncredited co-director, urging Author toward the slipperiness of memoir rather than the rigor of reportage. The result, as the identities of LeRoy, Speedie, and Astor (Albert’s husband, Geoff Knoop) start to unravel, resembles a slapdash profile, or perhaps a protective self-portrait; the film’s final third founders on the dawning suspicion that Feuerzeig isn’t skeptical enough of his subject’s explanations and rationalizations to reveal any more than she wants us to know.
With one, all-too-brief exception, no others with knowledge of the deceit appear on camera, nor do most of those whose voices we hear in Albert’s recordings—a rather eccentric habit in its own right, about which Feuerzeig apparently declines to ask. There’s no response solicited from the New York Times journalist Albert accuses of threatening to “get” her for “violating the Patriot Act and mail fraud”; there’s no comment on the possible repercussions of the experience for Albert and Knoop’s son, Thor; there’s no particular interest in pressing the woman behind JT LeRoy to consider how the “feeding frenzy” of his unveiling might be related to the one that brought him fame. For the nonfiction filmmaker, if not for the novelist, the most sensational stories still hinge on the pursuit of truth, and the tough questions demand to be asked despite the subject’s dissembling or discomfort. As a wise author once suggested, the heart is deceitful above all things.