I vaguely remember bits and pieces of the J. T. LeRoy saga. Around the turn of the 21st century, LeRoy was an author of great repute and considerable mystery: he (or was it a she?) was actually a she (or was it a he?). Whatever the case, it was a great opportunity to get into some serious pronoun trouble.
Never being much interested in contemporary fiction, however, that was about it for my LeRoy memories, and once the story left the front pages (at a time when we still had front pages for stories to leave) I forgot all about it. Now comes Author: The J. T. LeRoy Story (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Sept. 9), a documentary that helps me remember (and understand) what actually happened.
Laura Albert was 28 years’ old when she created her alter ego, J. T. (Jerome ‘Terminator’) LeRoy. LeRoy was the teenage son of a truck-stop prostitute; a troubled youngster infected with AIDS by one of his mother’s clients. Albert, by contrast, was a woman ashamed of her weight and scarred by the emotional and sexual abuse she’d suffered as a child.
Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig (Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King), Author relies heavily on the testimony of Albert to tell its story. Now barely recognizable as the person she once was, Albert appears frequently on screen and apparently opened her archives for Feuerzeig, who uses home movies and recorded phone conversations to flesh out the story.
It’s a fascinating tale of deception that began with award-winning author Bruce Benderson’s receipt of an unsolicited story ostensibly written by a 15-year-old named Terminator. Deeply impressed with what he read, Benderson started the ball rolling on what would quickly become a wildly successful, if highly unlikely, literary career.
Taken aback by developments, and in urgent need of a cover story, Albert convinced her boyfriend’s sister, Savannah, to become J. T. LeRoy in the flesh while Albert hovered in the background as Speedie, the author’s media contact and gopher. In cahoots with Laura’s boyfriend Geoff (renamed Astor), they managed to pull the wool over the world’s eyes for six years.
One of Author‘s most interesting aspects is its examination of celebrity culture. The transgressive LeRoy found himself adopted by pop culture luminaries such as Asia Argento, Bono (the film’s segment on ‘the Bono talk’ is both hilarious and illuminating), Billy Corgan, Courtney Love, and Gus Van Sant. To their credit, some of the celebs remained loyal to Albert after the truth came out in 2006, while others couldn’t get over the fact they’d been hoodwinked.
In our tightly focused and highly magnified world of social media, where someone’s comments regarding an airline seat-mate can set off a whirlwhind of controversy, it’s hard to imagine a similar feat ever being pulled off again — but would it really matter? Albert/LeRoy’s books exist, and (while it may be a letdown to know they were written by a middle-aged woman and not a teenage boy) their substance and value presumably remain intact.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.
Berkeleyside’s Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas is two days of provocative thinking, inspiring speakers, workshops, and a big party — all in downtown Berkeley in October. Read all about it, be part of it. Register on the Uncharted website.