The meta-narrative that Laura Albert crafted when she posed as JT LeRoy, a former teen sex worker-turned-celebrated author and eventual celebrity, was as riveting as her books. If you paid attention during LeRoy’s heyday in the early ‘00s—largely owed to the acclaim and high readership of her 1999 novel Sarah and the follow-up collection of interconnected stories The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things—you know that the woman who said she was JT LeRoy during public appearances, usually under a blonde wig and sunglasses, was eventually exposed by the New York Times in 2006 as Savannah Knoop. Knoop was the niece of Albert, who’d written the supposedly autobiographical books as LeRoy, and the entire affair, including Albert’s subsequent cultural shunning, exposed a lot about celebrity and what people actually value in their writers.
With more than 10 years of hindsight, Albert’s story is more fascinating than infuriating, as it unfurls in Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story. Albert discusses the early abuse that she claims caused her to dissociate initially: too ashamed to associated herself with her trauma, she’d call suicide hotlines as other characters; afraid of being ridiculed for her weight, she dressed her sister up to be her avatar in the local punk scene. Author is a glimpse at a person who wielded people like Barbie dolls, eventually duping the world that was hooked on her writing and seduced by a rags-to-riches story that conveyed fictional trauma (early on, the JT LeRoy character was HIV positive, though that part of the bio was dropped, and LeRoy was gender fluid, which Albert maintains she is today).
All along, Albert was hiding in plain sight—she was often by her JT LeRoy avatar’s side posing as LeRoy’s British manager “Speedie” (eventually, after losing some weight and while pursuing a music career, she rechristened herself “Emily Frasier”). When she gave interviews as LeRoy, she was often evasive and sometimes emphasized the fictional nature of her work—“Everything I publish will always be fiction,” she told Poets & Writers in 2004.
No matter what you think of Albert’s trickery, you’ll likely admire the story it produced and the way it’s conveyed in Author. It’s just a good story, and that’s what the best writers create. Albert needed to do what she needed to do to get these beloved books out, and if you believe that writing is a higher court, it’s hard to hold to much against her. Albert’s famous friends (like Winona Ryder, Courtney Love, Carrie Fisher and Billy Corgan) with whom she carried on the charade of JT LeRoy in private, may think differently—many of them appear in Author via recordings of conversations they had with Albert, as well as voicemails they left for her.
A few weeks ago, I sat down with Albert and Author director Feuerzeig to discuss their movie, her story, and art. A condensed and edited transcript of our conversation appears below.
JEZEBEL: Why tell this story in such depth in your own voice via a documentary, as opposed to writing it?
LAURA ALBERT: What’s that movie called where James Franco’s caught with a boulder?
Albert: Dude, you can give me a fucking laser beam and I cannot cut it off. I needed rescuing and I couldn’t do it myself, and writing at that point was self-surgery and it wasn’t safe. I knew I needed a rescue squad and I had a feeling one would come. My job was to let the right one in. I’m just talking in movie titles.
I had a lot of people coming, some pretty impressive people. There were some I would dance [with] for a while, and it was made apparent to me that it was not right. I knew I had one shot. You have one shot at rescue and you have to make the right choice. It’s scary. I was treading water. Some days, to be honest, I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it through. It was really hard.
Why, today, should people believe what you say, given your past?
Albert: First of all, you can fact-check. I went through a federal trial and that stuff is public record. I waived my medical and legal records, so you can see the records from the hospitalizations, the group home. There are people who were hospitalized with me. Fact-check motherfucker! Do your work!
Jeff, did you have any trepidation or doubt about presenting the story in the most veracious way possible?
Jeff Feuerzeig: That’s not how I entered this film at all. When the scandal broke in 2006, I didn’t know what a JT LeRoy was, nor had I heard of the scandal, nor had I read the books. I’m a blank slate. My whole life is nonfiction and new journalism. I love a great story, and great stories do not grow on trees. A journalist friend of mine, years after this had happened said, “You know, this is a great truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story. This is up your alley, you should check it out.” I went and found piles of ink that were generated about this literary scandal. At the time it was being called “the biggest literary hoax of our time.” That was the hook for me. I read every single one of those pieces. I had this feeling that there had to be much, much more to the story. I wanted to know that much, much more.
I reached out to Laura. At this point in time she had been excommunicated by the literary community. She had been found guilty of fraud in a court of law over her [The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things movie] contract. And she was basically curled up in a ball for years. I sent her my film The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which deals vividly with the intersection of madness and creativity. I find that subject infinitely fascinating. I sent it to Laura. She watched my film. It and its themes spoke to her. At that point in time, she decided she would share her story with me, and I learned at that point in time that other people—Hollywood, other documentarians—had approached her and she said no to everyone. She said she was going to share [with me]. Then I read the books because it was on me. It was important for me to read those books. I loved Daniel Johnston’s art and music, but I also loved his story. It was the whole enchilada. I didn’t want to make a music documentary, I wanted to tell this incredible story. I read Sarah for the first time in one sitting on a plane.
Laura, from this remove, can you sit back and appreciate the narrative you ended up crafting, the meta-narrative? It plays like an amazing story.
Albert: This is the surreal part: The “crazy story” was normal for me. That was everyday operating system. For me to be inside my own skin is completely fucking new. I mean, it’s not new, but it’s been a process. It’s all accidental, but in a way, I think the recording was a grounding of: this is crazy. I was both inside and outside crazy. It’s kind of like if you’re on an acid trip and the acid’s telling you that you can climb out a building but there’s a voice inside saying, “Nope, you can’t climb outside the building. Don’t do it.” It’s kind of like that. I was completely given over to the experience. It was real, it was true, and also there was the voice: “This is a little off.” My job was to normalize it for everyone else and for them to see what I saw. [sings] Do you see what I see? It’s like, yeah, you fucking do.
Because the dissociation was rooted in trauma, you specifically mention in the movie that it wasn’t multiple personality disorder. Is that your assessment or did a doctor tell you that it wasn’t?
Albert: To me ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the diagnosis it was. I’ve had people tell me I’m channeling dead people. I’ve had people tell me I’m a host for spirits. It does not fucking matter. Really at the end of the day, if I’m a multiple personality or if I’m a Shirley MacLaine, it really has no bearing on me making it through the end of the day. What really makes is through the day is if I am not compulsively overeat... well, I do sometimes compulsively overeat. I don’t do with food what I used to do. It’s writing. It’s trying to be as present as possible. It’s new age-y kind of stuff. There are certain things that help me make it through a day. The title or whatever you want to call it doesn’t really matter. I think the whole Sybil thing, which turned out not to be true, I think it’s nuanced. I think we really don’t understand trauma and we have many different levels of disassociation.
Everyone does it. What struck me while watching you tell your story is that everyone has different ways of expressing their identity. We have more means than ever via technology to do so. So maybe part of who you are is this avatar controller. Maybe you have a really specific way of manifesting your identity.
Albert: I’m avatar variant. We have that language now of gender varying, which we didn’t 10 years ago. People were like, “JT’s trans.” They said that. And it was forced on us.
JT was gender fluid.
Albert: And I was too. And now I can present like this [motions to feminine style], and if someone says, “How do you identify?” it’s like, “Any way I want.” If I want to use “they,” if I want to have this body and say, “Refer to me with the ‘he’ pronoun,” at most college campuses they’d be like, “That’s right! Welcome in, sir.”
Do you still hear from Speedie and JT?
Albert: [Affecting a British accent] What, me? Does he want to interview me? Because I really think that you should be doing this with me. Fuck Laura, I’m the one who ran the show, if you want to know the truth, it’s all about me.
Feuerzeig: What about Emily Frasier, is she still around?
Albert: David Milch [producer of Deadwood, for which Albert wrote] was getting calls and he’s trying to run a show. I’d started out as JT and then I went to Speedie. Then I’m Emily Frasier, because I didn’t want everyone else to know. Then I’m Laura. He comes in and the rest of the staff still didn’t know. He’s standing there and he has to talk to me because there’s crazy shit going on. I see it on his face—what to fuckin’ call me? He’s just like, “...You!”
To me, this story exposes what we look for in writing. If your identity was enough to invalidate the writing, it’s very telling in what people invest in, as opposed to the actual writing.
Albert: It depends on what you came with. If it was this [motions to new edition of Sarah, sitting next to her], you might feel upset. The echo chamber said you were cheated. Imagine you saw a movie that made you cry and moved you and made you think—brought up stuff that was intense for you. And then someone said, “The writer and director are laughing at you. You’ve been made a fool of. You’ve been fuckin’ punked.” You might feel really fucking upset. But the thing is, the felt authenticity of the work was there. And there were people who really did have a relationship with [JT]. And I completely understand. I made those calls. The truth is, I felt suicidal and [the calls] bought me another day. That wasn’t a joke. The thing is: I am grateful that you gave me that time. That’s between me and that person and I have made myself available for them. I’ve had those conversations with those people where I explained what it was for me. By and large, those people understood it. I have the roadmap to crazy. I can connect the dots.
Did the people whose voices we hear in the film sign off on their use?
Feuerzeig: Very simply, we have a team of lawyers who worked arduously to vet all the material in the film, or obviously the film would not exist. In addition, our producers reached out to everyone who is heard in the film to inform them and also answer any questions they may have had. Or we wouldn’t have a film. Courtney Love, who was worrisome because there’s illegal drug use, she said, “Oh, totally cool.”
You remain friends with her, right?
Albert: Y...I-I-I think it’s awesome that she did that.
Did the people know they were being recorded when you recorded them?
Albert: That was an interview with her. It was an eight-hour...
But how about Tom Waits?
Feuerzeig: Tom Waits was an interview. Some people did, some people didn’t. And some of them are answering machine tapes. It’s a mosaic.
Laura spends so much time onscreen talking, to the extent that we really don’t hear anyone else’s side of the story.
Feuerzeig: Number one: Subjectivity in nonfiction filmmaking is a choice. I define myself, and always have, as a new journalist. Through subjectivity, which was a reaction against objectivity by Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese and all these great writers, my heroes, is a deeper root to truth and what Werner Herzog defines as the ecstatic truth, the larger truth. We are in this club, I’m proud to be a member of the club. Anyone who’s criticized this film should go back and read one of the greatest things I’ve ever read in my life, it’s the most inspiring thing ever: “The Birth of the New Journalism” by Tom Wolfe. If you change the word “journalism” to “documentary film,” it’s my entire philosophy.
I absolutely admire the film The Kid Stays in the Picture. I absolute admire James Toback’s Tyson. Once again, one voice. Errol Morris, another hero of mine: The Unknown Known, The Fog of War. These are choices, and they are the rare films in this category, that I’m proud that this film is now a part of. It’s a choice. I am, like Tom Wolfe, reacting against something I don’t like to go to a theater and experience for myself. I hear audiences for 20 years now complaining, “I hate talking-head documentaries.” “I hate documentaries that spoon-feed me a moral wrapped up in a neat little bow ending.” Well, I don’t like ‘em either! Therefore, what do you do? I am proud do be doing the same thing in my nonfiction film—I don’t even like the word “documentary.” When nonfiction film is done well, you really experience it. It’s just good cinema. You don’t think, “Did I see a documentary? Was it fiction?” No, you just saw a great film.
I wanted to hear from the author of the fiction on and off the page, and ultimately, it’s a story about storytelling and it turns out—I couldn’t have known this—she was a fucking great storyteller. That’s the person that largely tells this tale. I’m proud of it and anyone who wants to attack subjectivity or new journalism, I’m never going to be defensive about anything in the film, but I will defend that choice. I want to experience art. Don’t tell Johnny Ramone not to play downstrokes.
As a writer, Laura, I understand that you need to do what you need to do to get the work out.
Albert: Yeah. By any means necessary, while holding someone’s heart. I didn’t steal money, I never misappropriated funds, I haven’t killed anyone—or they haven’t found the bodies yet. You know? Writing is hard. Most people are like, “I’ve got a book in me.” It’s like, “OK, you do that.”
Author: The JT LeRoy Story is in select theaters Friday.