Produced by Jim Czarnecki, Danny Gabai,
Brett Ratner, Molly Thompson
Written and Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig
Featuring Laura Albert, Bruce Benderson,
Dennis Cooper, Panio Gianopoulos,
Winona Ryder, Ira Silverberg
One of the most fascinating literary scandals unfolded about 10 years ago when famously reclusive author JT LeRoy — an “it boy” who had been championed by everyone from Lou Reed to Tom Waits — was exposed as an alter ego of JT’s manager, 40-year-old Laura Albert. And the young blond boy claiming to be JT LeRoy, who rubbed elbows with celebrities such as Bono and Winona Ryder, turned out to be Albert’s sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, who donned wigs and sunglasses to aid her disguise.
For the first time in this riveting documentary, Albert tells her side of the story and it’s a surprisingly sympathetic one. While the scathing 2005 New York magazine article that revealed the deception labeled her whole career a hoax, according to Albert, her initial intention was never that calculated. In her defense, she had no way of knowing how out of control this literary invention would become. On the other hand, she had several opportunities to walk away before being exposed and chose not to, leaving friends and supporters feeling understandably betrayed.
Albert began writing as JT — a young boy who’d been pimped out as both a boy and a girl by his lowlife mother — as part of her therapy. While her own past (as we learn in bits and pieces throughout the film) was not as sordidly dramatic as JT’s, it was still deeply troubled and included stints in a metal institution.
As she explains, she always felt more comfortable writing from a male perspective, which led to her getting guidance over the phone using a male alter ego. When a therapist suggested “he” begin writing, JT, then known simply as “Terminator,” began faxing stories to favorite writers, who all urged him to publish.
Soon JT was a media darling thanks to his 1999 book, Sarah, which was supposedly a lightly fictionalized biography of his mother who turned tricks at truck stops. While the reclusiveness and his refusal to go on camera added to his allure, soon he was just too popular to go on being a faceless entity.
Up until then, Albert was simply adopting a literary persona: Now she took a bold step to make JT real. It’s hard to believe it actually worked, but Savannah, Albert’s square-jawed sister-in-law, agreed to the deception and soon she was partying with celebrities as JT and posing for magazine photo shoots. Along for the ride was Albert’s husband and Savannah’s brother, who eventually grew tired of the charade.
While Albert kept up prolific friendships over the phone with celebrity fans including Courtney Love and Shirley Manson, Savannah played JT in public. Savannah even walked the red carpet at Cannes with Asia Argento, who’d directed a movie based on LeRoy’s second book, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things.
The film opens with footage of Winona Ryder at a reading gushing about how much she loves JT and it’s surreal to see how devotedly the alternative arts community embraced the author. Since JT was legendarily too shy do his own readings, celebs including Lou Reed and Matthew Modine read for him. When we learn, late in the film, that Albert herself was at nearly all these readings as an unnoticed audience member, the meta-ness of the situation is nuts.
Albert — who’s now 50 — doesn’t offer many apologies for misleading so many of her friends. Her greatest misstep — besides convincing Savannah to play JT — was her reaction when rumors began circulating that JT was a fabrication: Instead of coming clean, she doubled down, asking her celebrity supporters to go to bat for her and insist that JT was absolutely real. You can chalk that up to panic or perversity, but it makes it a lot harder to argue that she never intended anyone any harm through this whole deception.
What’s astonishing is how much material the film has to work with. Albert seems to have documented every minute of her life from childhood on — not only are there photos of her with every celebrity she met as JT’s manager, she also recorded every phone conversation, so we can hear when her answering machine clogs up with famous friends pledging their support as the article hits and then, later, demanding to know the truth. Unbelievably, she even kept recordings of her phone sex sessions, including one with a Mr. LeRoy, whose name she borrowed for her alter ego.
I came away from the film thinking that if Albert had found a more respectable avenue for her writing, she would likely be celebrated as the gifted writer she clearly is instead of reviled as a con artist. But it’s extremely doubtful her books would have been so passionately embraced by the hipster elite if they were credited to a middle-aged mother instead of an abused and sexually confused waif.
Albert will always have her detractors, but this sympathetic documentary might gain her a few more defenders.