Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
Back in 2000, 17-year-old author JT Leroy published “Sarah,” a novel based on JT’s life growing up in West Virginia as the HIV-positive son of a truck-stop hooker. “Sarah” became a cultural phenomenon, charming both literary critics and the public. Celebrities like Courtney Love, Billy Corgan, Gus Van Sant, Tom Waits and Winona Ryder were moved by the work and developed personal relationships with the young, troubled artist.
There was just one problem: JT Leroy did not exist, at least not in the traditional sense.
JT Leroy was a pseudonym for Laura Albert, a 40-year-old writer and mother who was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. As a child, Albert was subjected to both physical and sexual abuse; she was later institutionalized and became a ward of the state at 16 years old.
From an early age, Laura Albert was addicted to calling crisis hotlines. She would make thousands of calls throughout her lifetime, often phoning in as young, distressed boys. In the mid-90s, Laura moved to San Francisco, where she phoned a hotline as “Terminator,” aka Jeremiah Terminator Leroy. The hotline connected Terminator to a psychologist, Dr. Richard Owens, who encouraged Terminator to channel his trauma into writing. Five years later, “Sarah” was published.
But for Albert, Leroy was more than just a pen name. JT Leroy was an avatar, a way for her to disassociate, to create as an artist, without dredging up her childhood sufferings. As Albert herself puts it in an interview with Marc Maron on his podcast, WTF With Marc Maron,
“You know how like conjoined twins…one is often stronger than the other. And they share a lung, let’s say. So I would say that Terminator, which later became JT…was the stronger one. And it was like I was the appendage.”
Laura Albert published two books as JT Leroy: “Sarah” and the “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things.” As the books gained prominence, demands began to be made on the reclusive JT Leroy. The public wanted to meet him, to hear from him, to listen to him read his writing. To accommodate, Albert cast a proxy?—?she dressed her sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, up in a blonde wig and sunglasses and introduced her as the author. Albert cast herself as “Speedie”?—?Leroy’s abrasive, British caretaker. Her husband, Geoff Knoop, played “Astor,” JT’s assistant and sometimes ex-lover. Together the three traveled the world, giving readings and rubbing shoulders with the literati elite. That is, until JT was outed by New York Magazine in October of 2005.
The backlash was swift and unforgiving: In 2007, Albert was sued for fraud for signing JT Leroy’s name on a movie contract and ordered to pay $350,000 in legal fees to Antidote International Films. The damages were later reduced and Albert and Antidote reached a settlement in 2009.
For years, Albert remained quiet, refusing interviews and preferring to let others tell her story. Now, she has reemerged, joining forces with documentary filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig for the new film “Author: The JT Leroy Story.” Albert says:
“Part of the reason why I wanted to work with Jeff was he understood my paradigm…all of this stuff is in the work. All the tells are there. There’s a scene in the movie…I’m writing the scene where Cherry Vanilla, the kid, is revealed to be what he’s not; he said he was something different and then they worshipped him. Okay, they turned him into Leroy, the king. And now they found out that he’s not who he said he was and they’re hunting him with torches. And they’re going to kill him.”
It’s easy to see why many news outlets are struggling with the film?—?this is Albert’s story only; it’s the first time she’s telling it and she’s already proven herself to be a most unreliable narrator. But I think she’s telling her truth. Whether the hoax was caused by suppressed childhood trauma, gender confusion, mental illness or artistic license, we may never know. I’m not sure even Albert knows for sure. But when she says she never meant for this to happen?—?I get it. And I believe her.
“Author: The JT Leroy Story” hits select theaters on Friday, September 9th.