Friday 5 August 2016

Deceit: "Author: The JT LeRoy Story"

Author: The JT LeRoy Story is a story about storytelling, and in particular the stories some people feel compelled to tell in order to get by nowadays. The focus, as per that title, is JT LeRoy, the sexually androgynous, AIDS-afflicted son of a truckstop prostitute who briefly became a literary sensation around the turn of the last millennium via a stream of candidly autobiographical writings that described his punishing coming-of-age in unflinching detail; several of these works would be filmed, in gaudily vivid fashion, by Asia Argento in 2004's The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. That title should have been a tip-off, for it was only a few years later that the lie was exposed: that the precocious talent LeRoy was, in fact, a work of fiction, the creation of a jobbing writer better known as Laura Albert. 

Your reaction to Jeff Feuerzeig's documentary account of these events will, I suspect, depend heavily on what you yourself bring to it. The postmodernists among you might approach Author as a jolly jape, the unfolding of a situationist media prank that got only wilder the further it went along, casting hidebound notions of truth and identity into flux and chaos. Careerists will doubtless view Albert as a savvy opportunist who sensed exactly what the increasingly desperate publishing industry was looking for at the end of the last century: misery memoirs in the vein of A Child Called "It" and Angela's Ashes, the bleaker the better. The haters and the duped, meanwhile, have reason to regard Albert as somewhere between a confidence trickster and a shameless narcissist, a writer whose output was a slap in the face of anyone who had, in fact, survived the predations of poverty and abuse to write about it - and someone who contributed as much as anyone to the death of sincerity in public life.

Crucially, Feuerzeig has recruited Albert to revisit this story in her own words. The bulk of the film is Errol Morris-ish first-person testimony in which we hear out the subject, now a well-dressed if obviously emotional woman in early middle-age, taking us through every step of this deception; the main cutaway is to cassette recordings of Albert/LeRoy's telephone conversations with publicists, therapists and celebrities, the unholy trinity who raised up this underdog and carried her into the spotlight. LeRoy, it turns out, was but one of several characters that the deeply insecure Albert, unhappy with her own identity, put out into the world: these included LeRoy's English PA Speedie, played by Albert herself with a Cockney accent that makes Dick van Dyke's voice work in Mary Poppins sound finessed. It has the air of a cracking joke, yet the underlying pathology makes for uncomfortable viewing: while the horrendous sexual abuse LeRoy was describing was fictional, its existence between hard covers appears a consequence of a very real mental fragility.

This is mere speculation, your honour, but it follows logically from a film that often seems to be asking us to assume the roles of judge and psychiatrist simultaneously - to assess whether or not we can forgive Albert her transgressions, if indeed we should prosecute her at all. My sunnier side was prepared to write the whole story off as a hoax engineered by a shy, neurotic young woman with the goal of self-protection: as Albert is heard to confess at one point, "my goal was to become a healthy human being". As the writer enlists her sister-in-law Savannah Knoop (in Warholian wigs and dark glasses) to physically "play" LeRoy at readings where she's applauded by such alt-culture veterans as Gus van Sant, Debbie Harry and Courtney Love, you can't help but imagine Albert having a sly chuckle to herself, as Chris Morris more than likely did while recruiting luminaries and politicians for his anti-paedo crusade Nonce Sense: we know LeRoy's made it when we see Knoop being pulled aside at a U2 gig to hear the wisdom of Bono on playing the fame game.

Yet Albert's aim wasn't originally satirical, to make these kowtowing dupes look suggestible and foolish (though - boy - do they ever); it was, rather, an act of self-promotion. (In that earlier mission statement, you could switch the word "healthy" for "successful".) In this, the creation of LeRoy was undeniably effective: it got Albert on the publishers' radar and list, into a suite at the Chateau Marmont, and onto the writing staff of a premium-cable television series (Deadwood, ironically, itself a treatise on fact-vs.-legend), and has now, finally, made her the star of her own Sundance-feted documentary, albeit at a point where nobody can entirely trust her. Among other elements, there's something more than a little Nixonian about those cassette recordings. Was Albert taping all her interactions out of simple fandom? A desire to cover her own back? Or was it because she knew that they'd someday be gold dust for a documentarist like Feuerzeig, more valuable to the eventual retelling of this story than a single word she ever committed to paper?

Handing control of this narrative back to Albert struck me as an ambiguous achievement: Feuerzeig is presumably hoping there's now enough distance between his audience and the initial media furore for us to be able to laugh at the gullibility of these dimbulb celebs while overlooking any hurt or betrayal Albert herself engendered along the way. (In the final act, she's allowed to claim victimhood for herself, apparently oblivious to the damage she's done - and she has her own ready-made Judas in ex-husband Geoff, who broke cover by coming clean to the press.) The real tragedy of Author is going on off-screen, in that bizarro world where human beings act like regular, rational creatures (and there is, presumably, no need for documentaries like this). The one element of this story that all parties agree on is that the writing in these books was hugely arresting and moving; it is, ultimately, what drew so many people in. This, in turn, generates a thought, related to the delicate matter of female self-esteem: never mind the carnage she wrought as JT LeRoy, imagine what Laura Albert might have achieved if she'd had any faith in Laura Albert.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story is now playing in selected cinemas. 

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