Arts

Film: The visionary writer who didn’t actually exist

Literary sensation JT LeRoy, left, with Laura Albert, the real author of the books

JT LeRoy – whose mussed hair, punk band T-shirt and unnerved, potent expression captivated writers at first introduction – was in many senses a puppet, whose various aspects relied on consistent control: constant twitches of Geppetto’s strings. Author: The JT LeRoy Story (15, 111 mins, ★★★★) tells of how an American female writer pretends that her Southern Gothic fiction has been written by a teenage boy whose purported past, roiled by abuse, prostitution and lunatic internment, has informed the work.

Laura Albert is the real writer. She is New York, mid-30s, herself from an intensely troubled background. JT LeRoy is the fantasy who becomes a reality, when Albert enlists her androgynous sister-in-law Savannah Knoop to pretend to be LeRoy. Albert herself is an author of great books – and needs a great person to have written them. Savannah’s LeRoy became that great person. He hung out with Calvin Klein, Madonna, Gus Van Sant, Winona Ryder, U2 and wild child Italian director Asia Argento, did press conferences at Cannes … you name it.

Albert’s writing was the true mettle-tester for her fans and celebrities. Her work was compared to that of Southerners Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner, containing descriptions of sexual abuse, a prostitute mother, LeRoy’s own “tricks” and drugs. The first book, Sarah, seemingly by LeRoy and published by Bloomsbury in 2000, was described as “visionary” and “a supernova” in the press.

The documentary is a fascinating look at all angles of this tangled web. There are telling quotations from Albert’s notebook, with heady passages telling of the affair between Savannah/LeRoy and Argento. There is another brilliant dinner with Gus Van Sant, when Savannah really has to perform for the first time, with Albert moonlighting as Savannah’s assistant. There are also collages of Albert’s home videos from when she was a child: weird clips of a sweetly smiling, yet inwardly demonic mother, and more.

Then there is a recording of a phone call to LeRoy’s long-term telephone psychotherapist, Dr Owens. In LeRoy’s celebrity life, they are making a film about his abusive childhood. LeRoy explains that he is on cloud nine, yet Owens warns him that watching the film could be a “crazy-making experience”. LeRoy responds: “I don’t feel it … I don’t feel it.” The betrayed trust here between client and patient makes us experience a nullity, a dread, that hurts.

How must it be to deceive on such a level? It must be like being a spider, with in-depth knowledge of the sprawling webs of lies, the infinite irradiating strands. Perhaps Albert’s deception succeeded because she dictated the narrative. If you stay in control, you can say how long the piece of thread is.