‘Author: The JT LeRoy Story’: a literary hoax explained – sort of

(L-r) Savannah Knoop and Laura Albert in "Author: The JT Leroy Story."  Amazon Studios-Magnolia Pictures

JT LeRoy became a literary sensation overnight in the early 2000s. His rapturously received writing drew from his well-publicized backstory: Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy was the HIV-positive teenage son of a truck stop prostitute, but he emerged from the unthinkable – sexual abuse, addiction and homelessness – to write stunning prose.

The only problem: None of it was true. LeRoy was the invention of Laura Albert, a San Francisco woman, who was outed in 2005 by a New York Magazine article.

With the documentary “Author: The JT LeRoy Story,” we’re finally getting to the bottom of what happened. Sort of. Actually, we get Albert’s side of the story, and that’s clearly problematic. How much faith should we put in the account of someone who tells such massive whoppers?

That question constantly hovers over Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary, which is by turns fascinating and unseemly. Albert, now 50, unapologetically explains how she created JT as an avatar to expel some of her darker emotions. But we also hear from the celebrities who fawned over him: people like Smashing Pumpkins singer Billy Corgan, Courtney Love, Gus Van Sant and actress Asia Argento, whose recorded phone conversations with JT feature prominently in the film. Argento, among others, has said she had no idea she was being recorded.

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As Albert tells it, she invented “Terminator” when she was a suicidal 20-something and started calling teen crisis lines. She could never speak for herself, she explains, so she affected a Southern accent and let her troubled teen alter ego do the talking. It was a therapist from one of those calls who suggested she write down her feelings.

After a few cold calls to writers, such as Dennis Cooper and Bruce Benderson, JT landed a book contract, and suddenly Albert had to find someone to pose as her invented author for interviews and book readings. Enter Savannah Knoop, the sister of Albert’s longtime boyfriend. With a wig and glasses, Savannah looked just androgynous enough to be JT. Then Albert posed as Speedie, JT’s British hanger-on. Pretty soon the pair were chatting with Bono backstage at a U2 concert, posing for photos at Cannes and getting kissed by Winona Ryder on a red carpet.

The movie has some nice flourishes, including animated drawings that add visual interest to the narration. But much of the movie is just Albert, looking like an aging punk in a crumpled hat and black leather gloves, explaining how a lifetime of feeling like an overweight misfit led her here. By the time she gets to her big reveal – the awful abuse that is meant to explain away her web of deceit – it’s hard to know what to feel. No one wants to blame the victim. Then again, who wants to be duped again by this woman?

She already has taken advantage of so many people. “Your stories are so alive,” we hear Tom Waits tell JT during a phone call he may or may not have known was being recorded. Does the fact that Albert wrote them instead of JT make his words any less true?

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Maybe not, but that won’t alleviate the icky feeling that comes with learning more about Albert’s deeds. If the movie seeks to get us any closer to the truth, its success is debatable. We certainly get closer to Albert’s truth, but do we really want her to have the final word?

Two and one-half stars. Rated R. Contains language throughout, sexual content, some drug use and violent images. 110 minutes.

Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.