The JT Leroy Story

Author: The JT LeRoy Story screened as part of Sundance London 2016.

It started with a suicidal adult woman calling a children’s crisis line. When she began to speak she found herself channelling a teenage boy called Terminator: an HIV-positive ex-prostitute and junkie from the Deep South whose mother turned tricks.

Or at least this is how Laura Albert, the woman behind the pseudonym JT LeRoy and his/her two cult books –Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things – describes her avatar’s first appearance in the world.

JT is an intriguing character – damaged, lyrical, shy, and wildly talented. Also intriguing is that when Laura tried to write with a female voice in college she tells us she had a breakdown. She felt too fat, too ugly, too worthless to write as herself, whilst JT’s transgender meanderings and fictional past of abuse and parental neglect allowed her to vicariously access her own pain.

Readers have been upset by literary impersonations and false memoirs before. But Laura took it to a whole new level: she was JT on the phone, developing intimate friendships with famous creatives like Gus Van Sant and Courtney Love – whilst her boyfriend’s sister, Savannah, was recruited to solve the sticky little problem of public appearances. JT was an instant hit – feted and courted by celebrities, applauded at Cannes, featured in glossy fashion shoots. In 2005, however, New York Times journo Warren St John exposed the character as a fake.

This documentary consists of an interview with Laura, tape recordings of JT’s conversations, footage of JT’s “appearances” and animated interludes showcasing the writing itself, giving us a sense of his Southern Gothic style. But Jeff Feuerzeig’s handling of the material feels over-long and flat.

The narrative is told entirely by Laura and it’s ironic, given the themes, that the lack of other voices is the film’s weakness. And there are so many questions left unanswered that the end result feels intentionally obfuscating. Laura’s suicidal thoughts are never mentioned again, we never understand why she recorded all JT’s conversations, or why she was sectioned twice, or how JT’s friends felt when they found out he didn’t exist – the list goes on. We get a ten-second interview with Savannah at the end of the film – she impersonated someone who did not exist for years. There are a few toothless bits with writers and agents. Otherwise it’s all Laura.

A documentary should examine and engage with its subject, but most crucially it should interrogate it. Instead Feuerzeig’s film simply gives the stage to Laura. But she’s still got the same problem: she can’t be open as herself. Maybe JT should’ve told the story in his own inimitable style… you can’t help but feel it would’ve been far more interesting.

First published by Candid Magazine here.