New York Times
exposed her, phone sex worker-turned-housewife Laura Albert had the public thinking that JT Leroy, a fictional writer she created, really existed. Albert recruited a friend to pose as the writer for public appearances.
Prior to documentary filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig (The Devil and Daniel Johnston
) approaching her, she refused to talk to any member of the media about her story. Feuerzeig documents her trials and tribulations in Author: The JT Leroy Story
. The film opens on Friday at the Capitol Theatre.
“When the scandal broke in 2006, I was not aware of it nor had I heard of JT Leroy nor I had read the books,” says Feuerzeig in a phone interview. “I was a blank slate. My whole life is devoted to non-fiction and new journalism. I’m always looking for a great story.”
He says a friend told him about the story, which the media had dubbed “the greatest literary hoax of our time.”
“It had generated a massive amount of ink,” he says. “I read everything. I had this feeling that there was more to the story than we were being told. It turned out that I was right. The author of the fiction on and off the page had held back her story. At the point when I found her, she had been excommunicated by the literary community. She had been labeled a pariah. She been found guilty in a court of law for a signing the name JT Leroy on the contract for a movie option. She was financially ruined. She was basically curled up in a ball.”
Feuerzeig sent Albert a copy of The Devil and Daniel Johnston
, which deals vividly with the intersection of madness and creativity. She watched it, and he says it "spoke to her."
“Based upon seeing my work, she decided to share her story with me,” he says. “I came to learn that other documentarians had approached her and she had said no to everyone. That’s when we decided to go down this road together.”
He went to her apartment in San Francisco and rented a minivan at the airport to start collecting archival information. When he got to her place, he had to turn around and go back to the airport and get a full size van. There was no way in hell it was going to fit in a minivan. Subsequently, there were multiple trips over the years.
“She had everything,” he says. “She had audiotapes of herself at age 15 from the group home and hundreds of hours of tape recordings and incredible Super 8 home movies and her little girl notebooks. She had all these hotline numbers because I learned that she had a hotline addiction. There were hundreds of doodles, which I animated in the movie. None of it was organized. It took a year and a half to get through it all while I was making the movie. It’s a gift for the nonfiction films I make to have that material. It allows me to create a more immersive experience and puts you inside it. That’s the same thing I did with The Devil and Daniel Johnston
. Without it, it’s difficult to create this style of film.”
In the film, Albert objects to it all being called a hoax. She maintains that she didn’t publish her work as memoir, but she published her work as fiction. Because the pen name was also fiction, people largely took it as memoir, and Albert didn’t object.
“Because there was so much deceit in this crazy journey, it was called a hoax,” says Feuerzeig. “Laura, as you hear in the film, says it was not a hoax. A hoax is preplanned. This was an organic journey filled with massive amounts of deceit, probably more deceit than we have ever seen before. It wasn’t all preconceived. You couldn’t preconceive years of this ahead of time. That was interesting to me to explore and learn how organic this was. As you see in the film, what I found fascinating was how forthcoming she was about the entire saga of JT Leroy which is filled with deceit. She’s forthcoming about that as well as the backstory of her childhood, which was rather tragic.”
In a sense, the film makes the case that she’s a literary talent that got a raw deal after the scandal broke. And in the wake of the film’s release, Harper Collins has even republished her books, which had been out of print since the scandal broke.
“I read her books after she watched Devil
,” Feuerzeig explains. “It’s a coincidence I was a fan of Southern gothic literature in college, particularly Flannery O’Connor and Harry Crews. I thought they were fantastic writings. I wasn’t thinking about her or JT. I got lost inside the story. I’m reading it years after she was unmasked. I love the books and wanted to honor that great art, which is no different than Daniel Johnston. There were reasons that she wrote as a man that were impossible to know in 2006. I just thought it was the wildest story about a story that I ever heard. That’s why I chose to tell it.”