Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Thursday, April 19, 2018

Catfishing before it was common: “Author: The JT Leroy Story”

Poster from Magnolia Pictures. 

To anyone who has never heard of JT Leroy and the woman who created him – e.g. almost all college students – “Author: The JT Leroy Story” can be misleading. The new documentary attempts to clarify the tale of Laura Albert, a musician and aspiring writer who found success posing as Leroy, a gay man coming to terms with his abusive past and H.I.V.-positive status through his writing. But while the film makes for an intriguing look into the mindset of a literary scammer, “Author” does not interrogate the ethical and moral issues at the core of Albert’s actions.

After first writing under the pseudonym Terminator (Leroy’s middle name) in 1996, Albert began building an audience under Leroy’s name in the New York literary world, penning four books largely based on the man’s fictional adolescence and adulthood. As Leroy’s star began to rise, Albert and her partner Geoffrey Knoop convinced his younger half-sister, Savannah Knoop, to pose as Leroy’s public face -- young, blonde, androgynous. Albert handled Leroy’s voice on the page and over the phone, speaking with a husky accent in interviews, including a memorable one with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross that has since been deleted.

Leroy’s work and elusive appearance attracted celebrity attention, leading to friendships with Bono, Courtney Love and Winona Ryder, among others. “Author” is at its best here, playing voicemails from Leroy’s famous admirers and leaving enough space for the viewer to reflect on why people were so enraptured with Leroy’s aura of artistic credibility.

I got the sense that the celebrities connected to Leroy desperately wanted to be close to the real thing: a person with enough talent to overcome the odds and so dedicated to their craft that no one could limit their creativity. The celebrities’ attachment to Leroy’s writing revealed more about their need to be validated by a “real artist” than their appreciation of Leroy’s (or Albert’s) talent.

Of course, the charade had to come crashing down at some point. In late 2005, New York magazine identified Albert as the mastermind behind Leroy, leading to a more in-depth investigation by the New York Times that revealed Savannah Knoop’s role in the controversy. Albert’s boyfriend, Geoffrey, later admitted to the Times that the cover-up “got to a level [he] did not expect.”

Despite obvious questions surrounding fraud and artistic integrity, director Jeff Feuerzeig misses opportunities to highlight those issues, instead largely relying on Albert’s account for key details of Leroy’s journey from anonymous contributor to minor literary star. In the film, Albert rejects the term “hoax,” opting to call Leroy an “avatar” that allowed her to tell stories through an authentic voice of her own creation. Despite the prominent voices in the press that disagree with this characterization, the film gives them short shrift, making “Author” feel one-sided.

In the end, you cannot help but pass judgement on Albert’s ploy. From the fake backstory to the controversial unmasking of Leroy’s true identity to Albert’s ease about maintaining a decade-long lie, “Author” is a lot to process. Though Feuerzeig’s documentary style does not do much in the way of context, it does allow the viewer to make their own decisions about Albert’s actions, leaving the audience with questions they must answer themselves: Have you ever lied to get a step ahead? How far would you go?

Compared to our Catfish-dominated era of widespread Internet-assisted deception, Albert’s extensive efforts to maintain the Leroy ruse are not as shocking now as they were in early 2006. What is startling is how willing Leroy’s inner circle was to believe in this flimsy wunderkind, a product of their own artistic insecurities. Strangely enough, I am a bit sad that Albert’s “avatar” would quickly be exposed in today’s hyper-suspicious society. I would rather art be deceitful than not exist at all. If nothing else, “Author” shows that I’m not alone in that belief.

Grade: B+

“Author: The JT Leroy Story” is now playing at Landmark E Street Cinema.

hsamsel@theeagleonline.com


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