IT’S BEEN CALLED the greatest literary hoax of all time, but it wasn’t a hoax. It was a con. When Laura Albert, a thirtysomething San Francisco writer, adopted the identity of JT LeRoy, a young, queer, HIV-positive character from one of her books, she built a cult around a fictional person—taking phone calls as LeRoy, enlisting her partner’s half-sister to play him in public, and having “his” stories optioned by Gus Van Sant. The Loch Ness monster is a hoax. Parlaying a false identity into movie deals and face time with your favorite celebrities is a con.
But you won’t hear that word in Author: The JT LeRoy Story, a new documentary about Albert. Instead, Albert casts herself as a passive figure in a swirl of good fortune: She was meant to meet Billy Corgan. God intended her to get a job working on Deadwood. The JT books poured out of her. Claiming accidental brilliance is usually suspect, but here, it perpetuates Albert’s mythology while ensuring that nothing is her fault. Because if the LeRoy books were outside her control, the resultant clusterfuck must’ve been too, right? It’s to Author’s extreme detriment that Albert’s version of this story is the only one we get.
The filmmakers’ credulity in handling Albert has landed them in some murky legal territory, with the recent revelation that some of the phone calls used in the film—conversations with everyone from actor Asia Argento to actual memoirist Mary Karr—were allegedly recorded by Albert without the consent of the other parties, even though California law requires it. That isn’t in-the weeds law trivia; anyone who follows Kim Kardashian’s Snapchat is already aware. It’s baffling the filmmakers evidently weren’t.
In the end, Author is just another installment in a sad, strange saga of literary con artistry. And the worst part of all? The books were actually good. Albert never needed her pageantry.