Once upon a time there was a young girl called Laura Albert who was teased at school for being fat. She was also mentally ill and retreated into creating alternative personalities. They fell into two types. The first type had more charisma and confidence and could meet the world bravely. The second type were even more damaged and scarred than she was, and could elicit sympathy from mental health professionals. This being the era before the internet and MTV's Catfish, Laura played these characters to unwitting victims over the phone, meticulously taping her conversations. So far, so tragic, so understandable as a means of self-medication.
Events took a more sinister and ethically questionable turn when Laura wrote a book in the voice of one of her damaged avatars, a supposedly young male prostitute and abuse victim called JT LeRoy. The book was a publishing sensation, and with that came fame, famous friends and backstage passes. Rather than being mortified at a lie gotten out of hand, Laura comes up with a plan to enjoy all the benefits of fame without revealing her identity - she'll get her partner's sister to play JT LeRoy while she, Laura, plays her confident British friend, Speedie, and her partner plays their friend Astro. Altogether the three of them travel the world in the lap of luxury.
Real people become ever more invested in, and sympathetic to, JT LeRoy's story though. Real people have real feelings of sorrow toward made-up events. And when JT LeRoy's real identity is finally revealed they react in two ways. The first group feel anger and hurt and being used. The second group, decide that all is permitted in art - that Laura gets a free pass because JT LeRoy was a piece of performance art and that the fake character itself is a creation on a par with the books.
The problem with this documentary from Jeff Feuerzeig (THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON) is that it's basically a continuation of Laura's addiction to creating characters and manipulating feelings in others. She is once again in the driver's seat, giving us her version of how she created the characters, her motives, her feelings and her justification. There's no regret, no empathy or sympathy for the people she used or hurt. There's no counter-balancing voice of the abused and used. The resulting documentary therefore feels like part of the scam. A still mentally ill woman, probably with narcissistic personality disorder, continues to spin her web. She needs a lot of help but so do the famous poeple who won't face up to being swindled but still go on about the creative process. Because let's be clear: many authors use pen-names, but when the adulation your books receive is to do with how they express your real life, and that's a lie, then this isn't art but subterfuge. And when you pay people to play those avatars, and lie to people, and earn money from that lie, that's fraud.
AUTHOR: THE JT LEROY STORY has a running time of 110 minutes and is rated R. The movie played Sundance and Sheffield DocFest 2016. It is currently on release in the UK and opens in the USA on September 9th.