Back in 1999, a novel called "Sarah" appeared on the scene. It was a work of raw force, telling the coming-of-age story of its then-20 year old (purported) author JT (Jeremiah "Terminator") LeRoy. The author was presented as the son of a truck stop prostitute, who turned came up the HARD way in West Virginia, and later, on the streets of San Francisco, where he turned tricks and shot needle drugs. His work thrilled reviewers like the New York Times' Catherine Texier, who wrote:
For a first novelist, J. T. LeRoy is astonishingly confident. His language turns the tawdriness of hustling into a world of lyrical and grotesque beauty, without losing any of its authenticity. One can clearly hear an Appalachian twang in his prose and, along with his gallows humor, the baroque religiosity of the South. In spite of Sarah's lack of sexual innocence, his language is always fresh, his soul never corrupt. His sweet and pure vision makes even the nastiest scenes bearable.
Soon, LeRoy's "Sarah" and subsequent novels, became underground touchstones, and were beloved by everyone from teenagers to rock stars. LeRoy wrote the original screenplay for Gus Van Sant's 2003 film ELEPHANT and was associate producer on Asia Argento's film adaptation of his THE HEART IS DECEITFUL ABOVE ALL THINGS.
LeRoy could not have been a hotter property than he was in 2005, when it all came tumbling down. On October 10 of that year, Stephen Beachy published an article in New York Magazine called "Who Is The Real JT LeRoy." It was subtitled, "A search for the true identity of a great literary hustler." Beachy provided years of evidence that added up to one conclusion, that there was no JT LeRoy.
From Beachy's article:
There are writers I love who create intricate layers of stories that only imply an unstated psychological reality grounding the dizzying production of narrative; others self-consciously play with the boundary between fiction and non. LeRoy has written about the way prostitutes fulfill other people’s fantasies and about the way the literary world can seem like simply a different form of prostitution. In an early version of one of JT’s stories, he wrote that he sometimes felt like the emperor with no clothes. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that it’s the clothes that don’t have an emperor; it’s just a wig and sunglasses floating around a dizzying production of narrative.
It was the beginning of the end for the persona JT Leroy, and for the next few years the books fell into disrepute, littering clearance tables at book stores, but as the real author Laura Albert has come forward to reclaim her work, the books have again found favor with critics and readers, whether or not their author is "real" the books have value as works of fiction.
In 2010, Albert took the stage in San Francisco as part of the Moth Storytelling show and she shared a little of the complicated history of her life with JT Leroy:
And all of this is just the beginning. Feuerzeig's excellent documentary raises and answers scores more questions, and, like a modern F FOR FAKE, makes us examine what we value in the "real."
Here's Feuerzeig telling what attracted him to the story: