A True Story Based on a Lie
J.T. LeRoy was hailed as a new literary prodigy in the 1990’s through the beginning of the 2000s. He was supposedly a reclusive, HIV-positive trans man who wrote three books and whose novel “Sarah” was lauded by critics (myself included) as reminiscent of Dickens. And then we learned that there was no Leroy and that he was a persona created and brought to life by Laura Albert, a writer as a means of saying what she felt she couldn’t say as herself.
The film opens with the demand for LeRoy is at a fever pitch, perhaps even at a breaking point, as Albert (Laura Dern) recruiting her younger sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop (Kristen Stewart), to play the part of this persona in public, with Albert assuming the role of LeRoy’s overbearing handler, “Speedie.” It’s a deception that the pair managed to keep going for six years.
It was the biggest literary scandal to rock book groups until James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” was revealed to be a fraud a few months later. The books in question were always billed as novels, even though heavy autobiographical elements were explicitly implied—but implied by whom? In phone interviews, it was Laura Albert, the author who wrote under the LeRoy name and played him in phone interviews, but it was her sister-in-law Savannah Knoop who assumed the role for photo shoots and public appearances. They really didn’t think they pulling a fast one until the story broke according to the film.
It seems to me that there is a sense of foreshadowing, perhaps even enabling today’s social-media moment and obsession with identity politics. As an examination of the power of celebrity and the easily muddled nature of truth, the film seems to implicitly understand that the creation and eventual exposure of the LeRoy hoax speaks to something deep within a culture in the midst of an identity crisis, but from what we see in this film, it’s hard to say exactly what that is.
When Speedy and LeRoy engage with fans and press in a haphazard fashion, we feel suspense in every question and answer that’s exchanged and that the deception could be exposed at any moment.
Dern and Stewart convince us that such a stunt could be pulled off not so much in spite of but thanks to its ludicrousness. By the time Knoop moved to San Francisco, Albert was already a bestseller under the LeRoy name. For reasons that are never shared, she felt more comfortable writing her emotional revealing fiction pseudonymously, yet she was still quite possessive of her work. She really enjoyed taking on the persona of LeRoy’s agent, Speedy. However, LeRoy was developing such a following, she needed the boyish Knoop to serve as LeRoy’s socially awkward, mono-syllabic “body.”
When Knoop appears as the androgynous LeRoy, she looks and sounds a lot like Johnny Depp. Regardless, it is hard to understand why so many people were apparently so fascinated by a person who is presented to be so painfully shy and charisma-challenged.
The film is successful in presenting how something so crazy could happen with such apparent ease, but it does not sufficiently probe the deeply personal needs of both authors and consumers that drive creation. Dern and Stewart do such an excellent job of telling us how it feels to be someone else.