Voltaire once said “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” The same might be said of author JT LeRoy, the literary wunderkind that took Hollywood by storm in 2000 with the publication of his first book, Sarah. LeRoy’s God-like creation is documented in Jeff Feuerzeig’s compelling Author: The JT LeRoy Story. The film touches on the line between poetic license and deceit, as well as the glittering promise of reinvention and fame.

LeRoy was a shadowy figure with a tragic backstory that reportedly included being a truck-stop prostitute for his mother, as well as a history of sexual abuse, gender fluidity and AIDS. Sarah put his story on the national stage, and public appearances drew the cream of the Hollywood crop from Courtney Love to Billy Corgan and director Gus Van Sant. On the surface, LeRoy’s story is no different from that of any other overnight sensation that signed a movie deal one minute and was pushed into obscurity the next. But his story is so much more.

The movie opens with a quote from Federico Fellini: “a created thing is never invented and it is never true; it is always and ever itself,” Author is a story of disguise and the creation of life: LeRoy was in fact not real, but the invention of New York mother Laura Albert.

Albert’s life, showcased through old photographs and home movies, was fraught with tension and led to a rather unremarkable adulthood. Strangely, she speaks about LeRoy in the third person, reiterating that that she doesn’t have a split personality but that LeRoy speaks through her. Albert finds it appalling that some think she invented the young author simply as a publicity stunt. She went to great lengths to support the deceit, creating an entire coterie of friends and acquaintances, herself taking a pivotal role as LeRoy’s assistant Speedie. With her husband and sister-in-law in on the act, the latter playing the role of LeRoy for several years, one almost needs a diagram to keep track of the various aliases that Albert recounts with shocking clarity.

For Albert, self-consciousness drove her to keep the charade going. Uncomfortable in her own skin, there’s a reality to her lies that’s all too authentic in a world rife with falsehood. Albert felt that no one would want to read her work if it wasn’t written by a man who had suffered what LeRoy suffered. Her own voice didn’t matter; who would want to read that?

However, Albert refuses to admit her lies caused any harm. Though LeRoy traveled the globe, became a fashion consultant and writer for numerous publications and generally influenced the popular zeitgeist, Albert maintains the writing was her own and that LeRoy was always meant to be a pseudonym. “The book is fiction. The rest is extra.” Albert’s point sustains Author. Yes, she never claimed anything written in her novels was true. But where do you draw the line?

Was it right to create a persona that took on a life of its own? What does it say about us, and the Hollywood figures who fell for it, that superstars and average people alike jumped at the chance to get into bed with this enigmatic creation? How much did LeRoy’s poverty porn backstory influence Hollywood’s response? There are no easy answers, and you may not care, because, just like with a great magic act, maybe you want to be fooled.

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