When Does Art Become Fraud?

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Title: Author The JT Leroy Story

Rating: 4 Stars

The major theme of this documentary is expressing identity through art.

Laura Albert is a writer that had a troubled childhood. She has trouble expressing these issues, writing as herself, so she created alternate personas that served as the vehicle that allows her to channel her pain.

One of these characters is JT Leroy (Jeremiah Terminator). Although she was an adult woman when she started channeling (for lack of a better word) JT, JT is himself a sixteen year old boy that had a truck stop prostitute for a mother and was himself, at various times, a prostitute.

As JT, Laura managed to get short stories written by JT noticed and was able to get them published. In the literary world, she began to acquire mentors. She never met any of them in person and she communicated to them only as JT.

JT wrote a novel called Sarah, a brutal story of abuse, violence, and hostility about growing up as a ‘boy-girl’ prostitute working the truck stop circuit. Although it was marketed as a work of fiction, given JT’s background, most assumed it to be autobiographical.

Up to this time, Laura had been able to maintain the JT identift purely by phone conversations (all of which she recorded (which the movie makes heavy use of) for some unexplained reason (I’ve later heard outside the context of this movie that Laura had an obsession with telephones, which might partially explain it)).

As the popularity of Sarah takes off, pressure grows as the media demands to interview JT. At a loss, Laura happens to notice her sister-in-law’s, Savannah, somewhat androgynous looks. Laura decides to put a blonde wig on Savannah and hide her behind huge sunglasses. Laura then starts to pass Savannah off as JT. So that Laura stays involved with this, Laura passes herself off as JT’s manager, Speedie (complete with British accent). Confused yet?

Amazingly enough, it all works. Savannah, when she assumes the wig and glasses, mysteriously starts to channel JT herself. JT quickly becomes a media darling. He becomes friends with Wynona Ryder, Courtney Love, Billy Corgan, Gus Van Sant, Bono, and others. Laura confides her identity to a couple of the celebrities, but by and large, nearly all of them only know JT through Savannah.

In 2006, the truth comes out and a firestorm breaks out. Celebrities feel betrayed. The media feels that they’ve been hoaxed.

But have they? That’s kind of the crux of the movie.

As said above, all of JT’s works are classified as fiction. This is no A Million Little Pieces fraud. Laura believes that she does not have multiple personality disorder, but she does feel that she can channel personas. In her life, there have been a number of boys that have effectively passed through her body. From her point of view, JT is an entity and his experiences are true within the reality of that entity. JT is real to her.

Was Savannah posing as JT a fraud? Or was it simply performance art?  Some kind of cinema verite of the lecture circuit? If it was fraud, who were the victims? The celebrities who fawned over her? Were JT’s fans, who really wanted nothing more than to meet JT, victims? What was actually being swindled?

Gender identity for so long has been considered binary.  In this era of growing acceptance of the notion that gender identify is way more complex than that, what do we make of a woman, horribly abused during childhood, who is only able to express that pain through the voice of a young boy? Is there room for such people that can’t even be pigeonholed by our currently expanded definitions of gender?

At what point does reality have to impose its concrete construct upon art?

 

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