Laura Albert won international acclaim with her fiction. Writing as JT LeRoy, she is the author of the best-selling novels Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, and the novella Harold’s End, published by Last Gasp with illustrations by Cherry Hood.
She wrote the original script for Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, winner of the 2003 Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and was Associate Producer. For Asia Argento’s film adaptation of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, Laura served as Associate Producer. She also co-scripted Jean-Claude Schlim’s film House of Boys and was a writer for the HBO series Deadwood.
In this specially commissioned piece, Laura recalls the short film which preceded extraordinary new documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story, in particular her “immediate kinship” with pioneering San Francisco filmmaker and artist Lynn Hershman Leeson (pictured above on the right, with Laura)…
Seven years ago I received this email from Lynn Hershman Leeson:
i really admire what you’ve done.
can we meet?
“Wow,” I wrote back, “well I admire you more.” Which was true – and this was still a few years before the release of her classic documentary of the American feminist art movement, the monumental !WAR aka !Women Art Revolution. But Lynn had already made the films Conceiving Ada, Teknolust, and Strange Culture: memorable explorations of female identity, every bit as probing and original as her interactive installations that employ artificial intelligence, such as Agent Ruby for SFMOMA. And then there was Roberta Breitmore, Lynn’s remarkable performance-art alter ego. Roberta walked among us for years in the 1970s, complete with credit card and driver’s license, and even expanded at the end into multiple Robertas.
After I first saw !WAR, I had to ring my downstairs neighbor when I got home and decompress with her about it – for probably too long for her, I am afraid, but she assured me she would go see it. I could not say goodnight to her until I felt that she’d understood why she must see this film. All the secrets had been screamed into the soil, and from the tree that sprung up Lynn had plucked a branch and carved a flute. Its music, joyous and transformative, kept humming within me that night, making it hard to sleep because I would bolt up to take notes.
The wonderful artist Peter Coffin, a former student of Lynn’s, had put her together with me, and soon she and I were discussing what would eventually become her 2014 short film The Ballad of JT LeRoy. “I could do it justice,” she told me, “in all ways.” That was how deeply personal her recognition was of what I had done with JT LeRoy. She would later insist to Nadine Hartmann and KubaParis magazine, “The concept of an alter ego is not new at all. Writers have been protecting themselves in that way for centuries. Mary Shelley did it. Of course Laura took this practice further and I think that was very smart and I do not think she deserves the kind of condemnation that she got. If I had done the Roberta thing ten years later, I would have faced the same problems.”
So there was an immediate kinship, a conspiracy of artists – when she was scheduling a meeting with me to brainstorm ways of realizing this film, she emailed me:
Let’s meet thursday aft
Yet when we first met, I had to bring some friends with me. Back then, meeting someone, no matter however supportive, typically meant having to open all the wounds of the reveal, which was painful and invariably left me emptied. Having trusted friends around made that easier. But Lynn took my company in stride, “no problem about the crowd,” she later assured me. What I had missed most keenly after the reveal was the felt sense of community that had surrounded JT. It was slowly coming back by then, and the interest and openness and empathy Lynn showed me was another sign not to give up, that a new community was rising from the ashes. After that visit, I wrote to her:
Can come alone next time. I know you’re “safe” now. I often feel
like a monkey – “Tell the story! Dance! Bleed out! – now go home.”
They got the story and can go off and say – Oh yeah, I met JT LeRoy –
blah blah –
And I am devastated for the day. I’ve learned to protect myself
unless I know the person is of soul. I show up coz I cant let go of
hope – to
be available for revelation.
Meeting you was that. It was hope. I left filled.
Almost a year later, in November of 2010, I was having a conversation with Lynn, all in my mind – talking to her in my head about the film she wanted to do with me, saying c’mon already!!! – and literally at that moment I got cc’d on this email from her.
i would like to shoot an interview with laura on wed. the 24th. brad are any rooms free that day?
I immediately wrote her back:
This is so funny Lynn because I was thinking of you – and this.
Her response was classic terse Hershman:
So I replied:
I mean really – I was talking to you.
And her answer said it all:
i heard it
Nevertheless, complications intervened and it took another year before we were able to film. I was dreading the experience, knowing that, with her, I would become very available to what needed to be said and could not go on autopilot. But when I felt the warmth and safety of Lynn and her crew in that room, they became my crowd, and the hole that I would usually fall into after opening myself up never materialized. And I could write Lynn after the filming:
What I felt leaving you – was joy.
I am honored to be a part of your work however it articulates. You
are a hero to me.
I had said no to documentary filmmakers before the reveal, and I was still saying no afterward. But I said yes to Lynn because I knew she understood how women are held to different standards when they do creative work, and that she could help others understand this reality and see the art more clearly. That’s what she had done for me – she helped me recognize a tradition in which I had partaken and better appreciate my own role in it. Helped me better recognize myself too. In joining her archive of women artists, I can also share in a dialogue with future generations and in turn help them deepen their understanding and grow their possibilities.
While my connection with Jeff Feuerzeig, who made Author: The JT LeRoy Story, was very different, he shared two fundamental qualities with Lynn. First, it was all about the art – writing was what mattered to me, and that was what mattered to both Lynn and Jeff; neither of them was interested in the celebrities who had become involved. Second, each of them understood the history of artists who created outside the “norm,” who were perceived at the time as rule-breakers and perhaps caused outrage in their day – artists who created as they felt they needed to and did not ask for permission, just as I didn’t feel the need to get any permission.