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Laura Albert heals, reflects on JT LeRoy legacy

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Savannah Knoop, left, and Laura Albert appear in “Author: The JT Leroy Story.” (Courtesy Magnolia Pictures)
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In late 2005, when San Francisco’s Laura Albert was outed by New York magazine writer Stephen Beachy as the woman behind the JT LeRoy persona, she found herself at a complete loss for words about what some regarded as the literary hoax of the century.

“After my reveal, I knew I didn’t really understand everything because I was just so busy surviving and climbing,” says Albert, who appears in conversation with Grant Faulkner at The Booksmith this week. “I had people say, ‘You have to tell your story or people are going to tell it for you,’ but I very much wanted the rescue and someone to come make sense of this for me.”

It would take a decade before Albert’s knight in shining armor appeared in the form of filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig, who wrote and directed “Author: The JT LeRoy Story,” which opens Friday.

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After seeing Feuerzeig’s 2005 documentary “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” Albert says she was so moved by how he was able to allow Johnston, a singer-songwriter who attempted murder three times, to tell his own story, she decided to let him in.

Trusting the director, whom she calls a fellow “punk-rock, East Coast Jew,” she provided him with diaries, tapes and photos — no matter how unflattering — so he could present the full picture of her in the movie.

The film shows how Albert, who masterminded HIV-positive transgender hustler JT LeRoy — a waifishly thin and an Aryan literary “it” boy following the 2000-01 release of acclaimed semi-autobiographical novels “Sarah” and “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things” and was portrayed in public by Albert’s sister-in-law Savannah Knoop wearing a wig, hat, sunglasses and loose clothing — is as riveting as her creation.

Brooklyn-born Albert suffered physical and sexual abuse and food addiction and was institutionalized and in a group home in her teen years.

Suicidal, she regularly called 24-hour hotlines, dissociating into the character of a young, blond-haired, blue-eyed boy — a symbol of power to the then “chubby, pimply girl.” It was a persona she would return to when writing her JT LeRoy novels after she moved to San Francisco with then-partner Geoff Knoop.

Today, Albert is experiencing renewed interest, and this time it’s positive. Her books are being re-released under her own name and she is finishing her memoir. The account, and Feuerzeig’s movie, are helping her process her past.

“I had so much shame and self-hate, and I think my art was an attempt to heal and mend some of the damage from physical, emotional and sexual abuse,” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s all about the work, which I wrote out of suffering. If I could have done it another way, I would have. But it’s really healing, through this process, to be able to say this is who I am, and this is what I did. “

IF YOU GO
Laura Albert
Where: Booksmith, 1644 Haight St., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 7
Admission: Free
Contact: www.booksmith.com

THE FILM
Author: The JT LeRoy Story
Starring Laura Albert, Bruce Benderon, Dennis Cooper
Written and directed by Jeff Feuerzeig
Rated R
Running time 1 hour, 50 minutes
Note: Opens Sept. 9 at the Embarcadero in S.F.; the Shattuck in Berkeley, and Century Regency in San Rafael.

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