Oxford Dictionaries defines its official word of the year, post-truth, as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” This month, we will briefly highlight each day a major moment from 2016 that most exemplifies the concept of post-truth. Many of these moments will, inevitably, pertain to our president-elect.
The book The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, published in 1371, could very well mark the birth of the literary hoax. It’s uncertain who the author of the travelogue was (and if Mandeville ever existed), but the stories in the book are clearly fictions. The manuscript chronicles the adventures of an English knight in Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Persia, and Turkey. In one section, he encounters humans with the heads of dogs. In another, one-eyed giants are on the scene.
By comparison, the stories of JT LeRoy read as if they were very much ripped from modern headlines. A teenage, gender-fluid son of a truck-stop prostitute falls into homelessness, contracts HIV, learns to survive on the hardscrabble streets of San Francisco. These moving, gripping pieces, cataloged in the late-90s best sellers Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, were written with so much exposed raw beauty, it’s no wonder that civilians and celebrities and Bono all responded in powerful ways.
The only problem, if it’s a problem at all, is that LeRoy didn’t exist. He was the spiritual doppelgänger of his creator, a woman named Laura Albert. Having endured a difficult childhood herself, Albert took to calling suicide-prevention hotlines for relief, and in the process developed the character who would be become LeRoy. In some of those real calls Albert identified herself as Terminator—the T in JT.
When the books blew up and the press swarmed, Albert employed her sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, to play LeRoy, hipsterized in a blonde wig and wide sunglasses. Eventually, what the media gaveth, it tooketh away, pulling the curtain back on LeRoy in 2006 to reveal Albert as the true source of the stories.
For much of the next decade, Albert managed perhaps her most impressive public performance yet: She vanished from the gossipy spheres of art, film, literature, and fashion that had embraced LeRoy so fully.
“She had been basically curled up in a ball and excommunicated by the literary community,” filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig told the Wall Street Journal in September. Feuerzeig knows this intimately: He convinced Albert to reemerge for his new documentary, Author: The JT LeRoy Story, which opened in theaters at the end of September.
While the film’s title suggests a closing of the book on this literary saga, the story goes on. Several people who appear in the documentary—including the filmmaker and actor Asia Argento and the writer Mary Karr—claim they did not give Feuerzeig consent to use recordings of their calls with Albert/LeRoy in his movie. Feuerzeig has countered that this is not a straight biographic film. “It’s a subjective telling by her of her life,” he said of Albert, to the New York Times.
While it remains tricky to untangle aspects of this twisting tale related to truth, honesty, art, and creativity, I think of conversations I’ve had with a French friend when picking at the puzzle of LeRoy. My friend finds much of the agonizing over literary lines drawn between fiction, nonfiction, and memoir to be a specifically American preoccupation. He says that in French book stores, there are far fewer genres to navigate. Books are books are books, and stories are stories. Who cares, he asks, if something is based on real events or not? Is the story good? Is it compelling?
This line of questioning is especially poignant this year, when slippery things like facts have often been discarded in favor of a good story, a yarn well told. In this environment, a privileged, narcissistic, born-rich billionaire and reality TV star can effectively cast himself as the savior of the disintegrating working class. And a documentary positioned to shine a light on an emotionally complicated cultural production can mislead the very people being marshaled to help create the narrative. This is not to conflate Feuerzeig’s film with our decidedly un-truthy president-elect, but the emergence of both campaigns in 2016 does not feel entirely coincidental. We are living in a time when a purveyor of conspiracy theories will soon be our country’s senior counselor and chief White House strategist. Dr. Strangelove now looks like a doc. In the land of the blind trust, the one-eyed monster is king.
Just how deep are we into this post-truth moment? I can’t speak for everyone, but I can tell you that I wrote this post without having seen the LeRoy documentary (though not for lack of trying). I thought about not revealing that fact, and if I had not, I doubt anyone would’ve noticed. But just before publication I was compelled by a knotty, hard-to-trust feeling: the desire to be honest.