By Marjorie Sturm.
I am the director and producer of the The Cult of JT LeRoy, the documentary that explores the elaborate literary hoax perpetrated by Laura Albert and Savannah Knoop. Hence, I was asked to write a review of the new biopic JT LeRoy by director Justin Kelly. I have followed closely the personal stories that contain the emotional distress of those who were duped by this elaborate con, and witnessed the story unfold over many years. I attended Albert’s trial, where she was found liable for fraud. So it is from this vantage point that I base my criticism.
It’s a bit surreal to watch a cinematic representation of people who I’ve interacted with and studied for so long. I will spare a detailed recounting of the story that took place as that has been chronicled by myself and many others, as well has been rehashed in countless articles and reviews. The gist is that a middle-aged woman, Laura Albert, impersonated an abused, HIV positive young boy on the phone and in email for over ten years while Savannah Knoop played the public role of this character for six. Two books were written by Albert as JT LeRoy. It is known as one of the largest literary frauds in history, the Bernie Madoff of the memoir hoaxes of our time.
Honestly, I didn’t have high expectations for a film that was being scripted by Savannah Knoop. It’s similar to Jerry Media, who were complicit in creating the Frye Festival scam and then served as the producers of the Netflix documentary on the topic. The question hangs hard, Should people who are complicit in a fraud then get to continue to profit off of it? Do they even have the necessary perspective to relay an analysis as opposed to just a sequence of events? (“To see outside the box, you cannot be a box.”) I had already read Knoop’s memoir on her involvement, and was curious to see if her point of view had matured over time. I’ll cut to the chase: it has not. The viewer is expected to believe that jet-setting, traveling, going to parties, and “expressing yourself” is a value system that’s so enticing, so desirable that a deal with the devil is completely understandable, possibly normal. The JT LeRoy topic has never been known for its moral clarity.
Discussions around the mechanics of filmmaking never hold my interest for too long. I don’t think viewers will be overly inspired or disappointed by the film. It has the budget to create the industry standards that we are accustomed to seeing in mainstream films and doesn’t deviate from that. The costume design that depicts the early 2000’s in San Francisco is well done. Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern, not surprisingly, do a good job creating a rapport between themselves while depicting Savannah Knoop and Laura Albert. For those who aren’t close to the story, these performances are where they will look to find entertainment. However, many moments feel off base. Albert has an unhinged personality, a unique frequency that probably nobody could truly emanate, although Dern gives it her best shot. However, her acting falls at times into a heightened mimicry, emulating an upbeat hippy punk without capturing Albert’s shadowy nature. Stewart plays Knoop as a smooth operator who struggles with moments of confusion. Knoop, in real life, is way more quirky and inarticulate.
In the first act of the film, Albert’s manipulativeness gets some fresh perspective. Dern as Albert reframes a momentary glimpse of Savannah’s conscience as a fear of doing something big. More of this psychological slipperiness would have been great, but as the film unravels there’s relentless over-explaining. I know firsthand the JT LeRoy story is a complicated one to tell, but there’s too much rambling backstory, telling rather than showing, as Albert’s character fills us in with the litany of her excuses and motivations – the essence of which is that JT LeRoy was an altruistic, selfless coping mechanism (which can serve and help protect another being). The film makes a repeated point to stress that the JT LeRoy books were always labelled fiction, as if the books had success on their own without Albert maniacally impersonating the non-existent LeRoy for a full five years before ensnaring Knoop to join in the fraud. In fact, JT LeRoy’s first short story, “Baby Doll” was published as memoir (in the 1997 anthology Close to the Bone: Memoirs of Hurt, Rage, and Desire, edited by Laurie Stone), which then steamrolled his later “autobiographical fiction” – with the biography and persona of an HIV positive, hustler boy already attached. What better way to get out of a lie than to continue to lie?
JT LeRoy is emblematic of a commercial and product-driven “alternative” culture that is glitz and surface. Rather than insight, we have indulgence, which is a shame because there’s plenty of room for real fodder. Hypothetically, Knoop could have explored issues around inter-generational trauma and their involvement in the story. For instance, one character whose absence I noted from JT LeRoy was the son of Albert and her partner, Geoff Knoop. He provided cover for them as he travelled in his own created fake persona (Thor) from the age of about four. I did watercolors with him in my apartment when Laura (Speedie) and Geoff (Astor) came over one day to look at footage. I had no idea I was experiencing some form of “performance art” by interacting with this young child and his parents. Savannah Knoop’s mother, unlike her father, was supportive of the so-called performance art. She seems to have had no understanding that art is a consensual relationship and didn’t have the ethical sense to steer her daughter away from a path that relied upon a self-serving disregard for others.
Knoop has never been apologetic for her actions within the JT LeRoy con. Despite the fact that her choices helped contribute to countless others’ financial and emotional damage, her focus remains entirely on herself. Now she is a “conceptual artist” who promotes herself with her involvement in the JT LeRoy saga, apparently not concerned or wary of that identity. The artistry of living is conceptual as well – and that can consist of learning to give a straight forward apology, something Knoop doesn’t seem to understand.
Recently, I read an account of a woman who saw the JT LeRoy film at the British Film Institute in London. She went to see the film not realizing that Knoop had a hand in it. Many years earlier, she herself had fallen for the JT LeRoy scam. As she sat and watched it, all the grief of being conned by Albert and Knoop came back to her. She found herself angry and ashamed throughout the whole event, wondering to herself how many others were in the same club that she was, having worked countless hours for free and sending gifts worth hundreds of dollars to a supposed formerly homeless orphan. In Knoop’s recent interview, also at the BFI in London, the first question by the interviewer was about this very issue, “She doesn’t sound apologetic? She sounds philosophical?” After years and years of processing her involvement, the fall out on other people didn’t manage to be “a thing” for Knoop. Remorse is a strong emotion, a cinematic emotion, but that doesn’t figure into JT LeRoy.
Knoop’s ride is riddled with rationalizations for the abuse that they dished out, accompanied by a soundtrack. If people were ever tempted to give Knoop a pass because she was undoubtedly manipulated by Albert, that can be put to rest. In fact, the picture that is painted is one where she is an active player in what amounts to a rape by deception (sexual relations in another persona that therefore defies consent) of the character Eva (the real life Asia Argento). Knoop and Albert conspire on what could land a person jail time in certain countries (like the UK), but instead their lives have been about deflecting, spinning, and acquiring movie and book deals (#ThisIsAmerica). Eva (Argento) is painted as seductive and manipulative, desperate and hungry to option JT LeRoy’s book. Asia Argento is a polarizing figure – people hate, blame, love, and defend her. In the context of JT LeRoy, she is one of many people who had the misfortune to be in the frontlines of Albert and Knoop’s twistedness.
I started documenting the JT LeRoy cohort in Los Angeles before the summer of Albert and Knoop’s European tour, and again in the Fall in Napa Valley with Argento there. What stood out for me, what I documented and have already expressed in other interviews, is just how radically Knoop’s “performance” changed with Argento’s presence. Knoop snapped from sweet to celebrity. Albert at the time talked excitedly about Argento and Knoop pairing off, offering up unsolicited details. Of course, this isn’t portrayed. Instead, Argento’s desire to make a movie is seen as somehow deleterious, and therefore somehow deserving of her fate of being defrauded.
Argento has always claimed, and those close to her have reported, that she did not know it was a con-game. She, along with many others, were told that JT LeRoy had a sex realignment surgery. This explains why sexual intimacy didn’t necessarily topple the house of cards for Argento. It seems that Knoop never forgave Argento for not wanting to have anything to do with her once the truth was revealed. And by truth, I don’t mean “the relative truth,” which Knoop conveniently prefers. I mean the one that is anchored in facts and is as real as gravity. Knoop played the role of an imposter, and she refuses to look herself straight in the eyes and admit to herself and us that she was ruthlessly unscrupulous. This is not surprising since her lack of self-awareness is what led her to criminally push boundaries in the first place.
So what we are left with in JT LeRoy is a perverse, Ayn Randian Hero’s Journey. Like clockwork, we get a happy ending. Laura signs books. They pose for a picture. Savannah is moving to NY forging her new identity as “a writer who played a writer.” JT LeRoy is a tiresome blueprint of the same machinations from the first go-around. At the heart of the story is the toxic virus and power of American celebrity culture. (I have come to learn that there are a perplexing number of individuals that follow Kristen Stewarts’ every action – demanding and praying for trailers on Twitter. There are about fifty Instagram accounts dedicated to her fandom.) As well, in this incarnation of JT LeRoy, gender continues to be a mask. No longer a coverup for his lack of existence, but in this case for fraud and sociopathy. When asked about the film, Dern’s response, “It’s not even about having to identify as a woman, but blurring the lines of having to identify at all . . . allowing yourself to express from a place that is heard without putting a label on you.”
Imagine if a friend told you that their mother was dead, and you later learned that their mother was alive: would that be an issue around identity? If this same friend told you that they had HIV, but you later learned that they didn’t, would that be an issue around expression? If they told you that they were homeless? Addicted to heroin? Pimped out by their mother? Bathed in lye? If later they told you that they needed a computer, or presents, or an office, or organic chocolates, would these be identity issues? Knoop has said that she had growth experiences and explored her own gender issues while being JT. How wonderful for Knoop but not so wonderful for others who weren’t interested in being a stage for her “non-judging” private therapy. So for clarity sake, I’ll state that she also explored being an asshole – individualism taken to its conclusive point. No one wants to fact check their friendships.
Jt LeRoy is being discussed as part of the TimesUp or #MeToo movement. Director Justin Kelly in a podcast interview claims that the hoax wasn’t a plot that two women did for “fame or fortune” but “they had their reasons.” There’s a huge continuum of possible income and lifestyle between Knoop and Albert’s waitressing/phone sex and “fame and fortune” while impersonating the non-existent LeRoy. Undoubtedly, it was a hard gig to give up. The #MeToo question would be, “do their intent or reasons matter?” particularly without a direct apology. Kelly describes them as “badass artists, women who weren’t treated well,” “fuck the system,” and “punk.” I am sympathetic to the idea that the society is rigged against women. However, excusing women for their abusive actions fails to take into account the trauma that was imposed on ordinary, sensitive people who are also trying to survive in that same rigged society. In JT LeRoy, these ordinary people don’t matter (a complete erasure), nor do the homeless street kids whose identity was co-opted (twenty seconds in the hour and fifty minutes). What clearly matters are the duped “celebrity and literary elites.” This version of victim introduces a more digestible power imbalance and the lives that have value in our culture – those we can safely laugh at while the grotesque elements are swept under the rug.
We’re asked to identify with Knoop’s self-discovery story from lost soul to emerging queer artist. Albert’s character instructs, You don’t ask permission, you’ve got to take it. This doubles as both a self-help and libertarian motto. Savannah in that same BFI interview declares, “being JT messed with her, too.” She’s inching dangerously close to declaring herself a victim of the fraud that she was complicit in, but doesn’t bow full on to the temptation as Albert has done. It’s depressing to think that JT LeRoy could be considered the face of feminist or queer cinema. Is this really what we are evolving towards or defending – a place where women get to be as abusive as straight men, albeit with more creativity?
Some early reviews of JT LeRoy last September mentioned the meta aspects of the story. Argento was part of the cohort of women who are credited with dethroning Harvey Weinstein, but at that time during its premiere, she had been caught up in an affair with actor Jimmy Benett. He was a child actor in the The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, Argento’s 2004 adaptation of JT LeRoy’s book. He was claiming he was a victim of statutory rape and successfully extorted a large sum of money in exchange for a non-disclosure agreement from Argento. (He was 17. The consent law is 16 in Asia’s native country of Italy.) Argento publicly denied the affair, but it came to light that it was true. A terrible consequence of lying is that your credibility is shot. So Argento’s attempts to explain how the late, beloved Anthony Bourdain agreed to pay off this sum of money so the shakedown would just disappear became muffled and suspect. Nevertheless, Argento’s excuse that they were looking for some peace of mind seems equally if not more plausible than the fact that JT LeRoy was Albert’s “avatar.” Who could possibly believe that?
Apparently, director Justin Kelly and Savannah Knoop can. The fact that JT LeRoy swallows and sings Albert’s platitudes makes the film fairly unwatchable for those who are hip to or suffered from the story. Even if we were to believe that Albert’s abusive past forced herself to dissociate and create JT as an “avatar,” as Justin Kelly has stated he does, it doesn’t negate the fact that Albert was also incredibly ambitious. Undoubtedly, this is one high-functioning “avatar” that can form a corporation to hide the tracking of a social security number. This “avatar” managed to get her what he/she/they wanted. So much of American culture is based on overlooking the damage that is done while we “move fast and break things,” particularly when what is breaking is people. If we are to believe that Albert was abused (and for the sake of discussion, let’s just believe her even with her compromised credibility), the meta-point is that those who were abused can also abuse. The challenge is always to rise out of that cycle of violence. Albert did not rise out. The gray area is that victimizer and victim can coexist. Knoop’s “performance” of JT LeRoy created and solidified his existence to literarily thousands of people, hundreds of which spent countless hours on the phone with Albert or in “JT”’s online community, many of whom were on the road to their own psychological recoveries – with all of the trust issues that go along with that. To eliminate the fallout and outrage in JT LeRoy is a blatant white-washing, or in this case, a pink-washing, as well. The full complexity would have made a significantly stronger film. We are living in the era of post-Truth. Facts are needless when they don’t support your personal emotional truth. I think this would be a disturbing tale in any time, but the fact that it is being released in an era of lies and non-accountability makes it particularly grim.
Marjorie Sturm is an award-winning filmmaker whose films span a broad perspective: narrative, documentary, and experimental. Her documentary The Cult of JT LeRoy won two prizes and five nominations for best feature documentary in 2015. Sturm works as a professor of digital story-telling and has created social activism videos for Consumers Union. She lives in San Francisco with composer Ernesto Diaz-Infante and their two children.