By Matthew Sorrento.
“Victim culture” was a loaded term long before the recent killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others at the hands of police or, in the first case, an armed wanna-be officer. Giving a new face to the victimized, these tragic events are fueled by gun fanaticism and racist violence, causing a regretful backlash of murdered or targeted police and protests from supporters. Shirts reading “I Can Breathe” are so apathetic and inane they equate to “I Can Walk,” “I Can Shoot,” and essentially, act however I want.
While all victims need their due (especially the recently killed), America is obsessed with the victimized, especially those of sexual abuse, an obsession fueled by Oprah Winfrey and other tabloid media. The story of JT LeRoy, a wunderkind writer who proved to be a hoax persona fashioned by Laura Albert, capitalized on this need to weep and, simultaneously, encapsulated the trend. Gaining sympathy from first the literary community and then a sizable celebrity following, LeRoy appeared to be the writing of an actual teen victim overcoming abuse via strength and a budding artistic sensibility. It’s a story that needed visual documentation; mainstream media reports only suggested the influence, deception, and growing enigma caused by such a hoax, which now has a full narrative in The Cult of JT LeRoy.
Filmmaker Marjorie Sturm took time out to discuss her film and the issues related to it, as Cult continues its successful festival run.
As I watched your film, I couldn’t help but think about Banksy’s documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010). So let’s get this out of the way: are you the real JT LeRoy?
You’re not the first to ask! That’s a tricky question. I don’t want to give away too much about the film. The long short of it is, I am. JT is me and you and possibly everyone. Or not.
Did other hoax films interest you? Your film reminds me of Catfish (2010), which also reveals someone deceiving others by misrepresenting their art.
Recently, someone described my film as Catfish on crack, which made me laugh. I have watched a number “hoax” films. There seems to be more and more of them, a new genre in the works I suppose. The ones I remember are The Night Listener (2006, which has an odd number of similarities with the JT saga), The Hoax (2006), Welles’ F is For Fake (1973), The Imposter (2012), My Kid Could Paint That (2007), and Forbidden Lies (2007). I enjoyed all of them, though I don’t think any of them really inspired the structure. After some thought, I went with a pretty straight forward chronological approach.
Are you intrigued by the writing of LeRoy, or just the story behind it?
I can’t say the writing intrigues me at this point. I hadn’t picked up the books in years, and a couple of months ago, I did. I was curious to see how I would feel, so I opened up The Heart is Deceitful. It was informative, re-remembering just how emotionally manipulative the books are. It begins with a four year old’s point of view of being ripped from the safe cozy comfort of his foster family, crying “Mama, Mama!” and being put into the arms of his abusive, biological mother. It’s easy to see how anyone talking to “JT” would have compassion for “him” after reading that kind of account. But now knowing what I know, especially all I know, it was hard for me to wade through them.
The social phenomenon around JT LeRoy, and the mirror it holds to our culture, I found extremely compelling and it has held my attention for many years. As well, the topic is incredibly psychological so there’s lots of room for rumination around all of these cascading issues.
How did you begin the thread of the story? What did you film first?
The first shoot was Skylight Bookstore in Los Angeles. A guy I was hanging out with moved to LA and told me that he would try and find me work there. I was finishing up film school at that time. In my head I thought, “Yeah, right!” The next weekend he called me and told me that his close friend, and someone he admired, was looking for a filmmaker to begin a documentary about “this Burroughs-esque writer. It’s right up your alley. Can you come to Los Angeles tomorrow?”
At that time, it was believed that JT had written his latest book while homeless in the neighborhood that I was working. So I said, “Sure.” I read my first JT LeRoy book on the plane down from San Francisco. I partially just wanted to hang out with this guy some more because I really liked him. The whole thing sounded like a good time, and it was.
What I really found interesting right from the get-go at Skylight Books was the reverence that a lot people had for “JT,” the adulation and the willingness to play by “JT’s” rules. I have spent a lot of time studying, formally and informally, group psychology in religious sects, and it was easy to witness the similar behaviors. For example, sometimes there’s this fake or overly emoted laughter from the crowd every time the guru makes a joke. There’s obviously this need people have to identify with a leader or “an inspiration.” At best, it is a real hero, but often it can be just a celebrity in our culture. Or a fake one!
Did telling a story about a hateful character (the real JT; hateful to some, anyway) motivate you? I know it’s an intriguing challenge for many writers and directors.
I think Laura (Albert) is a dark character, and there’s a lot to gain from studying shadow aspects of human nature. I don’t think that I, or anyone that I interviewed, have any hate towards her. I think really the only “hate” that is going down is Laura’s own self-hate that makes her operate the way she does.
When studying a person, you start to learn a lot about them, and it’s easy to have some compassion for their struggles. This is not to excuse their actions, but you begin to gain some understanding of why they might have acted the way they did and then start asking bigger and bigger questions.
Among other things, Laura Albert lied, and continues to lie. She blames others instead of taking responsibility for her actions. But she is not alone, no? Our whole society is best set-up for those whose can rationalize situations that are in their self-interest, and lie to themselves and others. It’s a way of gaining power, whether it is little “half-truths” or ruthless deception. From the inception, the American culture is based on one gigantic con: “pilgrims and Indians and manifest destiny.” If you track it, often those are “the winners” in our world. What makes Laura somewhat unique was her willingness to take advantage of people on such a personal level. But rapists do that, too. Often, they know their victims. And again, I think the ability to do those actions is linked to vast amounts of self-hate. A healthy person does not rape. So it begs the question: what are the causes in our culture that create these actions?
I don’t want to misrepresent myself here because it has been a huge challenge to hold a compassionate view towards Laura. Partially because she continues to be threatening towards me. I have lost count of the number of letters from her lawyers, all of which were attempts to have me abandon the film. I never felt it was a “motivator,” but I guess in a way it was. Her aggressiveness solidified my feeling that a hoax/fraud/mental illness/performance art/social phenomenon that overlapped with so many people’s lives deserved an analysis not controlled or corroborated with by her.
However, I think I’m safe to say that communicating my most honest understanding of the phenomenon was more of a motivator than any quagmire of “hate.” Thankfully!
LeRoy was sold as work of a young, abused male. Should it be dismissed as the work of an older woman imagining it? Judging from your film, it seems as if the readership is split on the decision.
What doesn’t come up in my film is that some people always dismissed the books even when lots of people were falling all over them. The journalist Joy Press in her June 2001 Village Voice article (of the same name as my film) writes essentially that JT was peddling his abuse for shock value. She wrote this quite early-on and actually took some heat from JT sympathizers. Others I interviewed essentially felt the same way, always suspected the books as hype, marketing, and schtick.
In any case, I would never out right express that the books should be dismissed because they were the work of an older woman. But the books will be evaluated in the context that they were created, and wrapped up in that history. It’s probably impossible to “purely” evaluate them now as works of the imagination, not attached to any biography or scandal. If people want to give it a try, they should, of course. I’ve heard people get something out of Charles Manson’s writing! But seriously, if readers now see the books sympathetically through the lens of an abused woman with a insecurity complex who needed to “pass” as a little boy, and that has value for them, so be it. It’s always great when people read books. Supporting the publishing industry is a good thing.
Whether biography should or not inform a piece of art is a question that academics have been discussing for awhile. A lot of it falls under discussions around the canon and how we evaluate art, from whose subjectivity and what positions of power in our society. The issue here is Laura Albert fed the backstory of JT LeRoy at every turn. In countless interviews, articles and emails, JT was “autobiographical fiction” – with a little bio about his hard luck, truck stop life. She even dressed up her sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, to play the character. So the persona of JT LeRoy became quite big, one could argue bigger than the writing. This is Laura’s own doing. After working the biography, she is indignant that the writing is simply fiction, and is shocked when people can’t strip out what they had been led to believe. To describe this as disingenuous is even forgiving.
JT was an uneducated fifteen year old who was lent a lot of empathy because he was essentially an abused, homeless orphan. Would the writing hold the same “suspension of disbelief” if we knew the writing was coming from an educated Jewish woman from a Brooklyn family that was involved in education? Probably not. Laura Albert studied creative writing at a college level. Apparently, her mother was a theatre critic. She was born into an environment where by osmosis she learned the value of having others write about your work. I think Laura was savvy enough to know that it was far more marketable to co-opt a more victimized identity than to present the work as herself, a troubled woman from a middle-class background with an eating disorder. Yawn, yawn, right? Not much sensationalism there. There was a slew of this happening for a bit. Writers pretending to be Native American, or a gang member, and then packaging it for readers who live in entirely different comfort zones or class.
From what I gathered, a lot of the JT LeRoy myth-making was done over the phone. She notoriously asked people to transcribe her improvisational conversations. I think the journalist Nancy Rommelmann is correct. She might be a good storyteller but not much of a writer. Her books were crafted by great minds and passed around with potentially even two editors working on it simultaneously. Through this light, the writing could be seen as some sort of surrealist corpse, and that’s kind of interesting. “JT” joked about it, too, and put a photo on JT’s website of a room of people working away at desks with the caption, “JT is busy working away on his next novel.”
One of the more odd things that has come up about the writing, or odd for me at least, is when Laura Albert has stated that anyone who liked the books was “sick,” as if anyone who is getting something out of them must be a pervert or a whacko. It’s fascinating how it all gets turned around again even on to her readers. So I’m not sure how important the writing was in the whole scheme of things. It can be clung to of course, it’s the one immutable. It’s left ambivalent in the film because I think it always will be, like the evaluation of all art really, highly subjective.
Do you feel that LeRoy was a fad driven by celebrity culture? Your film does a fine job of detailing all the celebrities that were fans, and even read her work publicly.
Initially, JT was driven by the empathy of the literary community, writers who really thought they had discovered a prodigy of some sort. So “the power of the blurb” plays its role as well. JT LeRoy books open with pages of them. After the literary community backed the writing, the “healing communities” got behind the work because JT was a survivor of, well, everything. Or a lot of things – drugs, child abuse, incest, prostitution, homelessness, mental illness, homophobia. It seemed like finally there was this queer, incest surviving viewpoint that usually didn’t have a large publicity budget, and was crossing over into the mainstream. This is riding the coat tails of Oprah’s rise, and all of the ways memoir started to overlap with the self-help psychological movement.
Actually, my film just scrapes the surface as far as celebrities go. A lot of the big names, like John Waters, Bono, Madonna, Winona Ryder and countless others, didn’t manage their way into the film because there was no reason or way to put them in. The fixation on celebrities can be distracting from threads that I have found more poignant, but the issue of celebrity certainly drove the JT LeRoy operation and is part of the story. And yes, by the later years, JT was a fad, JT was “trending.” The already mega-marketed celebrities offered a lot of support to the JT “brand” by way of association. I’m an admirer of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967). I’ve thought for awhile that JT LeRoy and his public readings and all of the fashion photos of “him” are some zenith of an example, where the celebrity construct gets pushed over the edge. All of the unreality of celebrities met with an unreal person. Too good.
So you would say that Albert got the interest of all of the writers not through good writing, but deception.
Yes, deception. As I mentioned, the writers had a lot of empathy for an autodidact they believed to be young, troubled, and seriously ill with HIV. So “good writing” from the point of view of someone living out that perspective . The one exception to this would be the writer who is in the film, who vouches for the quality of the writing (and whose wife happens to be the publisher of JT’s books). He was the only early literary supporter that I interviewed that argued that it was purely the work that mattered to him. He didn’t care about the rest of it at all.
Did any of them show disdain, or perhaps fondness, that didn’t make it in the film? I’m especially interested in the poet Sharon Olds, who endorses the writing and is known to be very vocal.
There was a certain disdain for sure. It actually got pretty repetitive. But most people could simultaneously marvel at the extremity of it all, what great lengths they all went to get some notoriety. But, I think it is safe to say that we (even transgressive writers) like our con-artists better on a fictional level than we do in real life. It’s a weird feeling to be conned, especially in such a public and elaborate way.
A couple of people I interviewed expressed what could be described as a curiosity towards the real “JT,” more so than a “fondness.” Across the board, no one felt like they knew Laura because they had conducted their relationships with a little boy or had met Laura in the persona of Speedie (JT’s British manager). So they felt open to meeting her because it was an interesting situation. As it turns out, out of the population that I happened to interview, these individuals were all paid for their time and involvement with JT. So I think they felt less personally taken. It’s easier to have a more light-hearted approach if you were compensated (and kind of shrug or nod or acknowledge the fact that others were taken). People’s point of views are obviously dependent on their vantage point to the whole thing, what stop they got on or off over a ten-year period. Initially, I approached Laura with some openness and curiosity as well. But after the second phone call of her being verbally threatening and off the hook towards me, I realized that I would need to protect myself from her, and carry on making the film without her involvement.
I’m not sure how Sharon Olds feels now, and I have never heard her comment publicly. She was one of the writers that hooked me in, and furthered my interest in JT when I was just beginning the film. I love her poetry and have a lot of respect for her. I did call her and ask her to interview, and she was polite and kind and asked me to fax her an inquiry. I never followed up with it, I’m not sure why. I don’t usually find myself shy or intimidated, but I think I didn’t want to taint my relationship to her work by meeting her.
How did someone like Asia Argento react to the hoax revelation? She did film LeRoy’s work as the honest truth of abuse. (And you detail well the plight of the company that purchased the rights to the earlier LeRoy book.)
I think Asia Argento did her best to hold her own in the aftermath. I don’t see her as someone who is going to slide easily into a “victim” modality. She’s had a hard life already. But she has spoken about the fact that she was really deceived, and had no clue about it at all. I’ve heard her experience with JT LeRoy has tainted her view of humankind, not for the better. I believe it obscured her funding opportunities for other films. It’s hard enough to be an independent filmmaker without being attached to a public scandal. She’s released another film recently, which I haven’t seen, but a friend of mine loved. I’m glad to see that she’s landing on her feet.
Laura Albert claims that Asia Argento was “in” on the deception. This is what she expressed in her Paris Review interview. Unequivocally, that’s just another lie of Laura’s, another way of not being accountable for the suffering that she is responsible for creating.
As well, as far as Asia goes, it’s particularly a bit crazy because she had an intimate relationship with “JT.” And in this case, when I express “JT,” the culpability lies with Savannah Knoop. Asia was led to believe that “JT” had undergone a sex change surgery. She was led to believe “JT” was transgender.
I’ve heard a number of times, “how could anyone have believed JT was a boy? She looks like a woman!” Or, “JT sounded like a girl! How could anyone have believed it?!” All I can say is hindsight is 20/20. Years and years of mystery around gender issues masked the real issue of biography. A lot of smart, and even jaded, people were fooled. And it’s pretty easy to emotionally manipulate people if you are throwing out misinformation. Advertising works the same way. It hooks you in emotionally and cuts through your rationale defenses.
Do you think the books contribute to a new extremism concerning abuse, especially since they were realized to be as horrifying as possible? I’m reminded of the novels and films Precious (Sapphire’s novel Push, 1997; Lee Daniel’s film in 2009), Towelhead (Alicia Erian’s novel in 2005, Alan Ball’s film in 2007), and Mysterious Skin (Scott Heim’s 1996 novel; Gregg Araki’s film in 2004).
Some people I interviewed thought so for sure. That there is now a new literature genre of sensationalist “abuse porn” which has been created to feed the imagination of “normal” people about incest, prostitution, or abuse. Some survivors and gay sex-workers that I interviewed really questioned, “Who is this writing for?” It didn’t seem to be written to connect with other survivors according to them. They felt suspicious of it.
The novelist Stephen Beachy, who outed JT’s identity, made a funny point that didn’t make it into the film. He said, “It’s always people out in the countryside who are pimping out their kids in a barn and running these demonic pedophile rings.” JT was originally supposed to be from the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia. He saw JT in a lineage of writing where urbanites gawk at the primitive, rural white trash who treat their children in these ghastly ways that would be unthinkable to (urban) sophisticates like themselves.
Did this film whet your interest in filming other tales of deception? Either way, what’s next?
I’m not sure if it whetted my interest or not. I have learned a lot. I can spot and smell manipulation and deception a lot quicker. I have a much more psychological understanding of the machinations of it. I’d like to think if I found a project, one that spoke to me organically, I would do something pointed about the way our government, police departments, or banking systems, lie and cover it up. There’s a real need for investigative journalists to tear some things down, so all kinds of suffering can be prevented.
My background is more in art than in journalism, and the aftermath of deception is that it makes you distrustful and wary, potentially paranoid. So I don’t know if being “a deception expert” may be the best choice for me. I think I’m transitioning out of this topic at a great time, while I still have some openness.
As for what’s next, I’m re-working a screenplay that I have written about a young woman’s move to San Francisco in the nineties. It’s an existential, psychedelic, erotic drama. I’m also starting the research and contemplating an experimental documentary. I don’t want to say much more now, besides that it will be very different than Cult.
Matthew Sorrento is Editor-in-chief of Film International. He teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ.