“THE CULT OF JT LEROY”
Writing His Life
JT LeRoy was a teen prostitute who was both addicted to heroin and infected with HIV. His therapist encouraged him to write his life story. He eventually published three critically acclaimed books. However, as his fame skyrocketed, e shocking truth emerged: JT was not who or what he seemed. What followed was a spiral downfall that was both tragic and bewildering. Director Marjorie Sturm was a member of JT’s inner circle before the truth came out and with this film and intimate interviews with many that were close to JT, she tries to untangle what really happened, and in the process also looks at how his deception questions not only his writing but our celebrity obsessed culture. The film is ethically charged, controversial, and confusing and we see that JT’s life and death caused a lot of “powerful questions about literature and culture, identity and celebrity, and the reality of the society we live in.”
The story goes that JT (aka Jeremiah “Terminator”) LeRoy had been abandoned by his “truckstop prostitute” mother after a road trip. After years on the street, MJT became involved in drugs and prostitution and when he was just 15, he was encouraged by a therapist to write “as a form of therapy.” By 1994, JT began soliciting long-distance mentoring relationships with established writers, editors and literary agents, all who were at first intrigued by his circumstances and excited and enthralled with his writing.
In 1999, JT published, “Sarah”, an alleged autobiographical novel and this increased his following. It is a lurid look at an androgynous boy pulled into his hostile mother’s trick-turning lifestyle; white-trash epic. It made him something of a celebrity. There were contradictions in his fiction and real-life history, and he wrote of timely issues— child abuse, sexual exploitation, gender dysphoria, homelessness, and so on and there were just what the media was looking for. JT’s personal story attracted celebrities from all over including Sandra Bernhard, Michael Musto and Susan Dey, rock stars Stephan Jenkins and Billy Corgan. Asia Argento directed a film feature of the based on his supposed autobiographical story collection, “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things” and in 2004 other writings were sold as screen properties.
JT was enjoying his 15 minutes of fame, when some began to question him. He appeared in public in strange outfits—wigs, sunglasses and other disguises and remained androgynous. He had once been a vulnerable, stuttering, schizophrenic kid but he became a “monster of ambition.” Others began to notice that his stories and trauma tales contradicted each other and those who had either lived in San Francisco or worked with the city’s mentally ill and homeless populations during the time he was on the streets found those stories didn’t jibe and that they could not be confirmed by witnesses aside from JT’s adopted family— Laura Albert and musician Geoffrey Knoop, who happily used his fame right along with him.
Then in 2005, articles that ran in “New York” magazine and the “New York Times” showed that there was no JT LeRoy; he existed only as a construct revealed the truth: There was no JT LeRoy, save as a construct. It turned out that Albert had been the actual writer all along, while Knoop’s half-sister Savannah pretended to be LeRoy in public appearances. There was widespread anger and embarrassment from those who’d been pulled in and there was at least one lawsuit. Albert let many questions go unanswered even after she came out of hiding later. It is interesting that the mystery continues even today.
In Sturm’s film she lets those seduced tell their own stories and how they felt when the truth came out. Not everyone agreed to take part in the film (Albert and Knoop). There are re-enactments and archival footage. Because Arnold chose not to defend herself, she comes across as without a conscience. Some of the questions that still remain are whether Albert was just a grifter who managed to find fame in obscurity, was the construction of JT deliberate and was it just a performance or was the persona really therapy for someone who was indeed disturbed deeply like Terrance Owens, the San Francisco psychiatrist maintained when he faced a court-deposition?
This is an amazing and absorbing film that will keep you thinking long after it is over.