The Cult of JT LeRoy
USA, 90 min.
Directed by Marjorie Sturm
It’s an interesting day at Hot Docs when both films you see focus on hoaxes (the other, The Amina Profile). Fabrication of identity is one of our culture’s favourite pastimes, fueled by the cult of celebrity and, in this case, the collective fetishising of a bizarre “art star.” The Cult of JT LeRoy took twelve years to make and almost didn’t screen at this year’s festival. Threatened with legal action, the film was blocked days before its world premiere at last year’s DOCNYC. Clearly, it’s got a charge around it—- deservedly so, as it’s a fascinating unspooling of a big, brilliant dupe.
In the early 2000s, when the world discovered JT LeRoy’s novels, Sarah, followed by The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, it was like manna for a hungry mob. Chock-full of transgressive dark violence and low-life humiliations, the books were thought to be penned by a homeless, HIV+, drug-addicted, teenage rent boy who could write like Burroughs. Deviance! Genius! Youth! Jackpot!
Dubbed one of the biggest literary hoaxes of the 20th century, JT (Jeremiah “Terminator”) was like the socially awkward brainchild of authors Dorothy Allison and Dennis Cooper, styled and schooled by Andy Warhol, that the public couldn’t eat up fast enough. If you know the tale, there’s something deeply satisfying about sitting back and watching its unraveling.on screen. There’s the propelling of a myth, the absolute degree of betrayal, and the ingenuity of a ruse that involved the real writer Laura Alpert employing Savannah Knoop to “play” being JT for the public’s consumption.
For years, director Marjorie Sturm worked with the mentally ill and homeless in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. She also went to film school; and fortuitously captured JT in the early days as his nascent star was exploding onto the scene. This gives her doc that crucial credibility: not just hearing stories and recollections, we get to see JT in action, in all his uneasy glory. As a viewer, however, the thing that kept confounding me, swimming in so much archival footage, is the clear absence of a known indicator of masculinity. How could the likes of Lou Reed, Sandra Bernhard, Nancy Sinatra and Asia Argento, et al., not have noticed that the “emperor” had clothes, but no Adam’s apple?
Through conversations with writers and therapists, artists and “father figures,” it becomes all too clear that JT enmeshed himself into his confidants’ lives. Hours-long phone calls at all times of the day or night, extreme intimate disclosure amid desperate threats of suicide—-he had them hooked. They were all bamboozled by a troubled lost boy. But in so doing, the wee Wizards of Oz begins to crumble as the narratives crossed signals. Doubts about JT were raised privately and then in 2005, publicly, led by Stephen Beachy’s article exposing the JTLeroy hoax in New York Magazine.
As the doc proceeds to tease apart the contradictory biographical knots, it’s a pleasure to listen to the articulate interview subjects—-a veritable “who’s who” of the Bay Area literati. Cooper is a longtime favourite of mine, but I didn’t know of Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, an author and performance artist. Others include Brian Pera, High Risk editor Ira Silverberg, Bruce Benderson, and V. Vale of Re/Search fame. Phrases like, “unleashed a monster of ambition,” “hoodwinked,” “satanic shape-shifting,” and “the lie of the American Dream,” mingle with unresolved disappointment, confusion, and personal embarrassment.
The compelling dichotomy of “offended and fascinated” drives the deconstruction of who is JT LeRoy? One confidant admits that it “destroys (the) faith you build over time.” Another adds, “Were they [Leroy/Knoop/Albert] sincere emotional breakdowns or improv?” It’s an analyst’s field day: brimming with projection and transference, Shadow and persona, relative truth and infinite lies. The power of emotional manipulation is staggering, and disturbing to observe.
Without revealing the mastermind behind the deception and subsequent fallout, what ensures the film’s success is that it’s more than “just” a re-telling of a hoax. Issues of ethics, feminism, ageism, and ingrained commercial biases in the art and literary worlds round out this engrossing exposé. The Cult of JT LeRoy holds up a cracked mirror, probing into the complex cultural, psychological, and socially-reinforced motivations for pulling off, and buying into, such a scam. And why, for a time, it was enormously successful.