If you’re not already familiar with JT LeRoy, the trans literary persona created by American writer Laura Albert, you will be by the time 2016 is out. Albert is heading back into the mainstream spotlight with not one but three recent and forthcoming on-screen explorations into her fascinating, twisted story. Here, we speak with Marjorie Sturm, director of the first recent filmic take: ‘The Cult of JT Leroy’.
Laura Albert published her first bestselling book, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, in 2001 under the name Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy, hiring actress (and Albert’s sister-in-law) Savannah Knoop to play her alter ego in public. LeRoy was supposedly the teenage son of a truck-stop prostitute, channeling his own social trauma into his writing. His debut novel Sarah (2000) told the story of an unnamed boy who carried striking similarities to LeRoy; it was an overnight success and the American literary scene and Hollywood celebrity circle (namely the likes of Winona Ryder, Tom Waits and Courtney Love) embraced him with open arms.
Shrinking away under baggy overcoats, wigs and sunglasses, JT stuttered through readings and public appearances – his followers watching the projection of a fictional character onto the backdrop of reality. His celebrity fans would take his place on stage to read his works to the cult-ish crowds. Weaving their personal narrative into the JT myth, these public figures rubber-stamped JT’s existence: Laura Albert had played to the inflated egos of the literati, the phony cult of celebrity culture and prurient part of the American psyche that lusted after the dirty details.
Then in 2005, an article in New York Magazine sent a shudder through the literary world when it unmasked the Warhol-esque wunderkid of the underground, JT LeRoy, as a middle-aged Laura Albert. The whole thing was exposed as a hoax and Albert charged with fraud.
The past twelve months have seen the weird story thrust back into the spotlight, firstly with filmmaker Marjorie Sturm’s documentary-style film (which Albert refused to partake in) The Cult of JT Leroy, released last year. Out this month is Author: The JT LeRoy Story, in which JT LeRoy tells her side (and, interestingly, her’s only). Then, there’s the forthcoming biopic starring Kristin Stewart and James Franco, based on the novel Girl Boy It: How I Became JT LeRoy, out in 2017.
As with any good yarn there are two sides: those who criticise Albert’s web of lies and deception, and those who hail it as a feat of literary creativity. There’s no doubt that the way in which Laura Albert breathed real life into her fiction is a compelling work of performance art but the shadow JT cast on other people’s lives raises questions of morality. Celebrated as a voice of the transgender community and a beacon of hope for the downtrodden, LeRoy’s cultish notoriety was fuelled by the belief that the work was based on the power of honest revelation. Tom Waits wrote, “He is the witness to all the tales that go on in the dark, and for all of us, long may he have the courage to remember.”
We’re digging into both perspectives, here interviewing Marjorie Sturm, the director of The Cult of JT Leroy. Sturm was living in San Francisco when world was romanced by JT LeRoy’s story, and she herself fell under the Albert’s spell. Aiming the lens at the JT circus, her documentary combines footage of JT shot at the height of his fame with interviews with Albert/LeRoy’s close friends and critics. Holding a mirror to our society’s complicity with the author’s cult of personality and raises questions about the creation of the self.
Katie Alcock: This was a long running project for you, what was it about the JT Leroy story that drew you in?
Marjorie Sturm: I was finishing up film school while working as a social worker with the mentally ill homeless in the same neighbourhood that JT supposedly had written his books while homeless and strung out on heroin. A friend asked me to begin documenting him. It all felt like kismet. The second time around I reached out to Stephen Beachy, the journalist who first revealed JT’s identity, and he encouraged me to re-open the documentary. He gave me his contacts and so it began again. The film has always seemed to have a life of its’ own. And I was drawn in by the question, “What does this all mean?” There was just a huge collusion of sociological and psychological factors that I found quite compelling.
“Although I thought the JT gang was a bit odd, they didn’t send off any immediate bells or whistles that would make me think that JT was just a persona.”
KA: Did you notice anything strange when you started filming and JT was being played by Savannah Knoop and Laura Albert as her confidant Speedie?
MS: My sense of normalcy had been stretched pretty wide open from years of living in San Francisco and working with the mentally ill, so although I thought the JT gang was a bit odd, they didn’t send off any immediate bells or whistles that would make me think that JT was just a persona. They all held, and owned, their roles. There was definitely a weirdness, too. Cagey answers that contradicted what I had read or what they had just said.
And along with that, it seemed surprising that this most marginalised street kid was embracing fashion like Marc Jacobs and Costume International. Being a society person seemed at odds with being a writer and that internal life. So I found that confusing, too, but I rationalised it. I definitely thought for sure that JT existed.
KA: When the first novel, Sarah, came out the work was hailed as the voice of a generation, likened to Burroughs and Genet. Reading Laura Albert’s novels in the knowledge that it wasn’t written by an ex-prostitute, transgender male the narrative looses the immediacy of authenticity but, do you think it still has importance and can it stand alone?
MS: That’s an interesting literary question and one that would apply to a host of fake memoirs that are part of the recent publishing zeitgeist. For example, there was the Native American writer Nasdiijj who ended up being the gay writer Tim Barrus. His books won all sorts of Pen Awards and notable New York Times book awards. There really are too many examples to list but there’s gang members, Holocaust survivors, AIDs survivors. I don’t think there is an example that holds up without their authentic backgrounds. It seems pretty obviously that the writers are jumping on an opportunity to fill a void of some sort for liberal minded readers. The appeal of these books rely on them being marketed as ‘true stories’.
“It’s sad because the emphasis on ‘true stories” shows that as a culture we have less and less respect for the imagination.”
There’s also the complex issue about all of the identities that JT co-opted. For instance, sex-workers are trying so hard to break out of negative stereotyping and gain all sorts of protections internationally. It’s one thing if your actual mother was a sex-worker and outrageously abusive and pimping you out to her boyfriends. That is your story to tell, your truth, and by all means communicate it. But if that is just your choice of a story, a fiction that was used to manipulate sympathies, than it’s just reinforcing a horrible negative stereotype of prostitutes as deranged and vicious. The work than ends up looking like disturbing ‘abuse porn’.
KA: It’s really interesting how JT’s celebrity followers were encouraged to give a personal account of their relationship with him before the reading, perpetuating the myth and complicit in her cult of personality. When you interviewed the people closest to her on how were they affected by the deception, interestingly some seemed to blame themselves.
MS: I found that interesting too. It was something that I became aware of, that everyone was trying to be accountable for how they were potentially complicit in the situation. Everyone but the people who are most ultimately responsible. I really give my interviewees so much credit for their openness. Con-artists count on the fact that people who are conned feel ashamed and often just want to shirk away from the whole thing. That’s how they can continue to get away with it, too. Re-invent themselves for the next set of dupes.
Most people I interviewed felt incredibly sickened by it. Recently, I learned that one of the most high profile JT marks can’t hear the name ‘JT LeRoy’ without getting stomach cramps. It’s a startling betrayal that messes with you to create a whole relationship with someone and find out the whole relationship was with a false identity. It’s called ‘cat fishing’ and apparently it is a phenomenon that other disturbed people do as well – not just Laura Albert.
In any case, it really depended on how intimate the relationship was, how much someone gave of themselves, their past relationship to betrayal, or if they were paid for their involvement with “JT.” Some were just confused by it. Others were curious about why Laura would do such a thing, in such a baroque way, for such a long period of time.
KA: She played the established literary class who bought into fucked-up cross-dressing truck-stop prostitute mystique with such thirsty credulity. JT was a perfectly packaged media miracle, how do you think this reflects on the publishing industry and how authors are increasingly marketed on the basis of their life story?
MS: Apparently, the publishing industry is pretty infatuated with ‘true stories’ and they are considered more marketable. Readers seem to gravitate and the ‘true story’ has a lot of weight. The memoir genre is one that is dominated by middle-aged women, so it is kind of bizarre that “JT” needed to be a transgender, young boy in order to get published. But that’s the other issue, “hustler on the run – pimped out by his mother” author is more sensational than an middle class, adult woman who is suffering from an eating disorder and whose parents divorced when she was a teenager. Overall, it’s kind of sad because the emphasis on ‘true stories” shows that as a culture we have less and less respect for the imagination. Often now we see that Art is being forced to have more and more of a ‘practical value.’
KA: Readers were disappointed, even hurt, to find out that JT’s turbulent life story was fabricated. Perhaps this frustration was born out of the readers using their knowledge of the author to let the work understand them better and, in finding out it was a hoax, realised that their reactions were not verifiable in real life. What do you think?
MS: I guess on a most simple level, people resent being lied to. “Truthful” and “authentic” came up as adjectives over and over to describe “JT’s” journey. People were rallying around a soul, not just an author. At the time of “his” writing, support for transgender people was nowhere even close to what it is today. People were trying to propel that identity into the mainstream.
‘He’ was telling this harrowing tale, and asking for tons and tons of support “to heal.” So when it turns out that it a disturbed woman along with her family who have created an elaborate con, the potentially for transporting or escaping via the fiction is lessened. People felt psyched out.
If Laura Albert hadn’t pimped out the backstory at every turn, in countless interviews, and didn’t have her sister-in-law play the character in real time (even having sex in a different persona, which is a crime in England because it defies consent), the readers would have been less invested in “the persona.” It would have simply been more about the writing. It’s really quite disingenuous of Laura to create a fraud of this magnitude and than claim ‘it’s just about the writing.’
KA: A line from your film that really struck me was Laura Albert’s defence for JT in her fraud trial: “If you take away my JT, my Jeremy, my other, I die.” It reveals how intertwined her life was with the narrative she created and she often explains her writing as a method of therapy. Do you think this justifies the way she drew others into her story-making?
MS: I don’t. We have a right to our freedom of expression and our therapeutic growth, but not at the expense of others. We never have to right to impose on others for our creativity. Granted it does happen, and when it does, people can come forward and take responsibility for their actions. This has never occurred with Laura Albert. If she had, we might be having a different conversation. Instead it’s just one big ‘blame game.’
“My art,” “my therapy,” “my growth”– it’s really all about the individual. It’s very American. And the simple fact of the matter is that she didn’t die when she gave up “JT.” She just did her best to absorb the JT mystique for herself.
KA: The fact that Laura Albert still lives and continues to thrive under the JT LeRoy name is a testament to the power of the myth. What do you make of it all?
MS: I think it a real reflection of our culture – the cult of personality, status, money, media, and that cycle. It has little to do with truth or beauty. It’s also about the sociopathic shuffle… “the turnaround”… Laura victimises people and abuses people for sport, but she is somehow the victim of the situation? She needs help now “expressing her truth.” She’s literally in tears as she does her Q&A’s. It’s all her ‘redemption story’ now.
I think it really shows the power of a con artist, a cult leader, a politician, to twist and warp reality through charisma and lies. I think the story is confusing enough that I give some people the benefit of the doubt that they don’t fully understand the facts about it all. And some people prefer a good story to the facts. I don’t doubt that some people who Laura is ensnaring now are empathetic sorts who do think she is a victim somehow. That is who con artists go after. I think we want to believe that we live in some sort of civilisation, and it’s quite disconcerting that our world is as predatory as it is. We don’t expect this from artists. We expect this from Wall Street and wars. Hollywood thinks that they can somehow profit from this story and so it goes. It isn’t surprising that the United States went to war with Iraq under circumstances that were a complete fabrication. There are few fact checkers.
‘The Cult of JT LeRoy’ is out now.