In the early 2000s, a damaged 15-year-old street kid named JT LeRoy took the literary world by storm, publishing sexually charged, avant-garde and heart-wrenching books that describe his traumatic upbringING. His first two books, “Sarah” and “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things,” depict JT’s unnerving story as an extremely twisted take on the American dream — a damaged, resilient underdog rising above a horribly disturbing upbringing to triumph over extreme poverty, drug addiction and physical anguish.
After publishing his novels, JT ascends in the most dramatic manner possible — he starts as an orphaned street kid prostituting his own body in the Tenderloin of San Francisco while suffering from HIV, and he ends up garnering total stardom, accompanied by a cult of celebrity followers who adore him and his work. JT’s rise serves as a beacon of hope for many different downtrodden communities in San Francisco and throughout the country. But just as his fame reaches its summit, the boy’s story comes tumbling down in a shocking spiral of deceit and lies.
“The Cult of JT LeRoy,” directed by Marjorie Sturm, examines what ends up being a incredible literary hoax in an eye-opening documentary that exposes much more than the title character’s fraudulent story. Sturm’s documentary includes interviews and live footage taken with LeRoy and his circus following before he was exposed to be a character entirely fabricated by a middle-aged, mentally unstable writer named Laura Albert. It examines the deep human desire for fame, the disposition of the sinister and the engrossing nature of mental illness.
JT LeRoy’s cult was webbed together by making each member feel as if his extreme mental instability would reach the tipping point without the large support system. Phone calls that reportedly lasted an hour occurred frequently with each of his celebrity followers, often requiring that the friend talk JT down from suicidal threats. Each person in the cult believed that they were an essential member of JT’s life. “You felt special, like you were the only one who really understood JT,” said a former cult member in an interview for Sturm’s film. “But then you would watch him do it with someone else.” The extremely personal nature of the cult is what reeled so many followers in, but it is also what allowed followers to realize that JT was certainly not whom he claimed to be.
After a whirlwind of investigations and chaos, JT’s true nature was revealed. A documentary that begins as an account of a 15-year-old, HIV-carrying, queer, suicidal boy suddenly turns into an examination of a deeply disturbing and shocking level of mental illness in the aforementioned Albert, who simply made JT up: Albert wrote all of JT’s novels and hired her partner’s sister to pretend to be JT LeRoy in public.
The film is brilliantly structured around sobering interviews with psychiatrist Dr. Terrence Owens, who reportedly treated “JT” and currently treats Albert. As soon as the hoax is revealed to viewers, the film shifts to examining some of the most troubling issues found in our society. Sturm raises critical questions on the nature of creativity and roleplaying. She forces us to examine in ourselves and our peers just how large the capacity for evil in pursuit of fame and fortune can be.
Sturm allows the true story of JT LeRoy to unfurl into a film that will thoroughly shake viewers. The simultaneous human capacities for deceit and vulnerability force one to ask, “How did ‘JT LeRoy’ manage to fool a horde of rich and famous, sincere followers and even an entire nation?” How could a human being be capable of such deep deceit with no remorse? Did Albert actually do anything wrong, or did she just take her storytelling to another level via roleplaying? While these questions are not clearly answered, the audience will savor pondering these thoughts in “JT LeRoy.”
“The Cult of JT LeRoy” will play at SF IndieFest beginning Saturday at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco.
Contact Claralyse Palmer at [email protected].