The Cult of JT LeRoy (USA)
Before the sudden unravelling, before the broken hearts and betrayals, JT LeRoy was an American literary sensation. The 2000 release of his debut novel, Sarah, carried with it the astounding back story of how he’d written the book at just 15, from his own experiences as a homeless, drug-addicted, savagely abused sex worker struggling with HIV and suicidal thoughts. His earliest champions included a intensely sincere group of authors and editors, many of whom make moving appearances in Marjorie Sturm’s excellent new documentary about the case, The Cult of JT LeRoy.
In the “ethereal vibration coming out of this wounded creature”, as one of them puts it, they saw the makings of the next Jean Genet or William Burroughs, a new bard of the outcast. That none of them had ever spoken to LeRoy face to face, only by phone or email, was just further proof of the paralyzing social anxiety that the young artist said he suffered after a life of brutal treatment at the hands of strangers.
Yet, within a year or two, LeRoy was indeed making public appearances, lots of them, as a slight, mumbling figure in a stiff blond wig and Yoko Ono sunglasses, often wearing a dress, surrounded by big-name friends like Shirley Manson, Lou Reed, Nancy Sinatra, and Gus Van Sant. This congenial streak was just one of many aspects that gradually became hard to square with the given bio, leading skeptical observers to begin pulling at loose threads.
Like the events themselves, The Cult of JT LeRoy only grows stranger and more poignant after it’s revealed that the author was himself a fiction—that his voice, on both the page and the phone, was actually the voice of Laura Alberts, a middle-aged, middle-class woman from Brooklyn, and that the person appearing as LeRoy at glitzy parties and high-end fashion shoots was in fact the half-sister of Alberts’s husband, thinly disguised.
Sturm’s film throws light in many directions at once: on our reverence for artists as moral seers and even celebrities, our belief in the therapeutic powers of creativity, our need to redeem suffering by expressing it. It will force you to see these in complicated new ways. And it will leave you wondering how deeply what you know is conditioned by what you want to know.
The Cult of JT LeRoy will be screened on August 22 (6:50 p.m.) at the International Village, as part of the Vancouver Queer Film Festival.