Marjorie Sturm, director of "The Cult of JT LeRoy," which debuted at the DOC NYC documentary film festival Friday, had been teaching poetry workshops in San Francisco to homeless, drug-addicted teens in 2002 when she began to hear about writer JT LeRoy, author of the much-discussed 2000 book "Sarah" and 2001's "The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things."
The mysterious JT began to generate increasing buzz. He was said to be an uneducated 15- or 16-year-old cross-dressing prostitute -- HIV positive -- who had been dumped in San Francisco by a mother who pimped him out at truck stops in the South. Or so the bio went. JT had been encouraged to write about his traumatic experiences by his San Francisco therapist, and had somehow managed to produce work -- without a formal education -- that was being compared to the writings of the Beat icon William S. Burroughs.
For at least a year, no one had seen the writer, who portrayed himself as pathologically shy, but many writers -- including cult author Dennis Cooper and celebrities from Winona Ryder to Nancy Sinatra -- had spoken to JT on the phone, often in five-hour jags in which they would talk JT out of killing himself or going out for violent, self-destructive sex.
Suddenly, about a year into the buzz, JT materialized as a figure dubbed "Wigs and Sunglasses" by the journalist Stephen Beachy. This androgynous, oddly dressed person -- who was supposed to be JT -- began to attend readings and, eventually, instead of enlisting famous people like Lou Reed and Sandra Bernhardt to get on stage to read for him, would read himself.
In Beachy's exposé, published in New York Magazine in 2005, he theorized that there was no JT but that in fact all of Leroy's works had been written by a 39-year-old Brooklyn woman named Laura Albert, who seemed to accompany "Wigs and Sunglasses" everywhere. In other words, a Warholian circus that gathered about it literary icons and an untold number of celebrities -- many of whom look foolish in their fawning over JT in "The Cult of JT LeRoy" -- was exposed as a hoax.
The New York Times confirmed the story a few months later, revealing that the "Wigs and Sunglasses" person was actually Albert's boyfriend Geoffrey Knoop's sister, Savannah Knoop. Lawsuits ensued, including one that was settled out of court by Albert from Antidote films, which had optioned JT's story and accused Albert of being a fraud.
How did this trio of Laura Albert, her partner Geoffrey Knoop, and his half-sister playing JT LeRoy in public pull off this crazy literary hoax for almost 10 years? And how did so many people, many of whom we see in the documentary trying to untangle the threads in the intervening years, get so caught up in his "cult"? And although it was a hoax insofar as there was no literal JT, the "metaphorical" JT and his writing still resonate for many.
In "The Cult of JT LeRoy," Sturm presents footage of LeRoy and the Warholian circus that gathered about him before the Laura Albert revelation, having access to photo shoots by fashion magazines, audio of Terry Gross/NPR interviews, and cringeworthy conversations between JT/Knoop with people like musician Steven Jenkins of Third Eye Blind, who tells JT that he's "kickin' some wicked style" and has "Andy Warhol punked."
Sturm talked with International Business Times a few days after the film's debut.
IBTimes: It sounds like this story just sort of fell into your lap.
Marjorie Sturm: Yes, and then it was like riding a bronco. I had started filming in 2002 for about 10 months. And after Beachy revealed JT's identity in 2005, he gave me his contacts, and he introduced me to writers like Dennis Cooper and Brian Pera. I immediately reached out to "JT" asking for an interview with Laura Albert but didn't hear anything for three or four months later. Then, she was super aggressive and threatening. "If you make this film," she told me, "you are going to look really, really bad." Of course she was reversing it. She knew she might look bad, and she was trying to intimidate me.
IBTimes: Some people have described this whole thing as "performance art." What do you think?
Marjorie Sturm: Well, I think art is consensual. Susan Sontag talks about getting kidnapped when you go to a theater, but you chose to buy the ticket and sit down in the seat. No one was given a choice to this "performance art," and money was involved with selling books and on and on, all while Albert was manipulating people's sympathies. I think the people who think it was just "performance art" don't really understand the extent of it all.
IBTimes: How are we supposed to read Laura Albert's act? By the standards of literature or ethics?
Marjorie Sturm: I wanted to create an ethical Rorschach test. I purposefully left myself out. I know how I feel about it, but I wanted a deeper analysis. I wanted the film-viewing experience to be an active one, where the viewer has to probe into themselves to make sense of it all.
IBTimes: Is there a feminist subtext? Many people, including Laura Albert, say that she used a male pen name and identity because this writing wouldn't have had the same attention paid to it if she'd written it under her own name. And V.Vale describes Albert as a "one-woman super ad agency or branding agency" who "pulled off what most ad agencies would have loved to have pulled off, and are pulling off."
Marjorie Sturm: All of the films I worked on in film school are feminist, but my idea of feminism is inclusive, of gay men, transgender people, men, and not just women. In our culture, it's the "masculine" values that get you ahead whether you're a woman or man, being forceful, imposing on others if need be. Ultimately, when I look at Laura Albert, I wonder, what success did she have? Many of her relationships vanished after she was exposed. Her family was destroyed. It's sad. Sure, she got books published and notoriety/infamy, but at what expense? There are interesting questions regarding the male canon in literature, and in this case, even comparisons to the canon, which are also often extended to men. Would we call a woman writer "Burroughs-esque"? However, "JT LeRoy" wasn't merely a pseudonym. Pseudonyms don't talk on the phone and pretend to be homeless, abused, HIV positive, and on and on. That is something else entirely.
IBTimes: All of that transgressive writing, and she seems to just want to hang out with celebrities! So were there any major insights or surprises you got out of making this film?
Marjorie Sturm: Yes. For all of the so-called punk rockness of "JT," Laura Albert had mainstream American desires. I think that few of us are immune to the allure of celebrity, even those in the so-called underground or alternative cultures. It's easy for people to protect themselves and think that they would somehow have risen above, but most of us can be emotionally manipulated into joining a cult, particularly people who are also empathetic and want to do something helpful in the world. The documentary is an inquiry into our collective shadow. Deception, manipulation and diseased ambition aren't just traits of Laura Albert. Vast portions of our society operate that way daily.