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TNC Archive 2016 

Marjorie Sturm 
The Cult of JT LeRoy
Originally published in 2016

JT LeRoy was a teen prostitute, addicted to heroin and infected with HIV, when a therapist encouraged him to write his life stories. Buoyed by a cadre of celebrities, he published three critically acclaimed books. His death in 2006 left his fans and supporters bewildered, angry, and betrayed. Others saw his fate coming.

Hello Marjorie, thanks for talking to The New Current, how's everything going?


Oh, you know, it goes and goes . . .the world seems sad, fearful and chaotic with a desperate need for all sorts of reforms and healing. But it’s summer, and I am doing well for the moment. . . 


Congratulations on the continued success of The Cult of JT LeRoy did you ever imagine your documentary would be so well received?


Thank you. That is kind. I didn’t really know.


I did do a couple of pre-screenings that led me to believe that my film was being successfully communicative in the way that I intended . . . and that got me excited. But it’s so hard to know or predict how your film will be received. I think it’s true that in some ways we are our own harshest critics.


What has it meant for you to be able to have The Cult of JT LeRoy shown at so many festivals around the world?


I’m not really sure what it has meant . . . I wasn’t there for many of the screenings, but it has felt deeply satisfying. This culmination, completion. I worked many years on and off the film, and it was a great act of faith to just carry one with persistence that the whole film will come together. That it will actually ever get finished. It’s really kind of insane. So the fact that festivals are affirming an act of insanity that took place over years . . .  I guess somehow makes me feel saner.


With this being your debut feature documentary had you had any nerves before sharing it with your audiences?


I did initially, but that emotion was really trumped by the fact that “JT LeRoy” was trying to stop the film legally. So really every time I screened the film felt like a victory and I was more high than nervous.


What do you think it was about your film that struck a chord with critics and audiences?


Well, the story in and of itself is just so strange and layered and psychologically complex. I really tried my best to create a film that would tap at all of the layers and the ethics that surround the story. I tried to not run from the parts that are murky and unclear. 


Sociopathy is confusing for clergy and psychologists. Abuse is dark and confusing. Identity politics are important but can be misused. So the shadowy subject matter was obsessively compelling due to its' lack of clarity. Like a sphere being tilted, a different angle could illuminate something unexpected.


"I hope “The Cult of JT LeRoy” awakens peoples understanding of some people’s willingness to prey on the good intentions of others."

Tell me a little bit about The Cult of JT LeRoy how did the film come to life?


Well, I fell for it. The whole “JT” package. I think many people had their personal hooks to the story, and mine was the fact that I was working with the homeless in the same neighbourhood that “JT” supposedly had written his work. I was also doing poetry workshops with indigent people. I bought the first round of the redemption story that JT was dishing out.


After JT’s identity was revealed in New York magazine by Stephen Beachy, I reached out to thank him and he encouraged me to re-open the film. He shared his contacts and so I began again. I had no idea that the story would continue to unfold for so long into the future with a trial and so forth.


How did you first get introduced to JT LeRoy? 


A friend introduced me to a photographer who was doing magazine shoots of JT. Like I mention in the film, he thought that this Burroughs-Esque writer would be up to my alley, and he said, “Can you be in Los Angeles tomorrow?” I had nothing going on, so I went.


What was it about his story that intrigued you and drew you in?


The story just naturally hit on so many echelons of our society and is also very layered psychologically. It has a gritty social realism element that involved actual transgender street kids getting their identity co-opted, along with issues around identity and literature. The story affected so many people’s lives from countless readers to celebrities and overlapped with issues around feminism, ethics, and sociopathy. It kind of felt like a once in the life story that somehow fell on top of me.


What did it feel like to discover the truth behind JT LeRoy?


Well, when I read Stephen Beachy’s article, I thought, “Well, maybe Laura wrote the books, but JT still exists.” I wanted to think nobly of her. I had visited the psychiatric institute that had ‘saved’ JT, so how could that be. It was hard to imagine a ruse that was so deep and complicated and involved so many people. Bernie Madoff has nothing on Laura Albert as far as intricacy.


Do you think looking back you could see signs that things might not have been on the up and up?


Yes, hindsight is 20/20 and there was always a strangeness. Cagey answers that didn’t match up, and even emails that didn’t match up with phone conversations. But so much was rationalised that JT was ill, abused, traumatised. So it was easy to write things off.


What has been the biggest lesson you've taken from making this film?


I guess I really learned a lot about the whole topic of sociopathy. I didn’t know anything about it before stumbling into this film, and as I just wrote, it isn’t a pretty part of human nature. As a social worker and a teacher, I have always met people with a high amount of empathy, an “I haven’t walked in their moccasins” sort of way of thinking. But the question of what to do with and how to handle people who are willing to abuse empathy for their own gain was very complex and confusing to me. On one hand, it can’t be too great to go through life as a sociopath. I don’t think anyone would choose it necessarily. It is a very tricky and slippery disorder that even clergy and psychologists are stumped on how to proceed with or cure. However, one thing I became clear with is that sociopaths do not need to be given a podium. They shouldn’t be enabled so that they can continue to dupe, manipulate, and exploit others. 


Sociopaths however have an entertainment value. The media and Hollywood can profit off of them so they are given permission to ramble on endlessly, to hell with who they have victimised or the damage they have done.


Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker?


No. I grew up with a brother who is a cartoonist and he was always drawing as a child and teenager. That’s not me. I was just a social and academically engaged child. Later, I was drawn to travel, comparative mysticism, artistic/intellectual inquiry, and political/social engagement. I could probably have chosen something else, but at twenty-five, I felt the need to ‘choose something’ and I chose filmmaking. I was drawn to the power of stories and their ability to evolve consciousness and create empathy. Filmmaking involves so many artistic media that I found that element compelling— the mix of story, music, cinematography and it also has a collaborative element.


And finally, what do you hope people will take away from your film?


I really tried to make a film that was an ethical litmus test, where the viewer has to actively confront the sociological and psychological collisions. There is a particular cult of personality in American culture that is wrapped up around an individual’s plight. Many of our stories and myths are around that American dream narrative, an inspirational story about someone’s rise. It’s been going strong at the Democratic National Convention for the last two days. But ultimately we don’t just need inspiration in a survival of the fittest world. We need actual systemic changes that allow a healthy life for the talentless, the sick, the poor, the old, gay, straight, black, Latino, and so forth. “JT”s plight was never everyone’s plight, and people gave their power away to others, particularly celebrities. It’s a kind of sickness really. I hope the film helps examine the society of the spectacle, as Guy Debord put it.


The story of Laura Albert, “JT LeRoy”, is actually a tragic one on many levels and not a redemption story on any level, no matter how hard recent media will try to spin that narrative to make money.


I hope “The Cult of JT LeRoy” awakens peoples understanding of some people’s willingness to prey on the good intentions of others.

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