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The Cult of JT LeRoy

Review by Eloise Grills

The gritty, authentic voice of San Franciscan teen writer JT LeRoy seemed too good to be true. In 2005, after director Marjorie Sturm had been filming him for three years, it turned out that it was: LeRoy was actually 41-year-old sex-line worker and frustrated musician Laura Albert. It took Sturm thirteen years to piece together the mess of this infamous and outrageous fraud; grappling with masses of archival footage, interviews and press coverage, she assembles a gripping study of how LeRoy’s story attracted people to him before Albert’s uncovered lies repelled.

Albert’s boyfriend’s soft-lipped sister, Savannah Knoop – whom Albert enlisted to perform as LeRoy – floats onscreen. She is a silent waif draped in gowns; wispy wigs obscure her sun-glassed eyes, and she is painfully shy, with clenched teeth and a squeak of a voice. Friends and admirers are told to avoid touching her and looking her in the eyes.

Literary critics fawn over the irresistible persona Albert concocted: a HIV-positive teenager who had been dropped like a hot potato by a truck-stop sex-worker mother. Sturm presents hysterical archival footage of A-listers such as Sandra Bernhard and Lou Reed, who swoon as they perform impassioned readings from his books. Asia Argento, who directed a film adaptation of a LeRoy novel, asserts her intimacy with the enigmatic author, insisting that “you wouldn’t understand” their bond.

Interviews and magazine articles illustrate the media outing of Albert’s hoax, but just as intriguing is the reaction of those close to her. Sturm frames Albert’s ex-boyfriend Geoffrey Knoop in sickly computer light as he claims he still feels “protective of her”. His words hang like thin smoke as he stumbles to sell his film-script of her story to the camera. A friend’s voice quakes as he tells of how he was apparently manipulated into having phone sex with the teen. An interview with Albert herself details her childhood story; her words are animated in a sketchy children’s book style – a mode that also challenges their veracity, asking if this story is yet another of her fabrications. 

For the most part, Sturm lets inconsistencies in these testimonies speak for themselves. She shows us that there is not one story about LeRoy and Albert but many – and they intertwine, overlap and controvert one another. The Cult of JT LeRoy meditates on our reactions to a persona like his, and how these reactions shift when the story proves false.

The Cult of JT LeRoy screens 4, 6 August