Several years ago, a close friend of mine showed me the trailer to The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, a movie written, directed by and starring Asia Argento. I was familiar with Asia from the Vin Diesel action movie XXX and had heard some rumblings about her 2000 directorial debut, Scarlet Diva. She presents herself as very unapologetic and can almost be seen as a rebel in the movie industry as she goes about her projects without convention.
The trailer began with some onscreen text about the author of the novel of which it is based on and the controversy surrounding the identity. While someone made appearances as JT Leroy as book events and the name is written on the books, there never was anyone by that name. The books were actually written by Laura Albert and the public persona was Savannah Knoop.
Although the books were labeled as fiction, it appears that many readers and literary journalists believed these stories were based on a kind of autobiographical content. They told of truck stop prostitutes, or “lot lizards,” and a young boy who often disguises himself as a girl, admiring his unfit mother to an almost martyr status. While Sarah focuses only on the boy’s experiences as a lot lizard, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things is a series of adventures on a road trip of sex, drugs, and religion, all through the eyes a little boy. As simply a reader, I wasn’t sure if the boys in both books are indeed the same Jeremiah character, but I like to believe he is.
He not only seeks love and acceptance from those around him, especially from older men, but this sparks a gender identity crisis for him. Jeremiah superglues his penis down in between his legs and hopes that potential lovers don’t notice. He role plays as “daddy’s little girl” to get what he perceives as love from men and in Heart is Deceitful, we get to see the consequences of his actions in the end.
These stories are beautiful, honest, and completely raw to a point where it makes the reader uncomfortable and be grateful that this is a work of fiction. The revelation of Leroy’s identity doesn’t faze me as the stories he told have a special place for me. I read them after watching that trailer, as the movie was only showing at festivals at the time and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Whether or not these are based on some kind of real context, they are still stories worth telling and I believe there are people (especially children no one wants to hear about) who feel some kind of worth when reading about Jeremiah.
When the Argento film came to DVD, I instantly went out and bought it and was stunned how closely the film followed the book. Asia plays Sarah, Jeremiah’s insane mother, with no holding back. The film is dirty and filmed almost guerilla style. At points, it feels like you’re watching home movies of America’s most fucked up family. Several famous faces make appearances and it makes the JT Leroy experience all the more fascinating.
These books were billion dollar sellers, but they had enough of an impact that led to an interesting circle of celebrity friends for Leroy, such as Deborah Harry, Billy Corgan, and Winona Ryder. Samples of who’s who in this circle can be found in the collector’s booklet full of photography that comes with the DVD.
The film is far from perfect, but it succeeds in telling Jeremiah’s story without restraint. No Hollywood interference is felt throughout the film and can only draw more interest to Leroy’s literature for those who stumble upon this movie.
Reading a little more on Leroy, he apparently wrote a draft of the screenplay for the Gus Van Sant film, Elephant. The script was later scrapped and the film went for the more unconventional improvisational route. The film tells of what appears to be an ordinary day in a high school and events unfold that resemble a horrific real life event. It’s told in just a few long takes and utilizes mostly non-actors in telling this story. It’s one of my all time favorite movies, even if it’s not one you slip in for casual viewings. Leroy is listed as an associate producer on the film.
I hope Jeremiah’s stories live on, despite the publicity surrounding the author’s identity. You can easily google “JT Leroy” and several articles pop up on first hand encounters with the author and interpretations of why everything unfolded the way it did. I’m so happy that I was introduced to his work and even if JT Leroy is Laura Albert, I think of her as more of his mother. She gave birth to a literary masterpiece that no one can touch. JT Leroy is real and he has moved me. Jeremiah deserves to be known.