Literary Hoax of JT Leroy Examined in “The Cult of JT Leroy”

    With the Florida Film Festival opening on April 10th, we have selected a handful of filmmakers to showcase and discuss their films.


    By Jacob Engels


    San Fransisco based filmmaker Marjorie Sturm explores one of the most elaborate literary hoaxes, the true story behind JT Leroy. The film screens on April 13th and April 16th, with Director Marjorie Sturm in attendance on the 16th.


    First off, who is JT Leroy?


    JT LeRoy was a homeless, drug-addicted, HIV positive, mentally unstable boy who used therapy to write three acclaimed books of fiction that were inspired by his life experiences of a being the son of a truck-stop prostitute. He was encouraged by his therapist, and buoyed by the literary community and later celebrities. He died in 2006, and his death caused a lot of controversy and confusion.


    How did you get involved with Leroy and when did you start filming for the documentary?


    A friend of mine asked me to begin documenting a photo shoot of him and a book reading in Los Angeles. He thought that I would find him interesting because I was working as a social worker in the Tenderloin (a marginalized neighborhood in SF) that JT had supposedly written his books while homeless. I started the film in the Spring of 2002, as I was finishing up film school, and worked on it ten months. I re-opened up the film in 2006 upon learning all of the other layers of JT’s identity.


    Variety has called the film a “first rate documentary” about a remarkable literary hoax. When did you find out things were not as they seemed with JT?


    (I was very relieved that Variety liked the film. It would kind of suck if they didn’t!) I actually learned the same way most everybody else learned, by reading Stephen Beachy’s account in New York magazine. I was just amazed by it all. I quickly wrote Beachy a thank you note for resolving an unresolved experience in my life. He wrote me back and encouraged me to re-open the film. Beachy gave me his contacts, and shortly after the New York Times revealed more information, and I dived in. It was an extremely crazy ride.


    What makes this film a must see for festival goers at Florida Film Festival?


    I think the film is a wild collusion of a lot of different threads that make for an engaging filmic experience– gritty social realism interweaving with the literary hustle and celebrities. The film is a revealing mirror of the American culture on many fronts, one being how we structure (and are continually asked to structure) the importance of certain individuals at the expense of the many. This culture of narcissism and ‘the cult of personality’ is so omnipresent as to be accepted as the natural order of things. The film is composed in a way that it doesn’t matter if you are initiated to the JT LeRoy topic or not, and really requires an active viewer to parse out their own thoughts and feelings on the subject. The film runs a broad continuum of being entertaining, mind-boggling, and also ethically challenging. There’s a lot of different ideas and point of views that have to be absorbed, and then asks us to look deep into a part of human nature that isn’t particularly pretty.


    Plans for the future…and how do people follow you and the film?


    I am extremely excited to start working on my next films and wrap my head in different directions. I am re-working a screenplay that is a hybrid documentary-fiction film about a young woman’s move to San Francisco. Broadly speaking, it’s an existential coming-of-age story. I also have one documentary that I’d like to complete, that I began awhile ago, that has to do with psilocybin.


    I’m also doing some research and hoping to document my mate’s Chicano family at a large gathering next year. It would be a tale of the modern Mexican plight in Central California. People can follow the film at The Cult of JT LeRoy on Facebook, @cultofJT on Twitter, or I update the website regularly at Thanks for asking!


    Jacob Engels, is the Founder of East Orlando Post & Seminole County Post. He is a seasoned political operative who has led numerous statewide political groups and has worked on several high-profile local, statewide, and national races. Jacob has been interviewed on national television & radio programs, with his work having been featured in the Orlando Sentinel, New York Times, Washington Post, Miami Herald and other publications nationwide. He can be reached at