The writing published under the name JT LeRoy has garnered critical praise and a considerable following, but frankly I don’t get it. Any desire I may have had to read that type of fiction was exhausted long ago, when my collegiate interest in all sorts of gay-themed writing led me to a couple of Dennis Cooper novels. For me, Cooper’s S&M nihilism got real old real fast, and the thought of subjecting myself to more of the same holds no appeal. Still, in the interest of fulfilling my due diligence as a critic, I recently read The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, LeRoy’s 2001 collection of “autobiographical” short stories. The book reads like journalism: dispassionate but not distanced by time, context, or humor. Its stories wallow in the gut-wrenching awfulness of a child’s physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, but they offer little insight into the victim or the abusers, nor do they seek a deeper meaning in their horrific events. The abuse is just there, pornographically explicit. Stylistically, the writing is more than competent, but really the book’s only redeeming feature is the writer’s rare understanding of a child’s logic and the way an abused child can come to desire the abuse as the only kind of attention or human contact permitted him. This is a virtue, I suppose, but it hardly outweighs the grotesque tedium of slogging through 250 pages describing a little boy’s penis burned by a car’s cigarette lighter and his rectum stitched back together by doctors after his stepfather has raped him. I don’t mean to suggest that all literature that deals with the ugly side of human nature owes us an outright catharsis at the end, allowing us to return to our comfortable lives no longer troubled by its subject matter, but it owes us something — some insight, some thematic complexity, some art, fer Chrissakes — to mitigate the unpleasantness of having to read about such extreme depravity. “LeRoy” seems to want only to impress the reader with how creatively and doggedly an abuser can pursue a campaign of torture. The attention is paid to the abuse, not the victim. Paradoxically, the narrator-victim, Jeremiah, seems to have no voice of his own, perhaps because the writer, contrary to the highly publicized scag-to-riches story, didn’t actually share Jeremiah’s background and could only partially imagine his world.
For my money, what’s far more interesting than the writing is that the author himself is a fiction. As first suggested in Stephen Beachy’s New York article last October, and later confirmed in the New York Times by her common-law husband Geoffrey Knoop, LeRoy’s works were actually written by a 40-year-old failed punk rocker and sex columnist named Laura Albert. Albert dreamed up LeRoy back in the mid-90s, hoping to gain notice for her and Knoop’s band and win the respect of writers like Cooper, Sharon Olds, and Mary Gaitskill. She designed LeRoy to exploit their particular vulnerabilities: He was a former cross-dressing truck-stop prostitute, whored and abused by his own mother; a junkie hustler who’d been introduced to literature by a few intellectual johns; a painfully shy, suicidal kid rescued from the streets by the chance intervention of a social worker named Emily Frasier (actually Albert herself, using another alias). Her creation was far more successful than she could have dreamed, and soon LeRoy was a literary celebrity; the darling of writers, filmmakers, and rock stars; and a hero to the same gay subculture that had embraced Cooper — made up partially of genuine abuse victims and current and former drug addicts, who responded to LeRoy as one of their own.
Albert’s tremendous, decade-long success at pulling off her con is, ironically, the sort of thing that could never be convincing as fiction. But what really amazes me is that the unremittingly brutal and cliche-packed world of The Heart is Deceitful could have ever seemed authentic to its readers. If I’d been an abused child, I’m sure I would relate to Jeremiah’s experience, but the book goes too far to be credible. The real world simply isn’t populated with Dickens-by-way-of-John-Waters grotesques, and not every man is a potential child-rapist.
It figures that Asia Argento would be interested in adapting the book; her penchant for seeing herself as a victim would seem to make her identification with LeRoy’s protagonist inevitable. Scarlet Diva, Argento’s only previous feature as a director (she has acted in more than 30 films), was a lurid, autobiographical psychodrama set in a world populated exclusively by phonies and violently abusive assholes, all of whom attempt to rape, exploit, or otherwise claim dominion over her. What’s surprising about her adaptation of The Heart is Deceitful is that her sympathy seems to be at least as much with Sarah, the abusive mother, as with Jeremiah. Unlike the character in the book, Argento’s Sarah is not entirely unlikable: She has a playful side and isn’t always cruel. She’s more of a pathetic burnout than an outright sadist.
Argento, the daughter of Italian horror director Dario Argento, plays the role of Sarah, and she delivers a pretty impressive white-trash Southern accent, a sweet drawl with a chain-smoker’s sandpaper edge. Though she brings out some softness in the character, she’s not afraid to make herself horrible; she spends most of the movie looking like Courtney Love on a smack binge, wearing five earrings in each ear and enough red lace and acid-washed denim to scantily clothe the entire female population of Wheeling, West Virginia.
The film opens as social workers turn Jeremiah over to Sarah, whom he’s never seen before and who drags him from his perfect foster home into a road life of drugs, abuse, and prostitution, bouncing from one of Sarah’s boyfriends to the next (she occasionally marries one). As young Jeremiah, Jimmy Bennett, who was only seven years old at the time of filming, gives a natural, unactorish performance, yet he’s so affectless that he never really pulls you in and makes you empathize with his suffering. He seems detached from it, and so we remain as well, even when the character ages and is played by identical twins Cole and Dylan Sprouse, two button-cute 11-year-olds who have the right look for the character and attempt to assume the right attitudes but are ultimately weightless.
The supporting cast is packed with faded stars and cultish celebrities: Peter Fonda, Ben Foster, Lydia Lunch, Marilyn Manson, Kip Pardue, Michael Pitt, John Robinson, Winona Ryder, Jeremy Sisto. This stunt-casting is distracting — whenever a new character appeared, I wondered which C-lister it would be — but a number of the actors do respectable work. Fonda, once the face of ’60s youth rebellion, is convincing as Sarah’s authoritarian, fundamentalist father, but Ornella Muti, the aging Italian beauty who plays his wife (and who seems to have been cast to hedge Argento’s bet, in case she came off as noticeably Italian herself), is a cipher. What role she plays in this very patriarchal family is unclear, nor do we understand how an Italian, who almost certainly started out Catholic, wound up in West Virginia married to a Charismatic Christian with very little personal charisma. Fonda’s rules are so restrictive that when his little daughter sees that Jeremiah sleeps with a stuffed bunny, she tells him, “That’s idolatry — you’ll burn in Hell!”
Though she covers only seven of the book’s 10 stories and often elides the most brutal and humiliating moments, Argento does a competent job of distilling the book’s substance, such as it is. But she offers little of the black humor that leavened the awfulness in Scarlet Diva, and this is a story sorely in need of some leavening. The movie is missing the book’s most sympathetic character — Milkshake, the 12-year-old truck-stop prostitute who gives Jeremiah a place to sleep in the back of her missing crack-whore mother’s station wagon — and everyone left is either a monster or a fool. Though a few characters have good, or at least not sadistic, intentions, even they harm Jeremiah far more than they help. The child psychologist played by Winona Ryder is vapid and condescending; her attempts to counsel Jeremiah only victimize him further. But Argento captures the book’s understanding of the victim’s disturbed psyche. She conveys his desperate isolation, as when, abandoned by Sarah and her new (very temporary) husband, he draws a crowd on the wall in magic marker so he’ll have company.
Most of the abuse, fortunately, can only be suggested, and a lot of what’s in the book is cut. Argento shows some ingenuity in working within the legal and ethical restrictions on depicting child abuse, as in the scene where an 11-year-old Jeremiah seduces Sarah’s boyfriend Jackson (Marilyn Manson, eww) while pretending to be her. Argento plays Jeremiah here, so that we see him as he imagines himself, but this also allows the character to play out the scene as written, something few parents would permit their 11-year-old sons to do (did I mention it’s Marilyn Manson?). Despite Argento’s inventiveness, though, the scenes never have the visceral impact of, say, Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin, a movie about child molestation that showed us how the abuse had changed its victims almost down to their DNA. Unlike Araki’s film, which created a disturbing level of empathy with the victims even when they weren’t entirely likable, The Heart is Deceitful is ultimately uninvolving. We see the horrors of Jeremiah’s life, but there’s no opportunity to connect with the character; it’s just a litany of abuse with no meaning and no redemption. He never becomes any more real to us than his alter ego has turned out to be.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things / Jeremy C. Fox
Film Reviews | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()