Cult author J.T. LeRoy overcame child abuse and drug addiction to become a successful writer. Now he is ready to battle critics who have savaged the first film adaptation of one his works. The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, based on his critically acclaimed short story collection, documents the American author's childhood spent with his drug-addict mother and fanatically religious grandparents. The film divided audiences at the Cannes festival in May. The British daily The Independent rated it as one of the top 10 films of the fortnight, but the trade paper the Hollywood Reporter described it as "a grueling, cinematic excretion." "It's funny, the press have been very, very supportive of me. I haven't gotten that many bad reviews or anything, so I feel that they're coming out for [cowriter-director] Asia [Argento]," the reclusive author told Reuters in a telephone interview. "I think it's harder to let a woman break out of a role, especially as she was seen as this dumb sex symbol," he said. "I think it's very sexist, I think it's very pig-headed, and it just makes me mad."
LeRoy broke onto the literary scene in his teens, gaining a following among celebrities, including Madonna. He has worked with director Gus Van Sant, and Steven Shainberg, director of Secretary, is adapting LeRoy's novel Sarah for the big screen. Argento met LeRoy when she gave a reading of his work and was so moved by The Heart... that she suggested making it into a film. She cowrote the screenplay and plays the role of the abusive mother. "I really think that she pulled it off in a genius way," said LeRoy, who was a consultant on the project. "It's going to get a lot of attention, and it will be controversial."
Produced on a small independent budget, the film deals with tough subjects that few Hollywood studios dare touch. The young hero, Jeremiah, is neglected by his prostitute mother and raped by her boyfriends. His Bible-bashing grandfather subjects him to scalding baths and regular beltings. In one scene Jeremiah dresses up in his mother's clothes and seduces her redneck boyfriend, played by shock rocker Marilyn Manson. "I think a lot of these child abuse-type books have the problem that the victim always has to be this angelic child. When you grow up with an abusive parent you learn to be mean and cruel and evil, and you learn to survive," said LeRoy. Like the book, the film does not judge the abusers, a stance that was unpopular with some of the critics at Cannes. "The demons don't always arrive in black. It's too easy and too simple to just vilify them. I think it's a lot more honest and a lot more true and a lot more complicated to show these people as human beings," said LeRoy. "There are a lot of abusers who were abused as children. I mean, if I grew up without any kind of intervention, I very well could have turned out like that, I could have been like a demon and an abuser of children."
LeRoy started writing during therapy while still a homeless teen prostituting himself on the streets of San Francisco. He says literature saved his life. "Writing to me is taking a knife and digging inside, and it's hard and it's horrible, but I have to do it. It's the only way I purge," he said. Seeing his life in pictures was cathartic but forced LeRoy to face his inner demons. "It wasn't until after I saw the film that I lost it. Emotionally, I just kind of fell apart," he said. Writing about his life has left the author feeling so vulnerable that he rarely goes out and hides behind a blond wig and dark glasses. But he craves contact with his readers, spending several hours a day e-mailing fans. "It's hard for me to be around crowds of people, but at the same time, for me the scariest thing is to be alone with my experience," LeRoy said. That is why he is determined to defend Argento's film against negative reviews. He hopes it will find a distributor in the United States by the end of the year. "With the movie, it's like I have to fight for Jeremiah again, and I will."