Review : Book : The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things *

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The Fly
Jul 26, 2000
By Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan

Author: JT LeRoy
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA


Do you turn off the news (after cursing the news anchors and all their descendents) when you see blas? coverage of atrocities? Do you tear the newspaper into shreds when you read about the horrors in the world? Do you experience frustration so deeply that you almost want to ignore it all - because what can you do about it anyway? If so, do not endeavor to read this book.

For this month?s book, I chose The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. Bono had mentioned this book a few times in interviews and gave it high praise. I went into the book with an open mind, anticipating heart-wrenching stories told in magnificent prose. What awaited me, I realized, I was not prepared to handle.

The Heart is Deceitful? was created in the tradition of Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, and all other masters of the written word that suffered emotionally, physically and sexually. Like Woolf, author JT LeRoy?s sufferings began early, and came from a close family member. Like Wilde, LeRoy grew to crave the abuse and the suffering, and to believe that his tormentor needed protection, which he would give.

The ten chapters that make up this tiny but unforgettable book trace the experiences of the child called Jeremiah. Jeremiah was the son of a 14-year old girl. There is never any mention of the biological father. For a brief period in his life, Jeremiah was happy with his foster family. The author does not go into detail about that happiness, and so thus, we do not get to experience it with him. We see it through a glass darkly as the child narrator longs for a past he can never return to, and suffers in his new life with his biological mother, Sarah. Take your time as you read about his life with his foster parents because the passages are scattered and short. Once we leave the first chapter, Jeremiah never takes us back to that one safe and happy home.

A strange tragic symbol associated with Jeremiah?s horrible odyssey is Bugs Bunny. It?s odd how the simplest things from childhood symbolize and conjure up such powerful emotional triggers. At his foster home, Jeremiah was not allowed to watch Bugs Bunny. This was not intended as a punishment by his foster parents, and Jeremiah didn?t crave cartoons. It was an attempt by his foster parents to shield a young child from violence on television. The first gift his mother offers him, as she basks in the glory of winning her child back from the courts, is a stuffed Bugs Bunny doll. The stuffed toy is described as a ?wolf dog [with a] vacant, staring, mad look.? As his mother shakes the toy, the carrot ?plunges up and down like a knife.? Jeremiah is terrified, and I don?t think he ever feels safe again. Later, as Jeremiah lives with his maternal grandparents, cartoons are banned again, but this time because they are sinful. Stuffed toys are idolatrous and another young boy steals the Bugs Bunny stuffed animal away from Jeremiah.

The translations this small child struggles to make as the very foundations of his life shift and crumble and are rebuilt, different each time, boggle the mind of an adult with some basis of comparison. Imagine going through it yourself. Could you emerge sane? Could you write about it? Could you write it and write it so well that you achieve every author?s dream: the reader no longer sees your words but rather lives your world? LeRoy did.

It?s hard to read this book and separate the high quality of the prose from the intensity of its contents. Reading this book filled me with disgust and hate, shame and guilt. It was published when LeRoy was only 21. He has been a published writer since the age of 16. That is the only thing in his life that makes me jealous. The rest of his life, the experiences that become the foundations of these stories, makes me cringe. I feel disgust at the evil in the adults surrounding this child. I feel hate for them, and the hatred that filled them. I flinch away from the sufferings inflicted upon the child, Jeremiah. That?s where the guilt comes in. I feel guilty for looking away from a life this child could never leave. I feel guilty for being scared of things the child eventually, sickeningly, craved.

LeRoy asks us to mutate our definition of love as Jeremiah was forced to do. What is love? Does it bring you happiness? Does it give you a feeling of rightness? If love is something children need, then pain and suffering are this child?s bread and water. At one point, as he hurts himself, he begs, ?please punish me, please.?

LeRoy, through Jeremiah, never outright blames or criticizes the state or social workers for what most people would label a failure. In this book, as in his life, social workers and the courts are invisible, absent and useless.

But the book is not all terrifying and I was grateful for the fact that LeRoy?s creation lacks the self-pity and privileged ennui that overshadowed and marred the possibilities offered by Elizabeth Wurtzel?s Prozac Nation. There are a few moments of love, kindness and even humor. If one can manage to laugh, there is a funny scene where the very young Jeremiah sings Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedys songs without understanding the words. Yet, even that small humor is swallowed up by fear soon enough.

I won?t describe the actual abuse here because that is Jeremiah?s story to tell. I also do not want to play the ?shock the viewer? game that television plays. The point of experiences like this is not to titillate or disgust. It?s not to make you feel better about your own life and its problems. What is the point, then? I believe LeRoy and Bono have a similar goal in mind.

Bono mentioned this book in interviews, saying, ?It's blowing my mind, just the directness of the prose.? Bono also met LeRoy after a U2 show. The use and religion for manipulation and torture would?ve struck a strong chord with Bono, but it is the visceral reaction LeRoy evokes from his readers that I believe appealed most to Bono. Bono strives to achieve that with every lyric, every song that he creates. Bono is a storyteller and hopes to move people into new worlds, as well as inspire them into acting against atrocities and horrors in the world. LeRoy and Bono are not instruction-givers. They don?t put instructions in their creations, but rather hope to transport and elevate the awareness of those exposed to their creations.

LeRoy has responded to the acclaim his stories received with humility and modesty. He is not out looking to be on talk shows or tabloids. In fact, LeRoy, like Bono, tries to protect his personal life by doing things like wearing sunglasses frequently. ?Bono wears sunglasses,? says LeRoy. ?[and] what I write about is very personal, and it?s not like I?m writing about my best friend the hamster.? When artists put the contents of their souls out for all to see, the little privacy that sunglasses offer is well deserved.
Absolutely fantastic!

I am at a loss as to why so many avoid commented on such articles. You have clearly put a lot of time and effort into writing this Elizabeth and it is a review that I will take seriously. The book obviously had a major impact on you, filing you with feelings of disgust and hate, anything that can do that to anyone is deliberate and the author, LeRoy, definitely knows the secret of what affects the human mind.

Well done. And thanks for being so candid.
Lots of beautiful people show up in this world when one follows Bono and his other "followers".... thanks so much Elizabeth for this great thoughtful article.. I think you are in good company here.......
I just finished this book. Your review is very accurate and very well-written Elizabeth :up:

In fact, I have no use for the book anymore... I'd be more than happy to send this book to another U2 fan, as long as they promise to pass it on to another when they are done. :yes:
Just adding my .02, I read this book at least 2 years ago and it is still fresh in my mind.

Great book and great review, elizabeth!!

meegannie said:
I was really disappointed with the book. :uhoh:

in a way, i was, too. but i'd really like to hear how/why you were disappointed...since everyone's already heard my opinion...heh.
I read the book 2 years ago. it is truly heartbreakingly poetic - a tragic vision of a child shattered when those who should protect them fail them. I recommend it to any who havent read it but be prepared, it is a stark, bleak statement and will leave you a bit shaken.
Fantastic review, Elizabeth - thanks very much for taking the trouble to write - and share - this.

I've had this on my Amazon Wish List for 2 years as a reminder to buy it ... someday. Maybe someday is now!
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