A Million Little Pieces
I actually finished this days ago, but I've been avoiding writing it up here, because…where to begin, really, with this whole <a href="http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/0104061jamesfrey1.html" target="_blank">flapdoodle</a>. The story begins, for me, months ago, when I was on that off-site job and we had to watch Oprah at work (…I know), and one day, James Frey is on. I hadn't read the book at that point, but my fellow researchers had, and they were saying it was pretty severe stuff for the Book Club and they were surprised she'd picked it. I made a mental note to read it at some point, and settled in for the episode, which was, basically, a head-to-toe tongue bath of Frey administered by Oprah, her staff, various rehabbed audience members, viewers via email, et cetera. Which, at the time, I thought was pretty impressive; some of the testimony rang weird to me — if you're such a strung-out junkie that you're living under someone's porch, how is it exactly that you get your hands on Frey's book, read the whole thing, and are inspired to go into treatment? Not that it didn't happen; it just seemed kind of pat.
<p>Fast forward to now, and the kerfuffle over whether Frey made up most of the book. I love gossip like that — the JT Leroy debate is hilarious to me — but, still not having read the book, my feeling was that, on the one hand, it's a memoir, and while I don't think outright lying is a great idea, memory is unreliable, and certain events will get telescoped together and certain people composited to make it more readable and smooth, and I think most readers understand that there's some license taken, so if he fudged some shit, I don't have a huge problem with it. It's not a transcript; I didn't believe every word of Augusten Burroughs's shit, or every word of A Moveable Feast. There's a difference between writing and reporting.
<p>However. In a case like this, where it's not just a memoir that people enjoyed reading but one that people actually credited with saving their lives, if you're going to go on Oprah and take that credit (with what seems in retrospect like a pretty healthy dose of self-satisfaction), then you need to be forthright about how you came to be in that position, I think, particularly since a big part of Frey's whole shtick is the rejection of the twelve steps. Like, you can get sober on your own terms, you don't have to give it up to a Higher Power — that's great, if it worked for you. But if you know for a fact that other people are trying to get it to work for them, and are putting their recoveries at your feet, I think you do have some responsibility to them as far as their knowing the facts.
<p>And the allegations…we're not talking "editing dialogue so it's more comprehensible" here. The allegations are that he outright lied about his criminal record — like, all of it — and that a lot of the other stuff can't be checked because the people involved have conveniently died or disappeared. Frey's explanations for the inconsistencies are feeble, if not ridiculous, and here's where I run into a problem with the guy, because…okay, I have now read the book, and the writing is affecting. It's affect-ed in some ways, with the few carriage returns and the Germanized capitalized nouns in the middle of sentences and whatnot, and it's derivative in some ways — a lot of Cormac McCarthy going on, a lot of Hemingway, a lot of that magic-fiction repetition-incantation business. It's a little amateurish in places, especially when he's writing about love. So, the prose needs work, but it's structured great, and it really grabs you by the collar and pulls you right in. The writing moves.
<p>But the way he talks about himself in certain contexts is quite smug, and knowing the accusations that he made stuff up going in, I felt that the way he portrayed himself in many situations — an iconoclast, brave and direct, but also polite and sympathetic; courageous, but wounded — was self-aggrandizing. His consistent refusal to "do the steps" is just one example; we're supposed to see him as unwilling to compromise his atheism, even though he's been told repeatedly it's the only way to get sober, and then when he gets sober anyway, in spite of a nighttime raid on a crackhouse to save his rehab girlfriend, during which he's powerfully tempted by crack cocaine but doesn't partake, in favor of rescuing Lilly mid-blowjob…see what I'm talking about? It's…a bit much. But that's not the problem, per se.
<p>The problem is that he made shit up that people could check. Why nobody checked before now, I don't know; I suspect his publishers just didn't want to know. I've heard he wanted to sell the ms. as fiction and nobody would take it, which, okay; publishing has many weirdnesses, a lot can happen once you send it to marketing, I can buy that there were aspects of the packaging process which Frey couldn't control. But someone should have checked before it came out, in my opinion, and once it did come out, and Oprah started flogging it, and he's all with the fratty "fuck the bullshit, it's time to throw down" tattoo and his "hold on" nonsense, just accepting praise from recovering addicts with a little Zen smile? Someone at Oprah should have checked; someone at his publisher should have required him to write a disclaimer for the next printing. Something.
<p>But that never happened, and now everyone's in the embarrassing position of realizing that A Movement has sprung up around a guy who, it looks like, just drank too much and screwed off in his early twenties and got sent to rehab. And I guess there's a book in that, too, but that isn't the point; the point is that he mentioned events that could be verified. Why would you do that? Why would you claim all these arrests and warrants that didn't exist? Why not just speak vaguely of bottoming out in some flophouse that can't be looked up?
<p>Because you hate yourself, and you feel awfully sorry for yourself, but you believe nobody else will feel sorry for you unless you multiply your misdeeds exponentially until you become this mythic law-breaking bad-ass, is why. Because everyone who's reading along all "this hook-up with Lilly is a bad idea, son" won't understand why you're self-destructive in this small way, but if you make yourself her knight in shining armor, they'll play along, is why. Because the twelve steps tell you to humble yourself, and you're tired of being humble, being average, being merely an annoying or embarrassing drunk with a couple of minor DUIs instead of a nihilistically suicidal addict to every substance under the sun, including but not limited to attention, and your own voice.
<p>Compare this with Caroline Knapp, whose memoir of her own addiction and recovery did not contain any holes in her face or midnight rescue missions, just her and her bottle and her process. Beautifully written, without fireworks or capital-F "the Fury." Just what happened.
<p>Frey is not a bad writer. Even if he made all of it up — and it's my opinion, given the particularly manly and true way he portrays himself throughout, that most of the book is bullshit — it's good reading. As a book, it works. And yes, savvy readers will understand that memoirs are not facts in evidence and that we're not expected to read them the way we do history books. But when people start using a memoir to get sober, I believe the author has a responsibility to be as honest as possible about what actually happened, because there's a difference between "went to Hazelden for a few months to get off the sauce" and "showed up at Hazelden with half my face ripped off, underwent root canal with no anesthetic, and befriended a mobster." If we don't know the true odds, why should we admire Frey for beating them? If we don't know what exactly was at stake for him, why should we care or take it seriously?
<p>I'm not saying that people who have been inspired to get sober by the book aren't really sober, or didn't find truth in it; parts of it have real soul, and speak honestly about feelings of worthlessness and both craving and dreading closeness. It's not a piffly book; there's something to it. But now that we aren't sure exactly what, I think it's a problem, and I think if Frey were half the iron-spined hero he makes himself out to be, he'd address these allegations fully and completely and stand by his work for what it is. I think he's obligated to do that at this point.
<p>And if I'm Oprah, I'm beating that dude with my shoe for making me cry on TV about his so-called crawl out of the yawning grave of addiction. Get some harder-core researchers, Oprah, because you got pantsed. (1/26/06)
<p>[Postscript, 1/27/06: Man, that Oprah yesterday was awesome. Jimmy: She's got you dead to rights. Just ADMIT YOU MADE THE SHIT UP. "I made a mistake," "I honestly don't remember" -- if you were half the Mailer manly-man you aspire to be, you'd leave off dissing Dave Eggers for five minutes and admit that you boned it. You're caught, dude! You're busted! It's over! OWN IT! But no, he just sat there licking his lips. Not one testicular cell on display. What a moron.]