January 31, 2006

A million little disappointed Oprah fans

I recently finished the roller-coaster ride that is James Frey’s (mostly) autobiographical novel A Million Little Pieces. Surely many of you have seen the controversy over this book which has left Oprah “very disappointed” in author James Frey. She feels taken advantage of by the fact that he seems to have fictionalized several incidents in the book. It is unfortunate that Frey lied (his book would have been just as good with strictly the truth), and I am not condoning lying (am I?), but let’s hear Heather’s take on it.

This is an astoundingly riveting book which I picked up in an airport bookstore in spite of the Oprah’s Book Club sticker on the front. Raw and affecting, Frey’s memoir reveals the “self-inflicted apocalypse” that is hard-core drug addiction. It offers unflinching insight into the loathing and despair that comes with it, and the very long, very hard road back from it.

The book opens with Frey waking up on an airplane at age 23 after ten-plus years of intense, regular, hard drug use. “I wake to the drone of an airplane engine and the feeling of something dripping down my chin. I lift my hand to feel my face. My front four teeth are gone, I have a hole in my cheek, my nose is broken and my eyes are swollen nearly shut.” Frey has no idea where he is or how he got there. When he lands in Chicago, he is met by his parents who take him to a rehab facility. It’s either that or he will end up dying from the copious drug use which has almost exhausted his system; mind-staggering amounts of alcohol (“every day, when I wake up, as much as I can”), cocaine (“every day, as much as I can, lately crack, but in every form that exists”), pills, acid, mushrooms, meth, PCP, glue. When he takes these things, it temporarily quiets what he calls “The Fury,” the murderous, screaming fury inside of him.

As Frey works through all the crap in his life and tries to salvage his relationships, who he is, and come to terms with what he has done, his writing reverberates and aches with pain and honest intensity, but I appreciate that he doesn’t slide into maudlin prose. It is terse. It is to the point. He is dealing with The Question posed to him on the rehab self-assessment quiz:

“My sins are unpardonable. True or false?
I stare at the question.
My sins are unpardonable.
I stare at the question.

My sins are unpardonable.
I leave it blank.”

I thought that the merits of this book outweigh the fact that there are fictionalized incidents. To me, it’s like that whole period in his life was so out of control, so destructive, blurred, surreal, so….falling apart, that the point remains even if the details were not exactly as they occured. The essence of the book, for me, remains the same in light of the current revelations. It’s not as if I went and sobbed in a hot shower, curled in a ball, when I heard that not *every* incident in the book happened exactly like he said. It is a still a recommended read on my shelf.

Feb 2 Update: James Frey writes an addendum to his book in which he apologizes and acknowledges. He says, “This memoir is a combination of facts about my life and certain embellishments. It is a subjective truth, altered by the mind of a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. Ultimately, it’s a story, and one that I could not have written without living the life I have lived.” To read the rest, see the Random House website. The statement does take responsibility, but it does leave me wondering what, exactly, is “subjective truth”? That’s kind of a hedging-your-bet statement, no?

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  • I think you bring up a valid point, which is, who has the right to be the truth police with regards to something as moving and powerful as this book? Why not let it speak for itself? My writing professor in college taught us to write what “feels” true, that it is the invocation of emotion and experience that makes the written word powerful. A Million Little Pieces feels true, so I hear you saying, just let it be. Especially since it has impacted people’s lives. I wrote a lot of good first-person fiction in college about things that never happened to me but “felt” true. I remember I wrote a story about being married to an addict and one about being left by my husband who wanted children and I could never have them. I felt like those women and I believe I captured what it would be like to be them. Because what I had were true feelings, it was just that I had never in cold real life experienced those true feelings in the setting I described them. I wonder if James Frey justifies what he did because it “felt” like his life was the way he described it in the book? Hmmm….

    However, if it’s true, The Smoking Gun article brings up the issue that the two incidents (there are actually many more than two) that are “fictionalized” are the crux of what James Frey claims to have been his past life. If you take away the pain and horror of his past, the book is fiction. I think he should have written a novel and left it at that. To claim it is the true story of his life is living a lie. The book should never have been written as a memoir. Especially for addicts who have lived the life James Frey describes in the book. To find out that he never spent a night in jail, never hit a cop with a car, never was with the girl who died on the train tracks, never was wanted by the FBI, never has been recorded as using crack, never went through the root canal without anesthesia, never was wanted in 3 states, never had more than a traffic violation recorded in the entire country, wow……that’s a whole lifestyle he claims to have lived in and escaped from and it was all a lie. Wow…..that completely robs the power of the book. It’s a novel, not a memoir. Why not just publish it as fiction “loosely based on a true story.” Nobody is doubting that he was an addict and that he has accomplished something amazing by avoiding relapse, but wow….why not let his own story speak for itself? Anything else is an insult to people who actually have suffered the degradation and horror he describes so vividly in the book. That’s not “fictionalizing,” that’s lying and then capitalizing on it.

    Anyway, those are my 2 cents.

    Heidi — January 31, 2006 @ 11:05 am

  • Part of me agrees with you, Heidi, because you are absolutely correct in saying that it should have been published as a novel if it was that full of lies and inconsistencies. I am sure all of Frey’s feelings are real, though, The Fury, the pain, the way his mother couldn’t look at him without crying, the raging in his soul to silence the pain, to get more and more and more substances to silence the pain. For me persoanlly, that is what resonated with me in the book, the way he made me both feel and understand what he felt, not because of the actual events, I guess is what I was trying to say.

    I do feel uncomfortable with condoning lying, and I don’t want to do that, but I also think the book deserves to be read. If I were him, I wouldn’t have been able to stand proudly in front of lies the way he did, though. How come his mom didn’t say something?

    I appreciate your honest thoughts and critiques and moral clarity, dear friend! :)

    heather — January 31, 2006 @ 11:08 am

  • i think people are blaming the wrong “person” in all of this – Frey originally shopped the manuscript as a “fictionalized memoir”, and was turned down numerous times. the publisher that finally picked it up decided to market it as an autobiography, and now we’ve got this huge flap. true, he went along with it, but in a way, it’s his “story”, and as a writer myself, i feel like he’s got the right to tell it how he wants to tell it.

    because really, who is he hurting by exaggerating? it’s like the bible or zen koans, or anything that teaches any sort of lesson – take the meaning, don’t take it literally. :)

    Gasoline Hobo — January 31, 2006 @ 12:32 pm

  • You cain’t pray a lie.
    - Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

    Anonymous — January 31, 2006 @ 1:49 pm

  • “Oh what a tangled web we weave,
    When first we practice to deceive!”

    -My dad whenever we would lie as kids (oh, and Sir Walter Scott too)

    heather — January 31, 2006 @ 2:12 pm

  • PS: best post title ever!

    connor — January 31, 2006 @ 4:05 pm

  • fact or fiction, it’s a knockout read.

    jeffro — January 31, 2006 @ 4:23 pm

  • Heather,

    Your response to the book is exactly what is wrong with it. The author and published have created a credibility problem. The incidents that are more than just exaggerations call into question every other aspect of the book. If he was willing to lie on point x, maybe he was willing to lie about points y and z. For all we know now, the whole book is a lie.

    In and of itself, the lie is not so bad. I mean who cares right? Its the feelings the book evokes that matter. Except then, its really a novel. But they did not market it as a novel or even as “based on a true story.” No. They hooked you and others by telling you it was true.

    As I see it, the problem then is that it continues to breed the cynicism that many of us feel. We can’t trust politicians. Now we can’t trust publishers and authors. How soon before we stop trusting each other (oh wait….)

    szg — January 31, 2006 @ 8:49 pm

  • Wow, imagine the crushing blow it would be if Oprah Winfrey was disappointed in you.

    How would your soul recover from such a wounding indictment?

    ross — February 2, 2006 @ 3:06 am

  • I think the word ‘truthiness’ applies here, it’s a bad novel sold as memoir that has both author and publisher laughing all the way to the bank. For an ‘honest’ rehab memoir with musical ties check out Wrecking Crew by John Albert. (I have no financial interest in pushing this). Thanks for all the musical gumballs.

    Dexter — February 2, 2006 @ 12:47 pm

  • I don’t think the points remain solid even those some incidents are fictionalized, as you say, because we now have no scope on which is which.

    It’s more than just home not remembering the details in the proper way in which they occurred.

    That whole period where he was out of control? Fake. Destructive. Fake. Arrested. Completely fake.

    He’s a fraud, and it tarnishes the essence of the book.

    P.S. Hello, Denver!

    Pete — February 2, 2006 @ 6:50 pm

  • i might have a chance to find out, http://www.atruemillionlittlepieces.com is my memoir. Please check it out

    A true Million Little Pieces — July 14, 2008 @ 5:48 am

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

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