So one of my favorite web sites, The Smoking Gun, has dug into the story behind the supposed memoir by James Frey called “A Million Little Pieces”. According to their findings, many (if not most) of the key events depicted in his book either never happened or are wildly modified and exaggerated. Now, most memoirs contain certain dramatic license, usually of this type:
- Retorting to cads in a pithier manner than real life
- Embellishing the details of what went on behind closed doors
- Endlessly deep wells of altruism
- Rose-colored memories of one’s bucolic childhood and/or gut-wrenching remembrances of childhood abuse
- Crazy exes
- Rehab as a virtue and not the pathetic bottom rung of an egocentric, self-inflicted downward spiral
- Invention of the ThighMaster
We, the reading public, expect a little fudging of the facts for better reading, because the truth is that we are all mostly mundane and the absolute, literal truth of the events of just about anyone’s life would make for dull reading.
However, Mr. Frey has gone beyond the expected bounds of dramatic license for non-fiction works. It appears that the truth of the matter is that he spent his life as a spoiled, coked-out frat boy, nothing more, nothing less, and then finally stopped snorting blow long enough to write a fiction book that contains some small aspects of his actual life surrounded by very huge imaginings and tall tales.
For example, he derides rehab as useless and encourages people to kick drugs by using the slogan “just hang on”. Perfect. That’s like telling a depressed person to “just cheer up”. If he was in fact addicted to drugs, and he managed to quit them on his own without treatment, that might be noteworthy. However, the fact that it worked for him does NOT make going cold-turkey with no support the most effective way for true addicts. I would not be surprised to find out that although Mr. Frey may have been an abuser of drugs, that he was not a true addict and so his blatherings about coping with drugs should be discarded, if for no other reason than they are based on a sample size of one (very impeachable source) and have not been proven to be repeatable.
In another case of melodramatic license, Mr. Frey twists the details of a tragedy from his high school days into a “Rebel Without a Cause” moment in his life. The facts are that two 17 year old girls were riding with some other guy in a car, and the guy raced a train to the crossing and lost. He was broadsided on the passenger side and both girls died. The driver survived, was prosecuted for his crimes and served time for the accident, due to his blood alcohol level. The main players in the story, interviewed by The Smoking Gun, have a vague recollection of who James Frey is, but also have a clear recollection that he was in no way involved in the incident. These witnesses include the dead girls parents and friends. However, Mr. Frey moves the whole incident back 5 years so that it happened when he was 12, and weaves himself into the plot by claiming he helped a girl sneak out of her house to the movies so she could go on a secret date with a boy her parents disapproved of, and on the way back from her date she was killed. Mr. Frey was, of course, wracked with guilt, and also became the focal point for the wrath of the entire town, who blamed him and felt sorry for the poor football star driver of the car. Mr. Frey makes no mention of the other dead girl, or of the fact that it happened 5 years later, or of the fact that the three people involved had left a party with many witnesses and headed to another party, nor of the fact that neither girl left home using him as a cover story. Basically, he makes no mention of anything that matches the reality of the situation.
In another example, Mr. Frey tells about being in a drug-fueled rage, striking a police officer with his car, assaulting said police officer and his backup, inciting nearby watchers to riot against the cops, being beaten down by the police, and finally serving 3 months in jail as a result. The actual story, as uncovered by The Smoking Gun, is that he was drunk, made an illegal u-turn, didn’t hit a cop, didn’t start a fight, didn’t incite a riot, was released after 5 hours, and the cops noted on the arrest report that “He was polite and cooperative at all times”. Yeah, what a rebel, huh?
And the list goes on and on and on and on, click the link in the first sentence up there to read the full expose on The Smoking Gun. All of this would simply be humorous and a bit sad to me, except for one thing. Oprah Winfrey was enthralled with this guy’s fable, and has treated him as if he were a near-messianic example of what she and all her quivering desperate housewife audience want…the “Bad Boy” who cleaned himself up, not with outside help, but with the sheer force of his own superhuman will, beating up cops, inciting riots, vomiting and bleeding on airlines, and reading great works of literature to illiterate cell-mates in prison along the way. A suburban housewives’ wet dream come true.
And the fact that he is being held up as an example by someone with the undeniable cultural power of Oprah Winfrey means that people are taking his story to heart. This means that there are addicts who are tattooing “Just Hold On” over their trackmarks instead of going into rehab. There are people who are looking at the devil-may-care actions of the fictionalized James Frey as something to emulate. This would not be a good idea even if his stories were true. But the fact that his stories appear to be based on his imagination makes it even more wrong.
And the most wrong, most vile aspect of this whole thing to me is the fact that Oprah is standing behind this chump with her full support, in the face overwhelming facts and the admission of the author that he took great license with the facts. I can almost forgive Mr. Frey for his book, because at the time he wrote it he had no idea it would ever even be published, much less become the second best selling book of 2005 behind Harry Potter. So, he told a wild tale, characterized it as a “memoir”, managed to sell it, and then had to stand behind it as it caught fire. I find that aspect to be sad but understandable…the spoiled frat boy caught in a white lie to aggrandize himself and make a few bucks.
But Ms. Winfrey is already rich beyond belief and has nothing at stake here other than the fact that she adopted this guy as her pet bad-boy, and now seems not to be able to let go and face the facts. For example, Mr. Frey appeared on Larry King Live, admitted to his fabrications while defending them as within the bounds of dramatic license, and Oprah called in and said that regardless of the truth, it’s his “story” that is important. Here are Ms. Winfrey’s incisive arguments in support of Mr. Frey and his book:
“If you’re an addict whose life has been moved by this story and you feel that what James went through was able … to help you hold on a little bit longer, and you connected to that, that is real. That is real,” she said. “And it’s … irrelevant discussing, you know, what happened or did not happen to the police.”
Wow. Oprah thinks that it is irrelevant to discuss the actual facts of this asshole’s life and instead encourages real addicts with real problems to embrace the fictionalized actions of a mythical being that James Frey created in his head and put into his book? That is the height of irresponsibility, and although I have never been a fan of Oprah’s I used to have respect for her and the good that she seemed to try to do in the world. But in this case she has abandoned any claim to righteousness or the moral high ground, because she is using her awesome stature as a media powerhouse to try and do what all women who fall for bad boys end up doing…trying to justify it in the face of utter tragedy. She might as well have said:
“You just don’t understand him, he’s not really like that. If you knew how he was in private, how much he cares, and how much he’s had to go through you’d know why I love him, even when he hits me and sleeps around and steals the rent money and hits the kids and gets fired and drives drunk and…and…and…and…”
The litany of a woman and her bad-boy-gone-wrong. Oprah needs to “Just Hang On”, forget about her ego, and come clean that she backed a loser here, if for no other reason than to stop the harm that his book coupled with her publicity is doing to people who are being sent the wrong message…real people with real problems. One of my great fears in this story is that we will find out that Oprah has some sort of financial stake in the success of this book, or his next book, or his movie, or his TV show, or something else, and so is taking these irresponsible actions not out of a misplaced mothering instinct but as a coldly calculated business decision to stem her losses. I actually don’t think even Oprah is capable of stooping that low, but given the spectacle she has made of herself thus far, I would not be surprised to learn that was the reason behind her actions.