James Frey, fictionalizing the dead
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I watched "Larry King Live" last night hoping that James Frey would actually, you know, like, say something about whether -- or or how much -- he lied when writing his #1-bestselling rehab memoir, A Million Little Pieces.
Of course, I happened to turn it off right before Oprah called in to defend him (I always miss the good parts!), because I grew frightfully bored within 30 minutes. Why? 'Cause the surprisingly high-voiced Frey kept repeating the same meaningless BS publicity quips over and over and over again: "The essential truth of my story is the same;" "this is my memory -- my subjective memory -- of alcoholism and addiction."
He never once answered a question directly, never once stated that he did (or didn't) lie or invent characters out of thin air, or twist people's actions / intentions to make himself look better, or, in this odd case, more tragic or painful or poignant or impressive. (To be fair, King wasn't pressing Frey particularly hard; he seemed pretty unfamiliar with the recent scandal associated with the book.)
I read A Million Little Pieces over holiday break, and while the "essential truth" of Frey's story is intact regardless of the details being investigated by the Smoking Gun, Frey's sincerity and credibility in expressing that truth is compromised -- duh -- when he's exposed as a liar.
The thing is, Frey made himself seem like a lost, alienated, misanthropic everyman -- who was also "an Alcoholic and a Drug Addict and a Criminal" (yes, he writes like that: capitalizing words at random throughout the book) who fell into addiction as a means of self-medication. Frey painted a picture of himself as an angry, bottomless pit of pain; mocked and shunned as a kid, he started drinking at age 12, and was devastated when his only close friend died in a train accident in junior high. He went on, so he wrote, to become a useless drunk, addict and drug dealer in college -- a Dangerous Lonely Legendary Misfit with a romantic streak, who was perpetually in trouble with the cops.
Is it impressive that he pulled through a long, miserable, rock-bottom bout of drug addiction and alcoholism? Yes, of course. Can reading about his experiences -- even if they're fictionalized -- potentially help other people in recovery? Maybe. But is it admirable that he felt the need to make his story sexier, more dramatic or more palatable or scarier or more intense? No, it's just cheating. And it pisses me off.
There have been hundreds of books, both fiction and non-, written about addiction, rehab and 12-step programs. What stands out in Frey's is its details -- most of them tragic (his best friend's death; the later suicide of a "crack whore" girlfriend) or incredible (his suffering through a double root canal sans painkillers). It was these details that made the book resonant and powerful -- these were the details that made readers empathize with Frey, and give a shit whether he lived or died.
He took his personal history (and the histories of his rehab friends and acquaintances, most of whom are dead now) and scandalized it to draw more readers and attention and money and fame. That's cheating!
Still, I'll admit -- my thoughts about this are conflicted. I liked the book. It was an inspiring story, even though Frey's writing style (the random capitalization and repetition of phrases) annoyed me. Would I have liked it so much, or been impressed by the author's gutsiness, if I'd known it was largely fictional? I don't think so.
Also, it's kinda cruel to mess with people -- many of whom are already uber-damaged and depressed -- struggling with addiction and alcoholism. They've got enough problems, dude. Lying to them about what they can and can't expect from rehab won't help.
Laura Barcella is AlterNet's front page editor.