A Million Little Pieces

"I woke to the drone of an airplane engine and the feeling of something warm dripping down my chin," begins "A Million Little Pieces," James Frey's story of his ascent from crackhouse ground zero. "I lift my hand and 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." His clothes are covered with spit, snot, vomit and blood. He doesn't know how he got on the plane or where he is going, but as he soon finds out, he's on his way to rehab.

This is today's "Bright Lights, Big City." Instead of cocaine and The New Yorker we've got crack and a rehabilitation treatment center in Minnesota. The grungy editorial style diligently avoids glorifying the brilliant descriptions of medical torture, explicit (and often hideously demeaning) sex and even more explicit drugs. A stream-of-consciousness lite effect is provided by the absence of quotation marks and paragraph indents. Certain words are idiosyncratically capitalized -- the Bathroom, the Nurses -- perhaps to suggest that old cosmic paranoia feeling that comes with over-indulgence in hallucinatory substances; perhaps to be literary and cute.

Despite the Burroughs-inflected literary tics, this is an emotionally penetrating narrative that faithfully portrays the institutional rehabilitation process. It's very commercial, too. Unlike "Naked Lunch," it would make a nice gift for a friend considering detox (one of the Bush girls, maybe?), whether as a warning or a comfort. Faithful to hallowed marketing considerations going back to St. Augustine, all users are portrayed as hopeless addicts. Drug rapture is described in physical and sexual terms and always leads to horrible crashes. There are no hints that self-medication can be a very effective form of self-treatment for emotional and physical maladies.

James Frey operates in a literary zone where the worst case rules to the exclusion of all others. You can't write about the masterpieces that are created while enraptured, the psychological knots untied, the revival of the sheer joy of living. No one can handle drugs. Period. Got that clear? Begin writing. These days, when so many successful folks routinely rely on weird brain torques without requiring professional detoxification, it's not easy to get a gifted writer to fit a book into this Procrustean headlock, much less sign it. It appears that "Go Ask Alice," by Anonymous, the eternally best-selling classic teenage descent-into-drug-hell tale, supposedly based on a fifteen-year-old girl's diary, was faked. As far as anyone can tell, there never was any teenaged girl's diary. Beatrice Matthews Sparks, a Mormon lady from Utah, most likely made it all up.

In "A Million Little Pieces", they've got something better -- a real (and very talented) writer with a real story who believes very firmly in individual responsibility. The author portrays himself as quite heroic in both his rebellion and his determination to quit, reminding me of John Galt in "Atlas Shrugged." Although it has some synthetic moments, the book is obviously sincere, but the resolution finally boils down to "Just say no."

Frey's case demonstrates that the treatment model can work if the victim is a highly motivated upper-class college drop-out with a concrete physical infancy trauma that can be rooted out in therapy. It also helps to have a loving family show up to help out, even if Dad does have to leave in the middle on one of his emergency business trips. Then there are the political connections made in rehab that enable him to avoid having to do time for an outstanding conviction. Frey mentions these factors in passing, but mainly attributes his recovery to willpower.

"A Million Little Pieces" could be part of the softening-up campaign for the switch toward treatment rather than punishment. Venereal disease prevention in Paris in the 17th Century eventually led to the criminalization of prostitution. Now the high cost of drug criminalization results in the need to declare recreational drug use or self-medication to be symptoms of a treatable disease. Unfortunately, the involuntary treatment model as currently formatted is merely another take on criminalization. It's a lot better than jail for abusers of dangerous addictive drugs such as crack, cocaine, speed and heroin, but how many people would need treatment for marijuana dependency except to avoid prison?

The cost of scorched earth drug enforcement is distorting the entire criminal justice system so ferociously that government financial administrators at all levels are hard put to pay for it. Just as the mentally ill were turned out on the streets because it was so much cheaper, outpatient therapy enforced by the threat of imprisonment will now replace the war on drugs, at least for middle class whites. It probably won't work, but it doesn't use weapons resources that would better go to conventional wars of conquest.

Jules Siegel's reports on drugs, crime and alternate culture have appeared in Playboy, Rolling Stone, Village Voice and many other publications.

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