The Lie Behind the Lies

Fact-fudging memoirist James Frey is being hung for the wrong crime

There is such a thing as justified and guiltless schadenfreuede. Taking pleasure in another's misfortune is no crime if, for instance, that other's previous fortune was unearned. With his best-selling recovery memoir, A Million Little Pieces, James Frey rose to dizzying heights of underserved acclaim and unjust remuneration. Yet, when the recent flap erupted over his admitted "embellishments," I could only continue to choke on my own bile, something I only do when I am breathing either in, or out. His comeuppance--and it's too soon to say whether his career will be significantly hampered by the scandal--is unsatisfying in the same way that it's unsatisfying to see a murderer get a life sentence for tax evasion. Not that Frey, of course, is a murderer, or even a criminal in any legal sense. But he is being hung (sort of) for the wrong offense: It's not that he told a pack of lies, it's that he sold a load of shit. His crime, in other words, is mainly aesthetic, which is not as harmless as it sounds. Bad art is bad because it perpetuates bad ideas, facile thinking, and simpleminded black-and-white dichotomies.

As was revealed in an unbylined investigative piece published by The Smoking Gun website, A Million Little Pieces is riddled with sensational claims both dubious and verifiably false. Frey, for one, describes a three-month jail stint, which it seems clear exaggerates the author's time behind bars by a bit less than three months. Frey and his supporters, Oprah Winfrey included, contend that the book holds up despite its factual liberties because its portrayal of hardship and redemption is authentic. But the reason Frey's book came under investigation in the first place is that it doesn't ring true and never did. This would have been equally the case if the book were fiction, maybe, in fact, more so. Seth Mnookin, whose autobiographical essay in Slate contains more emotional truth in one sentence than does Frey's entire book, points out that if A Million Little Pieces had been presented as a novel, it would never have been accepted. This is simply because, as Mnookin writes, "the book is full of cliché ridden portraits" of "fat, small minded, small town cops," beautiful blondes with silken hair, nerdy counselors, and of course the two-fisted, puking-on-authority hero himself. "If a novelist wrote a book shot through with these...central casting chestnuts" observes Mnookin, he'd be "politely told to try again." When you read this supposed memoir, in other words, it's easy to suspect it's not true because it's not "true" in the aesthetic sense.

When I first heard about Frey's book, I was told there was a passage wherein he was given a root canal, while in rehab, without the benefit of anesthetic.

"What, you mean they didn't put him under?" I asked.

"No, man," said my enthusiastic friend. "Nothing."

"No Novocain?"

"Nothing."

That seemed odd. Even assuming the dentist shared my particular aversion to cokehead frat boys, it seemed like something a dental professional couldn't get away with even in a prison infirmary. Legally, it might be called assault. If this did happen, I figured, the rehab must have been in Guyana or someplace less litigious than the U.S.

"No," my friend said, "Hazelden."

I went to Hazelden when I was in my late twenties. It was during the height of the recovery "movement," and while there were a lot of irritating, saccharine bromides floating about the place, there was no physical torture. I was intrigued enough to peek at the Hazelden-related passages in the book, although I admit I couldn't get through the whole thing. It was just too badly written, self-aggrandizing, and infuriatingly inaccurate. Hazelden was by no means a perfect institution, but having spent nine months there, including the halfway house, I can say it bore little or no relationship to Frey's description. There may have been a few "book smart, life dumb" counselors on hand, but they were nothing compared to the people I met who had truly hair-raising stories as to how they'd become counselors to begin with. There was the nun who told of being embarrassed about her rattling purse, the rattling due to several bottles of pills, fruit of her forged prescriptions for Quaaludes. I also enjoyed the former Hell's Angel property/prostitute/madam/club-owner, and diplomat's wife, who accompanied her husband to Russia with a teddy bear full of heroin. The head counselor of my unit was a typical straight-talking, wisecracking New Yorker.

Most of all I didn't recognize the insipid yet rigid authority that Frey depicted. Hazelden was not only incredibly posh for a rehab, it was also completely voluntary. Any time you wanted to you could leave. In a very few cases such a departure might mean going to jail, but not, I imagine, in Frey's case. What I did recognize in Frey's Hazelden account was Frey. Not Frey himself, but what might be called his m.o.

In every recovery group that I participated in, at Hazelden and elsewhere, there was a type of young man who tended to do a lot of what in recovery jargon is called "maximizing." Everyone is familiar with the minimizing, otherwise known as denial--the cirrhosis patient who can't understand why she's hospitalized, all she ever drank was a little wine after dinner. The maximizers I encountered went the other way: They'd bluster about having snorted mountains of cocaine, smoked rocks the size of glaciers, shot up six thousand dollars a day. All were wanted by the law, you bet. Generally speaking, maximizers were young, affluent males.

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