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.

This is no news, really. Any barmaid will tell you that men can mythologize themselves and each other like nobody's business. Really, though, these young men are simply protecting their soft centers with layer upon layer of braggadocio, like drowning out Roy Orbison with the Scarface soundtrack. But to write from this point of self-ignorance is to send out a false report. Frey clearly wanted to write not of, but as, the person he wanted to be. His agenda was to glamorize himself, make himself look clear-eyed and potent at the expense of other people. Frey's mistake is one that all writers, even good ones, make when they're starting out. The self-glorifying or blame-dodging impulse is easy to spot. "No more misunderstood waifs!" I remember one instructor yelling in a writing workshop. And yes, he was yelling at me. I was 18 years old, and if anything I had written then were to be published now I would use it as a valid excuse for a major relapse.

What sickened me about Frey's book was not that he wrote it, but that it made its way through the supposedly literate gatekeepers in Nan Talese's headquarters. He had, it seems, tried to publish it as a novel several times, but found it more expedient, or succumbed to pressure, to call it a memoir.

I have my own two-penny version of this story. I had sent in a piece of autobiographical fiction to a good-paying national magazine that had previously accepted some of my work. Every week my editor would pass on suggestions made by various unseen parties as to how I might change the manuscript. This went on for three or four weeks. Since there was no guarantee of payment if they didn't take the story, and I desperately needed the money, I tried to follow every "suggestion" to the letter. At one point they suggested that they'd be more likely to print the story, and therefore pay me for it, if I were to call it a memoir rather than fiction. Frustrated and anxious, I said I didn't care what they called it as long as they called it accepted and paid me. (They didn't.)

So, was it more untruthful to call the work fiction or memoir? Perhaps there were too many facts to call it fiction, even if I'd changed names of things and people, but there were an almost equal number of condensations, composite characters, and apocryphal events. Why don't I feel bad about acquiescing to the magazine's troublesome categorizing? Well, for one thing hardly anyone ever read the piece and I didn't get on Oprah. For another, I tried not to present the material with an agenda, whereas Frey's self-glamorizing wafts off every page of his book. It's this scent that The Smoking Gun picked up, and careful critics sniffed it out immediately.

Oprah and her readers can be excused for their inability to smell a rat--who doesn't want to believe in self-wrought redemption? And even though Frey himself is something of a braying, bragging jackass, he's not a bad man, just a very silly one. But the publishing industry is another matter. It's not full of gullible people. They are supposed to be well read and are, after all, professional readers, the sort of people who know that something so artistically phony might very well be factually incorrect. But what really rankles is not the marketing strategy employed, but the fact that it seems to have been taken at face value. The fact that fellow cokehead frat boy Bret Easton Ellis gave it a blurb seems to have tipped few people off. Instead of being called out for what it was--something that seemed self-published, to put it kindly--it was greeted seriously and reviewed on its merits. Even the reviews that noted the bloviated prose didn't come right out and call it a hoax, which, aesthetically and morally, it is. Again mediocrity, mendacity, cliché, and cynicism triumph over integrity. This is particularly galling if you've read a lot of what might be called "recovery lit." Off the top of my head I can name at least two books that soar above Frey's. Read one passage of Ellen Miller's Like being Killed or Cupcake Brown's upcoming autobiography and you will never forgive the fact that Frey's book is a best seller. In fact, reading the review copy of Cupcake Brown's book, there were certain small facts I questioned, but never the truth of her tale.

Admittedly, this is an ancient, adolescent whine: "The world is unfair, alas for art, etc." But that doesn't make the pill any less bitter. I can't help thinking that if aesthetics were properly valued in both the public discourse and market, A Million Little Pieces wouldn't have made it through the door. Unlike the people who opened that door, Mr. Frey is guilty of nothing more than being both obnoxious and successful, for which he is not exactly going to go to hell. As for the people who marketed him, they're on their own.

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