Monday, January 09, 2006

My Name is James, and I'm a Writer

So why would a man who spends 430 pages chronicling every grimy and repulsive detail of his formerly debased life (and then goes on to talk about it nonstop for 2-1/2 years in interviews with everybody from bloggers to Oprah herself) need to wall off the details of a decade-old arrest?

The Smoking Gun takes apart best-selling memoirist James Frey's A Million Little Pieces and finds it severely wanting in the honest disclosure department. Read the piece (it's long) and if you are one of the few who haven't yet read Frey, you'll have saved some money and perhaps some wasted empathy.

Aspects of Frey's tale have been questioned before, but not to this extent, or with this amount of documentation.

While the book is brimming with improbable characters — like the colorful mafioso Leonard and the tragic crack whore Lilly, with whom Frey takes up in Hazelden — and equally implausible scenes, we chose to focus on the crime and justice aspect of "A Million Little Pieces." Which wasn't much of a decision since almost every character in Frey's book that could address the remaining topics has either committed suicide, been murdered, died of AIDS, been sentenced to life in prison, gone missing, landed in an institution for the criminally insane, or fell off a fishing boat never to be seen again.

While we do not doubt Frey spent time in rehab, there really isn't anyone left (besides the author himself) to vouch for many of the book's outlandish stories.

Frey's latest book, My Friend Leonard, extends the "I am an Alcoholic and I am a drug Addict and I am a Criminal" confessional franchise that made Frey a millionaire.

Addicts, of course, are liars. Writers make things up for a living. Why should anyone be surprised?

When recalling criminal activities, looming prison sentences, and jailhouse rituals, Frey writes with a swaggering machismo and bravado that absolutely crackles. Which is truly impressive considering that, as TSG discovered, he made much of it up. The closest Frey has ever come to a jail cell was the few unshackled hours he once spent in a small Ohio police headquarters waiting for a buddy to post $733 cash bond.

Listening to other addicts tell their stories is a staple of treatment at Hazelden, where Frey spent time. Whether or not he ever spent another hour in AA or read a single text on recovery, he no doubt was treated to a large dose of stories that were far better than his.

And he probably saw the mainstream potential of telling similar stories, using his embellished self as the central character. Why do it for a few dozen guys in lousy AA meeting when he could peddle it as a redemptive memoir? Getting it picked up by Oprah was an unexpected bonus.

"I know that, like many of us who have read this book, I kept turning to the back of the book to remind myself, 'He's alive. He's okay," Winfrey said. In essence, that is part of the book's narrative power and a primary marketing tool. All this terrible stuff actually happened to a guy named James Frey, a former degenerate who survived drug and alcohol addiction, escaped his criminal past, and somehow avoided a relapse in the decade-plus since leaving Hazelden.

Frey was openly scornful of the Twelve Steps approach and holds himself up as an example of an addict who went his own way and made a miraculous recovery. Treatment programs are full of those guys.

His book draws credibility from the pretense of having taken the Fourth Step — "Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves." But as The Smoking Gun shows, he has no intention of embracing Step Ten — "Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it."

"Lying became part of my life," Frey wrote in at least one truthful moment. "I lied if I needed to lie to get something or get out of something."

Somewhere along the way, he no doubt learned the technique of disclosing unflattering personal details in order to gain enough credibility to continue lying. Cops, treatment professionals and many recovering addicts are adept at seeing through such manipulation. The rest of us are more gullible... and hopeful.

For some readers, his lies may only add up to entertainment — what in our popular culture isn't lies? But to others who were deluded or given false hope by Frey's "I did it my way" tale, the author might consider making amends before he turns himself over full-time to writing fiction.


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