It was called A Million Little Pieces and it was one of the most important books I have ever read. I passed it on to my kids who passed it on to their friends; everybody was talking about James Frey, a man of huge pain and great insight.
The book provided everyone who has ever struggled with addiction and poor self-image with a new mirror with which to look at themselves. Most importantly, it gave every one of us hope and inspiration.
Then it all turned out to be a lie.
James Frey made up a large part of the book including details of his arrest and incarceration. He also took liberties in writing about an addict’s worst nightmare: what happens when you have something terribly wrong with you and you cannot take anything to ease the pain. Many of the cringeworthy details came from the writer’s mind, not from his personal experience.
Some people saw this as a betrayal of their trust, as readers.
I never really understood this. Frey wasn’t hurting anybody, and he clearly knew what he was writing about.
People familiar with addiction were ready to forgive Frey instantly.
Heck, everyone knows that addicts are born liars.
Others sat in judgement.
Many of the judges had never been addicts, had never been raised by addicts or had never been married to one. The judges were people who do what they always do — live vicariously through the pages of a book or by watching reality series, tut-tutting, and feeling all-powerful because they’d caught somebody struggling with a lie.
One of those judges was Oprah Winfrey, who had chosen A Million Little Pieces for her book club. Oprah had placed divine hands on Frey and made him a very rich man. He turned out be a fraud and Oprah took some bad publicity. He embarrassed her, and as everyone knows, the sky falls when you embarrass Oprah Winfrey. She invited Frey onto her show after the scandal broke for a talk, but what she really invited him to was a public stoning. For one hour, we listened as she chided him, wagging her finger in his general direction. To Frey’s credit, he took it like a man.
Today, he returned to Oprah’s show — and to huge ratings, I’m sure — to talk about that very uncomfortable meeting. I give Oprah Winfrey credit for having him back and to discuss his public humiliation at her hands. I believe today’s show, and her actions, were genuine.
But I’m not sure I’m ready to forgive her.
As a writer who often pours out my personal experience in this blog, I feel protective of James Frey. I know where he comes from. I know that he was writing from a very dark place. Certainly, his book should not have been called a memoir — though I agree with him that most memoirs are works of fiction. Perhaps it could have been called a “re-imaging”. In fact, he had tried to have it published as a piece of fiction but couldn’t get it published.
I blame greedy publishers and publicists for what happened to James Frey. I believe they knew exactly what they were doing. I believe they knew that A Million Little Pieces was an embellishment. And for that, the publishers should have shouldered the blame, equally. I suppose they did. Many ungenerous readers — the judges — asked for their money back. So the publishers did suffer financial loss.
They might have been hurt, but they weren’t ruined.
I see James Frey as a victim, a man who is a helluva storyteller who started to believe his own publicity. James was a victim of the many people who benefitted from his talent and his art — and that includes Oprah Winfrey.
I was cheered today to see that James Frey is bouncing back, with a new book, which I will buy.
I don’t care if it’s real or Memorex.
I know whatever it is, it will be great