A Million Little Half-Truths.

Another topic of much uproar that I’ve been following lately has been the one swirling around James Frey and his supposedly 100% true memoir A Million Little Pieces. Published in 2003 the book doesn’t seem to have garnered a whole lot of attention until Oprah got a hold of it and made it her book club’s pick of the month as well as devoting a whole episode of her show to talking about it back in October of last year. Since then it’s been sitting pretty at the top of the NYT’s non-fiction best seller list and sold more copies than any other book in 2005 short of the latest Harry Potter novel. The reason for its popularity? It’s a brutal tale of a drug-addicted man who gets into all sorts of trouble until he finally hits bottom and then manages to get his shit together—and it’s all supposed to be 100% true. In other words, it’s a spiritually uplifting story of redemption which many fans have claimed has changed their lives.

The problem is that it may not be as true as James Frey claims it is. The website The Smoking Gun did a six-week investigation of the book that turned up quite a few “embellishments” on James Frey part and then documented them in an article titled A Million Little Lies:

Police reports, court records, interviews with law enforcement personnel, and other sources have put the lie to many key sections of Frey’s book. The 36-year-old author, these documents and interviews show, wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms, and status as an outlaw “wanted in three states.”

In addition to these rap sheet creations, Frey also invented a role for himself in a deadly train accident that cost the lives of two female high school students. In what may be his book’s most crass flight from reality, Frey remarkably appropriates and manipulates details of the incident so he can falsely portray himself as the tragedy’s third victim. It’s a cynical and offensive ploy that has left one of the victims’ parents bewildered. “As far as I know, he had nothing to do with the accident,” said the mother of one of the dead girls. “I figured he was taking license…he’s a writer, you know, they don’t tell everything that’s factual and true.”

Frey appears to have fictionalized his past to propel and sweeten the book’s already melodramatic narrative and help convince readers of his malevolence. “I was a bad guy,” Frey told Winfrey. “If I was gonna write a book that was true, and I was gonna write a book that was honest, then I was gonna have to write about myself in very, very negative ways.” That is repeatedly apparent in his memoir, which announces, “I am an Alcoholic and I am a drug Addict and I am a Criminal.” It is an incantation he repeats eight times in the book, always making sure to capitalize the ‘c’ in Criminal.

But he has demonstrably fabricated key parts of the book, which could—and probably should—cause a discerning reader (and Winfrey has ushered millions of them Frey’s way) to wonder what is true in “A Million Little Pieces” and its sequel, “My Friend Leonard.”

It’s a big article spanning some 6 pages and it’s a very convincing read that has, needless to say, got a lot of folks upset with James Frey. So much so that Random House is offering refunds to any pissed off purchasers of the book:

“If the book was bought directly from us we will refund the purchase price in full,” one Random House customer service told Reuters, adding that readers would have to return the book with the original invoice. “If you bought it at a bookstore, we ask that you return the book to the bookstore.”

Only a small portion of consumers buy books directly from publishers. However, the agent said Random House normally sells books to consumers as nonrefundable but is offering refunds on Frey’s book “because of the controversy surrounding it.”

What’s really interesting to me about all of this, though, are the folks who are defending Frey and his book—a group which includes Oprah herself:

“Although there are some factual questions,” she said, “the underlying message of redemption still resonates with me and many others.”

“What is relevant is that he was a drug addict . . . and stepped out of that history to be the man he is today and to take that message to save other people and allow them to save themselves,” Winfrey said. “To those who got hope from the book, I say, Keep holding on.”

The title of that New York Daily News article is “Oprah true believer in best seller” and it’s very appropriate. There are a lot of True Believers™ out there that are very upset with the folks at The Smoking Gun right now because they have no interest in knowing the truth. Like Fox Mulder, they want to believe Frey’s story is 100% real because it validates their belief that redemption is possible for even the worst of us.

It’s very much like all those stupid emails a certain segment of the population forwards to everyone else about how Al Capone’s lawyer turned on him so that he (the lawyer) could give his son a good name and then that son grows up to be a fighter pilot who single-handedly fends off an entire squadron of Japanese bombers during WWII. “See?” the email seems to implore, “Anyone can turn over a new leaf and great things will come of it.” Except, of course, that the truth behind the Easy Eddy urban legend, much like the truth behind the story of Frey’s book, isn’t quite as spiritually uplifting as some folks would like it to be. Certainly some of it is true, but not to the extent you’re led to believe and the motivations for the change are often times less altruistic than implied.

One very good question about all of this comes from Jack Cluth over at TPRS who asks does it even matter if the story is true:

It’s a literary work; does the author have an implied obligation to inform his audience that the book is not strictly and completely factually and historically accurate? Or should he just go along for the ride wherever it might take him? And does the fact that Frey may have been less than honest with his readers and fans mitigate the good that his book may have done? I haven’t read the book myself, so I’m going to withhold judgment…but it does make me wonder.

I’d say it all depends on how much you value the truth over a good case of the warm fuzzies. The vehement defense of the book by some folks is indicative of the wishful thinking that goes along with most forms of religious belief. A quite similar question would be to ask if it matters whether or not God really exists so long as the folks who believe he does gain some benefit from it. For too many people it goes beyond them merely wanting it to be true, they need it to be true otherwise they think the whole foundation for their world view will crumble be the subject God or A Million Little Pieces.

Personally I think encouraging wishful thinking in the way that Oprah does is dangerous because it’ll inevitably bleed over into other areas such as believing your President isn’t lying to you about some foreign country possessing Weapons of Mass Destruction despite the near total lack of evidence in support of that claim because you need him to be right due to the amount of faith you’ve invested in him. If the means in which James Frey overcame his exaggerated problems in his book are pure fabrication then those who try to follow in his footsteps in a similar fashion may be in for a rude awakening.

We pay a lot of lip-service in this country to the concept of truth, but when it conflicts with what we want to believe too many of us will reject it.

17 thoughts on “A Million Little Half-Truths.

  1. We pay a lot of lip-service in this country to the concept of truth, but when it conflicts with what we want to believe too many of us will reject it.

    Not just in America- that’s part and parcel of being human.  To our sorrow and peril.

  2. I was particularly amused by this rant on Goya Now directed not only at The Smoking Gun, but Larry King:

    I watched the Larry King show with absolute horror last night (Wednesday, Jan. 11). First of all, Larry King is an interviewer—not a lawyer; and his show is shot in a studio—not a courtroom. He didn’t interview James Frey last night—he interrogated him. Who the hell does he think he is? He should be ashamed of himself.

    We wouldn’t want our reporters and interviewers to ask anyone any tough questions that might make them feel bad, doncha know. Especially if we love their books! Only ask tough questions of people whose books we don’t like!

    But the next point is what really made me chuckle…

    We have become a society of the lowest form of voyeurs. For some reason we seem to think we are entitled to know even the most personal and private information about famous people—simply because they’re famous. Yet there are privacy laws that protect all of us from those very things. I am disgusted with all of you!

     

    You almost have to wonder if this person has actually read Frey’s book as it’s certainly an exercise in voyeurism to do so considering the supposed events described therein. It’s just a tad hypocritical to read a voyeuristic book and then turn around and complain about how voyeuristic society has become because some folks decided to find out how true the book happened to be.

  3. My father is an alcoholic who has read “A Million Little Pieces” and it has meant a lot to him. When he learned of Frey’s alleged fabrications in the story, he felt somewhat disillusioned, but he did not let this diminish the larger meaning that he got from the book. This book—whether it is all true or has been embellished in parts—has done a lot to help my father get his life back on track. The exact same can be said for religion: as ugly as conservative fundamentalists can be, religion has done much to help people throughout the ages. As long as a belief in something provides one with the opportunity of living a better life, and as long as that person does not attempt to enforce that belief onto others, then I think that that belief can be said to truly be a positive force in that person’s life.

    There are many parallels between my father’s reaction to the allegations of embellishments in “A Million Little Pieces” (i.e. not letting them detract from the larger, more positive impact that the book has had on him) and the reaction that many other people are having (i.e. blindly defending the book’s veracity without any real evidence for which to do so) on the one hand; and on the other hand with people that I consider to have truly benefitted from organized religion (i.e. they may not accept every single word of the Bible or the Koran, etc. as the wholesale truth, but they still have been encouraged by their faiths to live what they consider to be better lives for themselves) and True Believers (who not only attempt to enforce their beliefs onto others, but also blindly adhere to their religious documents to the point that they have lost touch with all reality).

  4. Okay, I’m going to be jerk here – but, is anyone really that surprised that an alcoholic drug addict embellished his life story? What a waste of time all this chatter is.

    Now, if the author relapses, breaks into Larry King’s home and then gets busted trying to pawn Larry’s porn collection for some crack money – that’s News baby!

  5. is anyone really that surprised that an alcoholic drug addict embellished his life story?

    James Frey is a recovering alcoholic. If he can be trusted at all (and I don’t see why he can’t), he has supposedly been sober for thirteen years.

    I don’t see why being a former alcoholic and/or a drug addict would make one more prone to fabricating his life story. Some people feel that those who abuse drugs or alcohol do so because of some moral weakness or fundamental character flaw (which thus might incline them toward dishonesty); this is a view that I do not share.

  6. I don’t see why being a former alcoholic and/or a drug addict would make one more prone to fabricating

    I don’t know about drug or alcohol addicts, but I know it is very common for children of alcoholics to have a hard time telling it straight.  I learned this from someone close to me who is the child of an alcoholic and in subsequent research I have done on the subject.

    This is not a moral failing; it is the training of a lifetime beginning in a childhood where one has learned to say what he or she thinks will cause the least trouble.  But until I figured this out, it drove me nuts because I could never get a plain straight answer even when there was no reason to do otherwise.  I just didn’t understand.

    How this applies to alcoholics, I have no information.

  7. Yeah OK, he’s recovering. Doesn’t mean he’s not still an alcoholic. Or an addict. I’ve known addicts to lie plenty about all kinds of things *especially* when they were supposedly not using. I’m not going to go looking for studies and shit, but no one can tell me that people don’t change for the worse after loads of drug and alcohol use. And their children too. Just saying it’s not such a big surprise to me that the wheels are coming off their silly marketing campaign. It’s a story. It obviously never should have been marketed as non-fiction. He should have changed names, dates and places before publication. They probably knew that if they had just put it out as a normal – albeit embellished – semi-true book by some guy it wouldn’t have sold as many copies. And of course it didn’t until he came on Oprah and had a good cry with her. Whatever. Look, all this yap about the book’s supposed truth or untruth is just gonna sell more books for the guy. This was all probably in their marketing plan from Day 1 to get him back on TV. Just another cycle in the mass media voyeurism circle jerk. It’s boring.

  8. Yeah OK, he’s recovering. Doesn’t mean he’s not still an alcoholic. Or an addict

    Of course he is still an alcoholic and a drug addict. Tragically, once one begins a drinking or drug addiction, all the abstinence in the world cannot ever fully “cure” him or her.

    I’m not going to go looking for studies and shit, but no one can tell me that people don’t change for the worse after loads of drug and alcohol use. And their children too.

    Again, there is no doubt that many addicts’ lives are worsened by their habits. As the child of an alcoholic and the sibling of an alcoholic/drug abuser, I certainly can verify what you are saying. What I don’t agree with, however, is that alcoholics and drug abusers are necessarily more prone to lying and/or embellishing the truth than are other people. I know that many addicts will lie in situations that have directly to do with their using, and they wish to avoid capture and/or condemnation by others; but I do not believe that this translates into a more general propensity toward untruthfulness.

    We may just have to agree to disagree here, R.G.
    wink

  9. I seriously don’t care if he is lying or not, the book was actually a good read. I always assumed it was fiction in the first place, didn’t know it was the guy’s actual memoirs, so …meh….who cares?

    There are more important lies that need to be “uncovered”. *cough*Bush*cough*

  10. This is the part of the article that stuck out the most for me, sorry for being such a nerd. 

    Like Fox Mulder, they want to believe Frey’s story is 100% real because it validates their belief that redemption is possible for even the worst of us.

    Dude, no.  Fox doesn’t believe, he wants to believe.  While not a skeptic he’s constantly searching for the truth.  In cases where there’s actually hard evidence to the contrary of what he believes he generally concedes that this situation wasn’t supernatural after all. 

    Scully on the other hand is the eternal skeptic.  Even when there is insurmountable evidence against so and so file being supernatural, she tries to come up with some batshit insane scientific explanation for it for most of the series.  Even when it’s pretty obvious that something not fitting known science is going on. 

    To bring up an anecdotal example from my own life, a good counterpart for Scully would be my younger sister.  An honestly intelligent person on most levels, when we get into discussions on Intelligent Design versus Natural Selection, and I ask her “Have you even researched it?  Read up on the theory [of evolution] you’re trying to debunk?” her answers are inevitably something like “No but it fits with my beliefs” or “No because I’m more comfortable with Intelligent Design.”

    Girl is sharp as a whip, 4.0 student, sharp as a whip, taking Calculus and acing it even though she’s only a Junior in Highschool, alongside college level Anatomy and Physiology and Chemistry courses; but because of the environment she’s been allowed to grow up in (Christian schools all her life, churchgoing since she was a wee one) she won’t stretch her beliefs at all, or even see if her shallow view of religion will stand up to science. 

    And I sigh, and mumble, and grumble, and become frustrated. 

    As a more worthwhile contribution, it should be mentioned anyone who wants to know of a real heroic fighter pilot during WWII (perhaps more so than O’Hare) you should goolge ‘Hammering Hank’.

  11. Proof, again, that the strongest human motivation is fantasy. Facts are boring. Consider the O.J. trial, how much money Disney makes in 24 hours, we re-elected Clinton AND Bush, 50% divorce rate, etc. I feel it must have something to do with the right side of the brain, the “creative” side. Then, consider that it’s impossible to know all the facts in ANY given situation and all those facts we do know are flavored by our own world-view. We survive by filling in the blanks, connecting the dots where no dots necessarily exist. Appears to be an all-too-human condition. Maybe we will learn more in the next 10,000 years.  wink

  12. Proof, again, that the strongest human motivation is fantasy. Facts are boring. Consider …we re-elected Clinton AND Bush…

    Yeah, Clinton.  Diplomacy, bipartisanship (he actually appointed some Republicans to his own administration when he thought they were best for the job, and accomplished many things working with people who hated his guts), the ability to sign an actual spending veto now and then…

    What were we thinking, re-electing him?

  13. I’m just going to pop this in here. Probably doesn’t really fit with the original post, but oh well.

    In my Physical Anthropology course in college, we had to read this article, and it has stuck with me ever since. For some reason I end up in the creationism v. evolution arguement quite a bit and this has helped with it.

    http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=000D4FEC-7D5B-1D07-8E49809EC588EEDF

    It takes away some of that “Fantasy” from those who choose to blindly follow.

  14. DOF – You missed the AND part. The fact is that the country re-elected a FANTASY of what we believed the candidates were, NOT the reality of what they were or accomplished. We marry a fantasy of what we want to believe the woman (or man) we have invested two years of our life in dating will become, NOT the real person in front of us. The “right-brain” rules and facts ARE BORING. We fill in the dots where no dots exist. There are 1 billion practicing Catholics and 2 billion practicing Muslims and who knows how many others practicing some form of fantasy. It appears humans NEED fantasy, or whatever common link there is to these philosophies.

  15. There are two classes of fantasy, and one appears to include a need to believe the myth. (Most) Trekkies know there’s no captain Kirk, yet religion posits the need to twist all reality around the story.

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