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.