Explaining James Frey.

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Jan. 12 2006 12:11 PM

Picking Up the Pieces

How James Frey flunked rehab, and why his fakery matters.

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Based on all the evidence, it seems Frey's weird, macho fear of seeing himself as a "victim" led him to fabricate a life that was painful and extreme enough so as to explain the sadness and despair he felt. Instead of a crack-binging street fighter, ostracized by both his peers and society, the Smoking Gun investigation indicates Frey was more likely a lonely, confused boy who may or may not have needed ear surgery as a child and felt distant from his parents and alienated from his peers. He drank too much, did some drugs, got nailed for a couple of DUIs and ended up, at age 23, in one of the country's most prestigious drug-and-alcohol treatment centers. When Frey writes that, after one of his fictitious arrests, he hated himself, saw no future, and wanted to die, I believe him. I grew up in a well-off suburban household with loving parents and no clear traumas in my past. I was popular enough in high school, I joined the newspaper and acted in plays, and I got into a good college. I was also miserably, sometimes almost suicidally, depressed, and, from the age of 15, I was taking drugs and drinking almost every day. Frey must have felt that his real, very scary, and very lonely feelings would have seemed weak if it was only preceded by standard-issue suburban teenage angst.

This isn't unusual. In rehab—I attended somewhere between a half-dozen and a dozen in-patient facilities—it's fairly standard for new patients to begin their stays by boasting of their fearlessness, their criminal bona fides, their extreme debauchery. I used to brag of my own rap sheet. I'd elide over the fact that my two arrests resulted in no convictions. And I certainly didn't offer up that my first arrest occurred after a remarkably inept attempt to break into a high-school classmate's house was foiled when his mother returned home and found my car parked out front (I referred to that as a "b&e with intent to commit a felony"), or that the second arrest was the result of my pilfering underwear and some light bulbs from my college's bookstore.

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For most people, the insecurity and fear that lead to these type of exaggerations needs to fade away before they can really start trying to figure out how to go about fixing what went wrong with their lives. One counselor at an in-patient facility I attended used to publicly humiliate new patients on their first day in the program by first making them tell the group what brought them there and then quizzing them on the specifics—how many CC's does a standard syringe hold?—until they crumbled and started telling the truth.

But why should we care that Frey seems incapable of this? Beyond being slightly infuriating—Frey has made millions of dollars off of Pieces—what's the real-world impact of Frey's fakery? Oprah might feel a bit foolish, and presumably at least some of the 3 million-plus people who bought Frey's book will feel ripped off, but that in itself is not cause for any serious outcry.

Unfortunately, because A Million Little Pieces—one of the best-selling books about drug addiction ever written—has been trumpeted as an unflinching, real-life look into the world of a drug addict, it has helped to shape people's notions about drug abuse. Ironically, the very abundance of its clichés has likely helped make it a runaway best seller: People, after all, like having their suspicions confirmed. For nonaddicts, Pieces reinforces the still dangerously prevalent notion that it's easy to spot a drug addict or an alcoholic—they're the ones bleeding from holes in their cheeks or getting beaten down by the police or doing hard time with killers and rapists. For those struggling with their own substance-abuse issues, Pieces sends the message that unless you've reached the depths Frey describes, you don't have anything to worry about—you're a Fraud. And if you do have a problem, you don't need to necessarily get treatment or look to others for support; all you need to do is "hold on." In building up a false bogeyman—the American recovery movement's supposed reliance on the notion of "victimhood"—Frey has set himself up as the one, truth-telling savior. In fact, it seems clear that Frey would have been well-served by taking the kind of unflinchingly honest look at his own life that most recovery programs demand.

* Correction, January 12, 2006: This story originally and incorrectly referred to James Frey's motivational tattoo (FTBSITTTD) as an acronym. In fact, as those letters do not form a word, it is only an abbreviation. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.

Seth Mnookin is the associate director of MIT's Graduate Program in Science Writing. His most recent book is The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy. Follow him on Twitter.

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