Explaining James Frey.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Jan. 12 2006 12:11 PM

Picking Up the Pieces

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

Book Cover

About a third of the way into A Million Little Pieces, James Frey describes a scene that supposedly occurred at Hazelden, the Minnesota rehab where much of the book's action takes place:

A Man walks out on stage and Everyone starts clapping. I recognize the Man as a famous Rock Star who was once a Patient here. He holds up his arms in triumph and he smiles and he bows and his black leather is shining and his long, greasy black hair is hanging and his patterned silk shirt is flowing …

Advertisement

The Rock Star, Frey writes, describes how his meteoric success eventually led him to a dissolute life of drugs and booze:

He claims that at the height of his use he would do five thousand dollars of cocaine and heroin a day mixed with four to five fifths of booze a night and up to 40 pills of valium to sleep. He says this with complete sincerity and with the utmost seriousness. … Were I in my normal frame of mind, I would stand up, point my finger, scream Fraud, and chase this Chump Motherfucker down and give him a beating. Were I in my normal frame of mind, after I gave him his beating, I would make him come back here and apologize to everyone for wasting their precious time. After the apology, I would tell him that if I ever heard of him spewing his bullshit fantasies in Public again, I would cut off his precious hair, scar his precious lips, and take all of his goddamn gold records and shove them straight up his ass.

Both of these stock characters—the narcissistic, pretty-boy rock star suffering from a laughable lack of self-awareness and the world-weary anti-hero who is choking on the crap society is shoving down his throat—are typical of the kind of cliché-ridden portraits that populate Frey's book. There's Frey's one true love, a woman who was, naturally, "tall and thin and long and blond like the thickest silk her eyes blue eyes Arctic eyes." There are the small-minded, small-town cops, "fat stupid Assholes with mustaches and beer guts and badges." There's the book-smart, life-dumb drug counselor, a "grown-up version of a kid who spent his childhood sitting behind a computer hiding from bullies." If a novelist wrote a book run through with these kind of straight-from-Central-Casting chestnuts, he'd be politely told to try again … as Frey says he was, by 17 different publishers, before, Frey says, Doubleday's Nan Talese said she'd publish his novel if he recast it as a memoir.

But as just about everyone in America knows by now, courtesy of a careful investigation of his supposed grim exploits conducted by the Smoking Gun, Frey's book turns out to be just that, fiction. Or as Frey himself might put it, A Million Little Pieces is a compendium of "bullshit fantasies" about a life few of its readers have experienced, one redolent with crack binges, alcohol-fueled rages, violent outbursts, self-mutilation, multiple arrests, and several deaths. In Frey's telling, all of this culminates with the author's eventual self-willed recovery, which is presented as a hard-boiled inspiration for others. Frey's hardcover publisher, Doubleday, is still standing by a book that Oprah helped catapult to mega-bestsellerdom, proclaiming that "recent accusations against [Frey] notwithstanding, the power of the overall reading experience is such that the book remains a deeply inspiring and redemptive story for millions of readers." But by Frey's own calculus, those readers are in fact owed an apology—or at least an explanation.

Since one doesn't seem to be immediately forthcoming—last night on CNN's Larry King Live, Frey said he "stands by the book as being the essential truth of my life"—I'll take a crack at it. Late in Pieces, Frey writes about crippling ear infections he suffered from as a child (a claim the Smoking Gun has not contested). Improperly diagnosed, Frey writes that he spent the first years of his life in pain, literally screaming, until at age 2, a new doctor realized what was wrong, thereby beginning a round of operations that eventually fixed the problem. As a Hazelden counselor tells Frey, "If those screams went unheeded, whether consciously or unconsciously, they might have ignited a fairly profound sense of rage within you."

Frey, who by this point in his narrative is well-established as a stubborn iconoclast who insists on dealing with life on his own, Cool Hand Luke-like terms, won't bite. "I just won't let myself be a victim," he writes.

People in here, people everywhere, they all want to take their own problems, usually created by themselves, and try to pass them off on someone or something else. … I'm a victim of nothing but myself, just as I believe that most people with this so-called disease aren't victims of anything other than themselves. … I call it being responsible. I call it the acceptance of my own problems and my own weaknesses with honor and dignity. I call it getting better.

It is sentiments like this that have made Frey into a folk hero and Pieces into one of Winfrey's most popular book-club selections ever. He even boiled down his philosophy into a pithy, two-word motto—"Hold on"—which his acolytes have made into T-shirts and had tattooed on their bodies. (It's catchier than the motivational abbreviation * Frey has tattooed on his own arm: FTBSITTTD, for "Fuck the bullshit, it's time to throw down.")

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Lifetime Didn’t Find the Steubenville Rape Case Dramatic Enough. So They Added a Little Self-Immolation.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 19 2014 6:22 PM Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.