Picking Up the Pieces
How James Frey flunked rehab, and why his fakery matters.
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 …
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.")
Seth Mnookin is the author of the New York Times best seller Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts and Nerve Took a Team to the Top and Hard News.