Did Nan Talese Lie to Oprah?
What did James Frey's publisher know and when did she know it?
In her televised interrogation of Nan Talese, whose Doubleday imprint published James Frey's discredited memoir A Million Little Pieces, Oprah Winfrey asked Talese when she first smelled a rat. Let's go to the transcript:
Q: When did you realize that James hadn't told the truth in his memoir?
A: I learned about the jail, the two things that were on The Smoking Gun, at the same time you did. And I was dismayed to know that, but I had not—I mean, as an editor, do you ask someone, "Are you really as bad as you are?"
This isn't technically a lie, but it's breathtakingly (and, one must assume, deliberately) misleading. Yes, Talese learned about the particular fabrications exposed by The Smoking Gun (there were more than two) "at the same time" that Winfrey did. But Talese had reason to believe Frey hadn't told the truth in his memoir well before that.
We know this because Deborah Caulfield Rybak published a piece in the Minneapolis Star Tribune way back in July 2003 that not only flagged other likely fabrications in the book, but solicited comment on those likely fabrications from … Nan Talese. (You can get Rybak's story by clicking here; free-but-unusually-cumbersome registration required.) The credibility problems Rybak cited were not trivial. One concerned the book's very first paragraph:
I wake to the drone of an airplane engine and the feeling of something warm dripping down my chin. I lift my hand to feel my face. My front four teeth are gone. I have a hole in my cheek, my nose is broken and my eyes are swollen nearly shut. I open them and I look around and I'm in the back of a plane and there's no one near me. I look at my clothes and my clothes are covered with a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood.
Here is what Frey's friend Keith Bray told Rybak:
Bray said in an interview that he and another friend took Frey to the hospital before they took him to the airport. "So he wasn't bleeding, and he wasn't unconscious, although he was in blackout and he was a mess," Bray said.
Rybak also talked to several airline employees and was told that no flight attendant would ever allow someone onto a plane in that condition because she wouldn't want to take responsibility for evacuating him. "The only way someone would be on a plane in that condition would be on a stretcher and accompanied by a doctor," said Capt. Steve Luckey, chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association's national security committee.
When Rybak flagged these credibility problems to Talese, did Talese stand steadfastly by her author? Er, not exactly:
"You have to remember when someone is writing in the first person, it is their memory as they recall it," she said in an interview. "And memory is very selective; there's no such thing as the whole story. If they took a lie-detector test it would probably be true, but if that person had a witness all the way through, maybe it didn't exactly happen that way. But that's how they see it."
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of James Frey on the Slate home page by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images.