Last week, all hell broke loose in the literary world when an Internet site, the Smoking Gun, published a 12,000-word article that accuses best-selling author James Frey of being a fraud.
Frey's memoir, A Million Little Pieces, is an account of his descent into addiction and ascent to redemption. It sold almost 2 million copies last year, after Oprah Winfrey chose it as her book club's September selection.
The Smoking Gun documented gross exaggerations and fictions pertaining to Frey's claims of a criminal life. For example, he claimed that he'd driven into a policeman while drunk with a bag of crack in his car, and that he was sent to jail for three months. In fact, he was in jail a few hours after being arrested with half a bottle of beer when he drove one tire of his car onto a sidewalk.
Frey, who appeared on "Larry King Live" last Wednesday, refused to apologize for his falsifications, instead characterizing them as ordinary failures of memory. He also claimed, completely untruthfully, that he had frequently acknowledged that the book included embellishment. King, a famously miserable interviewer, never really pressured Frey with the obvious: You don't misremember what didn't happen at all. The word "lie" never came up. It appeared that King had not even read the Smoking Gun story.
King's show ended, dramatically, with a phone call from Winfrey. She said that she was disappointed that the book wasn't completely true but that she didn't regret promoting it because of its redemptive message of hope to addicts. (You could almost hear members of the Bush administration saying, "It doesn't matter if there were no weapons of mass destruction. The important thing is that the Iraqis have been liberated.")
The story fascinates me for two reasons. First, I'm a recovering alcoholic myself. Second, as it happens, last week I finished conducting an 11-week workshop on the memoir. It's my belief that aesthetic work, like writing or painting, is potentially far more useful than mainstream psychotherapy in helping people understand and come to peace with themselves.
In fact, putting aside the more outrageous lies, it is the very problem that Frey's scandal presents that makes the memoir so useful in personal growth. Frey is right to contend that all memory is inexact. It is actually a form of fantasy, and the way we remember our lives -- the way we fantasize the past -- is very much in service to the way we live our lives presently. The more neurotic we are, the more we tend to focus in a particular way on the past, often losing "memory" of experience that might contravene the story we tell ourselves.
So an important part of writing a memoir is struggling to get at truth broader than we've known. You proceed with the understanding that memory is inherently a fantasy but, for just that reason, you become more concerned about the truth, not devoted to its embellishment, unless you're writing fiction.
Mary Karr, author of The Liars' Club, one of my favorite memoirs, put it this way to the Associated Press: "You're a solitary voice, telling a life story as truthfully as you can. Even when you think [your memories] are true, you have to peck and push and nudge yourself. Is that right? Could it have really happened that way?" Thus, Frey, she concluded, has "the moral credibility of a sea mollusk."
As a recovering alcoholic, I find Frey's lying especially obnoxious. One of the book's appeals is that he spurns 12-step recovery. He rejects the disease model of addiction, instead viewing it as a character flaw that can be changed through the exercise of his own will. He boils his recovery down to the advice, "Hold On," a rewrite of Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No."
Unfortunately, by lying so much, he actually ends up legitimizing the 12-step approach, which demands, above all, rigorous honesty. The dishonesty in the telling of A Million Little Pieces is thus a symptom of his addiction. Oprah might want to think about whether such an outrageous liar has really been "redeemed." Does, as Frey maintains, the "essential truth" of his memoir remain if he can't be trusted to tell the truth?
And why, many ask, would anyone be dishonest in order to look worse? In one way, Frey's book is true to the 12-step practice by which members take turns telling the stories of their fall into addiction and climb out of it. Anybody who has sat through a dozen or so of these stories becomes quickly aware that a kind of competition develops to present the most harrowing story.
Writer James Wolcott explains it well: Redemption appears all the more miraculous if your descent has been particularly low. The broader culture has adopted this view, too. Disinterested in the reality of tedious, slow change, we idealize sociopaths who promote the miraculous at the expense of the truth. When their games are exposed, just like the Bush administration's, the loyalists will aver that the truth doesn't really matter. That, in turn, enables more dishonesty.
And, meanwhile, people like Frey laugh all the way to the bank.
Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology.
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