Bucking the program

Will we ever recover from James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces?

Photo By David Robert with Photo Illustration by David Jayne

* Tradition Eleven of Alcoholics Anonymous states that AA members need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.

Last month, when The Smoking Gun Web site exposed author James Frey’s best-selling alcohol and drug recovery memoir A Million Little Pieces as a tome filled with wild exaggerations and outright lies, it confirmed suspicions that ours has become a profoundly dishonest culture.

Frey’s fraudulent non-fiction came on the heels of similar controversies regarding fellow memoirist Augusten Burroughs, phony transsexual novelist T.J. LeRoy, as well as the widely publicized fabrications of journalists Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair and Judy Miller. In the first decade of the 21st century, truth is a rapidly diminishing commodity.

Frey, in writing A Million Little Pieces and its best-selling follow-up, My Friend Leonard, committed one of the few unpardonable sins in contemporary non-fiction: He included incidents that could be verified by official documents, if only the incidents had actually occurred. Indeed, as The Smoking Gun discovered, Frey fabricated his capitol C “Criminal” career depicted in his books almost entirely from whole cloth. His bad boy bravado would perhaps be compelling, if it were true. The fact that it isn’t should be insulting to anyone who purchased his books and to real, suffering addicts.

I came to the Frey controversy relatively late, having missed the buzz generated when Oprah Winfrey selected A Million Little Pieces for her influential TV book club in September. Oprah’s blessing propelled the book to the top of the New York Times’ best-seller list, and it has been heralded as an inspiration to millions of alcoholics and drug addicts nationwide. Frey claims to have kicked drugs and alcohol through willpower alone, and he trashes the 12-step approach to recovery practiced by members of Alcoholics Anonymous for the past 70 years.

As both a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and a writer of non-fiction, I can’t claim to be an unbiased observer of the Frey phenomenon. Nevertheless, before reading A Million Little Pieces, I was willing to give the author a fair shake. Perhaps the falsehoods were but a small portion of the total work, as Frey claims. Unfortunately, I was to discover they were far worse than I could have possibly imagined.

One in a million
As more than one literary critic has noted, recovery from alcoholism or drug addiction, with its built-in phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes narrative arc, lends itself easily to memoir. Perhaps this crutch explains why so many rehab memoirs are written so badly. To note a few of the more recent examples: Elizabeth Wurtzel’s More, Now, Again; Augusten Burroughs’ Dry: A Memoir; and Frey’s A Million Little Pieces.

Don’t let Frey’s cover blurbs fool you. He is not, by any stretch of the imagination, “the greatest writer of his generation,” as suggested by the New York Press and Elle. His book is not “the most lacerating tale of drug addiction since William S. Burroughs’ Junky,” as claimed by the Boston Globe. No, A Million Little Pieces is a truly dreadful work, in which random capitalization and incessant repetition substitute for genuine style, cardboard cutouts stand in for authentically developed characters, and irrational rants masquerade as intelligent insight. It’s amazing it was ever published. I feel sorry for Oprah for liking it.

Lest the reader think my critique benefits from hindsight, know that Frey’s fakery failed to sneak by the New York Times’ Janet Maslin. “Mr. Frey is reported to have originally presented this material as a novel when he looked for a publisher,” she wrote in her 2003 review. “Little problem: This story is supposed to be all true.” Author John Dolan, literary critic for the Moscow-based alternative newspaper Exile, in the very first sentence of a review titled, “A Million Pieces of Shit,” calls Frey’s first book “the worst thing I have ever read.” In my opinion, this is not hyperbole. It really is that bad.

The one thing the book had going for it, of course, was that it was a true story. Yet its most believable parts—Frey’s multiple run-ins with police, which come with the alcoholic/addict territory—were also among the easiest for The Smoking Gun to disprove. “I am an Alcoholic and I am a drug Addict and I am a Criminal,” Frey intones over and over and over again. Maybe he’s trying to convince himself, because according to law enforcement records, the violent altercations with police, the 90 days served in jail and the FBI drug probe described by Frey simply did not occur. It wouldn’t be all that odd for an alcoholic or a drug addict to experience such events, and the fact that Frey made them up makes one wonder if his entire story is fabricated.

And indeed, Frey’s fibs continue to mount. In Pieces, he describes helping a female classmate sneak out of her parents’ house at night; she is killed when her boyfriend’s car is struck by a train. The accident happened, but the girl was four years older than Frey and, according to her parents, she never knew him. Economics professor Steve Levitt, author of the best-selling Freakonomics, used a special database to discover if Lilly, Frey’s love interest in both books and the cliché hooker with a heart of gold, committed suicide in Chicago. Levitt found one suicide that matches Lilly in age, but doubts that the deceased, who had a college degree, could be a crack-smoking prostitute such as Lilly.

Frey himself has backed off many of the claims in A Million Little Pieces. The book opens with the author coming to on an airplane on his way home to mommy and daddy. “My front four teeth are gone, I have a hole in my cheek, my nose is broken and my eyes are nearly swollen shut,” he writes. These wounds play pivotal roles in the drama to come at the renowned Hazelden rehabilitation clinic in Minnesota, where Frey is dropped off by his parents in 1994. He has ceased defending the scene in which he has root canal surgery without novocaine, a circumstance proved false by the New York Observer, which could find no dentist within the vicinity of Hazelden willing to perform such a procedure. During his appearance on Larry King Live to defend himself from The Smoking Gun’s accusations, Frey admitted that the hole in his cheek—in the book, a doctor pokes his finger through the hole—was in reality a split upper lip incurred when his front teeth were broken off in an “accident.” Sounds like someone “accidentally” punched his lights out.

Frey shields his falsehoods by minimizing them, noting that 95 percent of the book’s action takes place within the recovery clinic and has not been disputed. He gains a huge leg up here, since, thanks to confidentiality laws, Hazelden refuses to comment on the controversy and can neither confirm nor deny his story. I know, I called them. Yet nothing that occurs in the clinic strikes this alcoholic/addict and former rehab resident as real. Such facilities are expensive, and generally those without insurance can’t afford to attend unless they come from upper-middle-class backgrounds like Frey. In order to stay in business, a certain level of discipline and civility must be maintained. But Frey’s Hazelden resembles Sing Sing more than a recovery home. He’s assaulted by one resident and nearly strangles another. Twice, he’s nearly molested by a homosexual. He continually strays off the center’s grounds. He has sex with one of the female patients. Almost all of this with the full knowledge of staff members, when any one of the transgressions would be cause for immediate expulsion. During lectures, he plays cards with his cronies, a distraction that would never be permitted. He meets unbelievable characters culled from lost episodes of Hogan’s Heroes such as Ted, a thrice-convicted felon who’s been sentenced to life-without-parole yet somehow gets to attend a pricey drug rehab before serving the rest of his years in the penitentiary.

All of this calls many things into question. Does Random House imprint Doubleday, publisher of A Million Little Pieces, have editors? Has anyone bothered piss-testing Frey, to determine if he’s still clean, as he maintains? Was he ever the alcoholic/addict he claims to be in the first place?

Apparently he was, if his mother, who appeared with junior on Larry King, can be believed. She vouched for the blood-covered airport scene, minus the hole in the cheek, the broken nose and the spit, snot, urine and vomit also allegedly covering her son; she admits dropping him off at Hazelden. Interestingly, in the book Frey devises an out for his beleaguered parents, claiming they had virtually no knowledge that he’d been a daily blackout drinker since the age of 12 or of a juvenile crime record longer than Pinocchio’s nose. Despite these grandiose claims to desperado-dom, A Million Little Pieces is bereft of any clue that Frey actually did drugs: crack cocaine’s sweet, acrid euphoria; heroin’s make-the-world go away rush, PCP’s moonwalking break from reality. It’s all blood and piss and shit and vomit, no fun whatsoever.

The thing is, at least for this alcoholic/addict, the whole point of using mass quantities of alcohol and drugs is that it’s fun, at least at first. When the fun stops—interrupted by, say, numerous run-ins with law enforcement, unsympathetic employers and dour physicians—the abuse and the conflict begin. That’s what makes recovery such a natural topic for memoir. But since Frey apparently never had fun in the first place, there is no conflict. Who wouldn’t quit in his piss-snot-vomit-filled shoes? So he must go begging for an antagonist. He finds it in the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Meet King James
The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, first published in 1939 and now in its fourth edition, is a fairly remarkable document. It will never be mistaken for literature, but as a self-help book, it has few equals. Its first 164 pages contain the 12 Steps, a spiritually-based program that has helped millions of people recover from alcoholism and has since been applied to more than 200 separate addictions, from drugs to food to sex. The Big Book remains the basic text for Alcoholics Anonymous, and most AA meetings begin with a reading from Chapter 5, “How It Works":

“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. … They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty.”

With such a stern emphasis on truth, it’s immediately understandable why someone like Frey might have a few issues with the 12 Steps. Also known as the Program, the steps are a staple of rehab facilities worldwide, Hazelden included. White Boy James, as he was known back in the ‘hood, first telegraphs his prejudice against the steps on page 26 when he spits a simple concept like honesty out of his mouth like dirt. The scene is a bathroom in Hazelden. A resident named John approaches James and poses a question out of the blue.

“You ever fuck anybody in the ass?”

“What are you talking about?”

“I got into it in Prison and now I’m addicted to it. That and rock cocaine. I thought you should know that right off the bat. … Honesty and openness are very important around here. They’re part of the Program and since I’m working the Program, I wanted to tell you. Is that OK?”

Does anyone, even a situational homosexual, talk like this? Or does this bogus dialog merely foreshadow the coming assault on Frey’s three greatest fears: Gays, God and Alcoholics Anonymous?

The attack begins in earnest when Frey finds a copy of the Big Book in his room. It’s been given to him before, “by friends who thought they could change me. … I have never read it before, nor even bothered opening it. When it was given to me, I threw it in the gutter or stuffed it in the nearest garbage can.”

In AA—or anywhere else for that matter—such behavior is called “contempt prior to investigation.” Frey skims through the Big Book, selecting the passages he finds objectionable and ignoring sections that might actually be useful to an alleged hard-ass such as himself. He sets up a series of straw men and proceeds to burn them down. AA is a philosophy of “replacement of a chemical for a God and a meeting.” AA co-founder Bill Wilson “is the Jesus Christ of the movement, the Savior and the Messiah, and although Bill did not die on the cross, he certainly lived on it.”

If Frey had bothered applying his limited analytical powers to anything past the first chapter of the Big Book, he might have discovered that the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous heavily weighed the question of religion before including it in the 12 Steps. Unlike A Million Little Pieces, the Big Book actually had editors—400 of them. Physicians, psychiatrists, clergy and others experienced with treating alcoholics were invited to suggest changes to the text before publication. Elements of Freud, Jung, Christianity, Eastern philosophy and even quantum physics are seamlessly incorporated in what nowadays is termed a spiritual—not religious—program of recovery. As the Big Book states in Chapter 2, “There is a Solution":

“The distinguished American psychologist, William James, in his book Varieties of Religious Experience, indicates a multitude of ways in which men have discovered God. We have no desire to convince anyone that there is only one way by which faith can be acquired.”

This cross-cultural approach to spirituality is the main reason I call the Big Book a remarkable document. The book theorizes that a transcendent or spiritual experience appears to break the cycle of alcoholism. How that experience is achieved is up to the individual. When one turns their life over to “God as we understand him” as suggested in the Third Step, God or the Higher Power can be anything: a doorknob, the group, Jesus, the Buddha, a mantra, the cosmos, whatever. Critics of AA and even AA members themselves may try to tell you different, but that’s not what it says in the Big Book, and the Big Book is the Program of Alcoholics Anonymous.

This nuance is lost on Frey, who literally (the word must be used cautiously with this author) chucks his Big Book out the window. Yet with unintentional irony, Frey later adopts the Tao as his de facto Higher Power, apparently unaware that many of the pithy phrases he finds so agreeable in Chinese philosophy are also embodied in the 12 Steps. For example, the principle “Don’t try to control others. Let go and let them be,” is precisely analogous to the First Step, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable,” which is sometimes expressed as being “powerless of people, places and things.”

Perhaps tiring of a grown man who behaves like an oppositionally defiant teenager, the counselors at Hazelden notify Frey that it’s time to go. First, he must complete the Fourth and Fifth Steps, which require the individual to take a moral inventory of their past behavior and then discuss it with another human being. Frey impresses us with another litany of criminal offenses he never committed and is soon ready to take the Fifth Step. But there’s a hitch. Hazelden requires him to complete the step with a priest, and Frey balks.

It’s difficult to communicate how insanely stupid and false this claim is. Hazelden is a secular rehabilitation facility. There is simply no way it would require a patient to complete the Fifth Step with a priest. It didn’t happen. Instead, Frey is setting us up for the horrible secret he’s been holding back for 403 pages: While on a bender in France, where his upper middle class father had placed him in a sinecure, he sought solace in a Catholic church. The priest put his hand on Frey’s leg and the inebriated former frat boy freaked out. Try to imagine Oprah recommended this book after reading the following “true” passage:

“I hit him on the point of his chin and I heard a crack and the blood started to flow. I stood up and hit him again. I did it again and again. I don’t know how many times I did it, but at a certain point all I could see was blood. After I was through with his face, and after he was knocked out, I pulled him off the couch and spread his legs. I spread them so I could kick him and I did. I kicked him about 15 times as hard as I fucking could.”

Try to imagine Doubleday published A Million Little Pieces as non-fiction instead of notifying the French authorities. Try to imagine Nan Talese, who handled the book for Doubleday and happens to be the wife of Gay Talese, one of America’s most prominent non-fiction writers, told the New York Observer she’d still publish it as memoir if Frey submitted it today, only with the false portions removed. What, exactly, would be left?

Finally, imagine that after the controversy broke, sales of the book actually increased at a brisk pace, and are now approaching four million copies. Readers aren’t the only ones who don’t seem to mind being lied to. Approximately half the publishers who’ve been interviewed in media stories about the dispute admit they have no problem with Frey’s deceit. During Frey’s appearance on Larry King, Oprah herself called in to support the man who, for all intents and purposes, will be remembered best as a liar.

Last week, Oprah reversed course, condemning Frey for his deception. Her mea culpa comes a bit late for thousands of readers who’ve bought the book based on her OK. Society has rewarded Frey handsomely for his dishonesty. He’s now a millionaire, with a beautiful wife, a child and a luxury apartment in New York City. More books and a screenplay are in the works. He has fame, fortune, everything a writer wants—with the possible exception of integrity. I suppose I should be jealous, even angry about his success. But it says in the Big Book that “resentment is the No. 1 offender.” So tonight I’ll say a little prayer of forgiveness for James Frey, king of the frauds.