The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts February 10, 2006

Wanton Distraction
By Matt Goldberg

The Why of Frey

Over Winter Term you probably heard of a controversy involving a man named James Frey and his memoir, A Million Little Pieces. For those unaware of the issue, let me bring you up to speed: After a little bit of investigative journalism by the writers of the website The-, it turned out Frey’s memoir was not so much “true” as much as it was “false.”

This wouldn’t be such a big deal except the all-powerful Oprah decided to make it an official selection of her book club, brought Frey on her show to praise him and ultimately, helped Frey and his publisher make lots and lots of money.

Apparently, Oprah and millions like her found the book to be “raw” and “unflinching” (much like meat) as it chronicled Frey’s tormented life as an outsider who becomes addicted to drugs and eventually has to go through prison and rehab before he came out clean and inspiring.

But as the brilliant minds at The Daily Show put it, James Frey became the first guy who ever got in trouble for not doing drugs. The Smoking Gun revealed that Frey did not spend three months in prison for drug abuse and assault, but rather three hours in lock-up for some reckless driving while under the influence of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Of course, “I was arrested once and let go a few hours later,” doesn’t sell as well as a rousing tale of a crackhead battling abusive cops.

The book is basically just fun little anecdotes like these — when you read them, you can’t help but wonder how anyone actually bought this in the first place. His tale of getting his teeth drilled without Novocain is a great little gem, as is the one about him not being allowed back into North Carolina because he was such a bad man.

And perhaps if Frey’s prose was something special, he could be forgiven. After all, it’s the message that’s important, right? Well, as it turns out, the adjective “raw” doesn’t just describe the book’s plot (and meat). It’s also a good adjective for Frey’s writing style, which seems to be raw in the same way someone who stopped taking English classes after seventh grade would be “raw.”

Unfortunately, I can’t include an excerpt here because it contains naughty language (he uses the F-word a lot...tee hee hee!).

After he was exposed as a fraud, Frey went back to Oprah, who had previously defended him against the accusations of The Smoking Gun. I highly recommend going to Oprah’s website and reading the transcript of the interview. It is much funnier than Tom Cruise going insane on her show.

Why was Frey’s return so great? Because it has earned him humiliation at its finest. First, Oprah scolds Frey for being dishonest. Oprah scolds Frey’s publisher for not fact-checking the book. Finally, Oprah brings out some journalists to talk about Frey’s fraud. All this time, Frey has to sit there on the couch as he is ripped apart by Oprah, real writers, and an audience that will follow Oprah’s tone no matter what (because you never know: it may be Free Car Day!).

But did Frey really lie? After all, as a “memoir,” it is simply his remembrance of his own life. This argument would work better if Frey were schizophrenic and could remember things that never happened.

Frey would have to be one of the world’s most delusional people to confuse spending three hours in prison with spending three months in prison. I know time goes slowly in the joint, but it’s not like he was arrested in Narnia.

Of course, Frey appeared quite cognizant while receiving praise and adulation as his book was bestowed with the honorable mark of Oprah.

I don’t know what the aftermath of this scandal holds for Frey. I don’t really know what to do after you’re exposed as a fraud and lose your movie and future book deals. As for the publishing world, I would like to think that maybe they’ll put more money into fact-checkers, but I doubt it.

I believe that Random House would not have bought Frey’s book if he had tried to sell it as a work of fiction. It was the truthiness (mention me on your show, Stephen Colbert!) of Frey’s work that sold the poor prose and graphic depictions. Frey is the one who will shoulder all the blame, and Random House will continue to push the most mainstream, uninspiring fare they can find.

No one is going to go to a bookstore, see a new memoir on the shelf and say, “Uh oh... it’s from Random House. They put out A Million Little Pieces so I don’t trust them anymore.”

The big lesson we can all take from this is not “Don’t lie,” but rather “Don’t lie and then mess with Oprah.” I’m sure Frey will have something akin to that message on his tombstone. Of course, he probably won’t be dead..


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