In Defense of Big Jim: Another Look at the Million Little Pieces Controversy

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After recently reading that Oprah has apologized for rebuking James Frey, I felt encouraged to write up my thoughts about Million Little Pieces, Frey’s controversial memoir about drug addiction that includes many fabricated details. I hadn’t done it earlier because, frankly, I didn’t want to be in the James Frey apologist camp. I find the fact that he made up so many details about his recovery incredibly sad. I say this because he offers such an accurate and compelling portrait of a certain type of recovering addict—almost an archetype—that has been in every treatment center I’ve ever been in. And I’ve been in a quite a few.

I started using heroin when I was 17. When I was about 23, I made my first attempt at inpatient treatment and over the next four years I participated in five more attempts. These included stays at different types of inpatient facilities, including the secular and religious; hospital and farm; big city and rural; 12-Step and Therapeutic Community. To understand where I’m coming from, you have to understand something about how treatment works. Each facility might have a different approach (sometimes wildly different), but there seem to be two constants across all programs:

  1. Clients can never engage in physical violence, or even threats of physical violence;
  2. Clients cannot have sexual or romantic relationships with other clients.

These are the cardinal rules.

Of the two, the rule about violence is probably the greater issue because this sort of behavior has the potential to affect the whole environment. You can’t foster the emotional depth required to right an upturned life, if everybody is attacking one another. The other rule prevents individuals from getting lost in the heady experience of a new relationship or just junking out on sex.

Now here is the interesting thing about these rules, or any rules: The disingenuous among us can often find ways to use the rules themselves to gain an advantage they otherwise might not be able to achieve. As you might expect, this is especially problematic in drug treatment. Once, during a stay in a religious facility in Syracuse, I met a young man who claimed to regularly receive prophecies from God. The facility was a charismatic Christian operation, and prophecy and other gifts of the spirit were part of the inpatient milieu. This young prophet was about eighteen, from a wealthy family, and handsome. He wore his hair feathered back like Bon Jovi and only received transmissions from God right after lunch, during the long, hot catechism classes that followed. His messages were almost always harmless aphorism. The first time it happened, I thought he was having an epileptic fit. We were all sitting at our desks and he began to shake, making his chair rattle. Soon he began speaking in an other worldly voice. You knew it was God speaking through him, because he used words like Verily and Thou.

I glanced over at Miguel, a drug addict from the Bronx about the same age as me, and rolled my eyes. The proctor, a slight man with soulful eyes, would wait patiently for these prophecies to end, his hands folded on the lectern. What else could he do? In this facility, Jesus was A-1 and to prophesy was not only condoned, but encouraged.

Religious institutions may offer unique occasions to subvert the rules, but the no violence rule offers a similar opportunity for everyone. Going into inpatient treatment can be an intimidating experience, especially your first time around. You’re suddenly thrust into the middle of hierarchy, where previously you may have never even understood a hierarchy existed. In an inpatient facility with strict rules about violence, you can’t just beat one another down to determine the Alpha. Instead, it’s all done with stories. Instead of uttering prophecy, a person might exaggerate his credentials. This might involve the kinds of drugs one used, the types of crimes one committed, or the length of time spent in jail. Because of the rules about violence, there isn’t a good way to sort out the liars. Typically this behavior comes from young men of wealthy families, during their first stay in treatment. Most of the time, it’s just ignored. With the rules in place, the risk of one client beating up another is nil. The greater risk is that clients posing as thugs will never come to understand themselves with any amount of depth.

This seems to be exactly what happened to James Frey.

Ignoring the two cardinal rules of treatment, Frey describes his treatment experience as a lot of tough posturing and a relationship. As I read Million Little Pieces, I kept thinking Frey had written a memoir from the point of view of an unreliable narrator. He seemed to have really captured the frightened little rich kid, desperate to prove his own worth. In treatment usually what happens is that the bona fide tough guys (you just know), start to openly explore their own fears and inadequacies. This is often enough to get the most hardened poser to come around and start being honest with himself (and everyone else).

I kept wondering when Frey, the recovering addict and author, would throw back the cape, renounce all the bluster and swagger, and show us who he really was. But I got to the end of the book, and it never happened. Maybe Frey couldn’t throw back that cape, because he had never had that experience in treatment. Maybe he never came to realize his own limitations.

Until Oprah hammered him on national television.

You can’t go through treatment six times without developing some empathy for people who fuck up spectacularly, especially other addicts. One afternoon in Syracuse, the Bon Jovi Prophet started to offer pointed messages critical of our entire class. The proctor listened calmly then asked him to remain after class for a private conversation. I have no idea what was said, but from that day forward the prophecy stopped. One assumes the proctor disabused this boy of the notion that he could speak for God.

What else could be done?

There is almost always a comeuppance in store for the addict who bends the rules too far to meet his own needs. Some of us just need a little more of a push to get to a more productive place.

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3 thoughts on “In Defense of Big Jim: Another Look at the Million Little Pieces Controversy

  1. Timmy says:

    Well put popps, preachin from the gut! I read 3/4’s of this book and one of my partners at my unit dropped this Oprah bomb about her callin out my boy Jimmy, and he tells me “that book is bull shit man, he made It all up”! I was like, no way man, its memoir! You can’t lie! Hahahaha I was fired up. I never finished the book! I’d rather read Grisham! Hahahhaha next memoir I read is yours my man! Good post popp!

  2. An interesting meditation that sheds a lot of light on the Frey affair. One thing that gives me sympathy for him is that he wrote that book as a coming of age novel–and his publisher converted it to memoir to cash in, which it did, then exploded in their faces. Frey went along, of course, and shouldn’t have, but I can imagine doing it with a big publisher saying she really knew The Rules and The Reality, etc. The lesson of the Frey affair is that writers must keep their own standards and not rely on editors or certainly publishers to inform them about The Way it Is.

  3. Tim Elhajj says:

    I just started Ben Yagoda’s new history of memoir and he documents the Frey and other memorable memoir scandals in the opening chapter. I had known that Frey was trying to first sell the mss as fiction, but didn’t realize it was a coming of age novel. One thing is clear: the publisher certainly had a good sense for what will sell. Yagoda claims Frey made over six million, despite the scandal (talk about million little pieces!). In comparison to what he earned, the number of people who returned the book seemed trivial. I know I still have my copy somewhere.

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