When I was in rehab, one of the boys was taken from the unit to have his wisdom teeth pulled, and returned in time for evening programs visibly high on painkillers. At the time, there were a few rumors that he was faking his inebriation, eliciting tears from a few of the most delicate girls by intentionally slurring. It may have been true, and he was the sort of adolescent boy who might execute a debatably funny prank. But there is no way he was shepherded through his dental experience without anesthesia.
This was Hazelden. Not the same Hazelden in which James Frey was incarcerated (the addiction-services monolith has at least five residential facilities), but a youth services treatment facility in Plymouth, Minnesota. Hazelden cannot and will not reveal an internal policy on dental anesthesia, but I find it unlikely that in the year 2000, a 21-year-old Hazelden resident would be allowed to get doped up in rehab, while that five years earlier, James Frey was forced to cling to tennis balls as his teeth were savagely pulverized. If you could get high on Novocain, I would be eating Jordan Almonds every day.
In his absurdly popular memoir, A Million Little Pieces, James Frey claims to have gone through two root canals without anesthesia, because he was in rehab and not allowed to have any drugs. Many casual observers, and more notably the Village Voice, have articulated doubt about Frey’s anesthesia-free surgery. But it may gain more currency now that the American media has skewered Frey for having lied about some of his exploits and many of his legal problems in the book he claimed was entirely true.
When you have been to rehab, people are constantly pushing rehab books on you, and when reading them I usually spend most of the time hoping the other people who read the book don’t think I’m as nerdy as the writer. I finally read A Million Little Pieces last summer, although it was published in 2003, when a boyfriend actually put a copy in my hand and asked me to read it. I hated almost every minute of it, and I couldn’t put it down. Never mind the fact that Frey complains about other people complaining, or that he displays an absurd lack of respect for the people who are trying to help him, or that he repeats himself constantly. Even if I put aside the fact that Frey rallies against the rehab establishment while his parents are footing exorbitant bills to keep him there (it would have cost at least $30,000 to stay at Hazelden for two months), I still had to contend with the ridiculously long dental surgery scene, of which I did not believe a word.
But I was riveted, and so was Oprah. So were the thousands of people I have seen reading it on the New York City subway, in restaurants, on airplanes. I have spent an embarrassing amount of time since I read A Million Little Pieces trying to understand the shape of my hatred, and fascination that was inexplicably attached to the ire.
I was talking to a friend last week about just this topic, and she said, “you hate him because you know him.”
Perhaps it’s because I did, and do, know dozens of boys just like James Frey. Frey’s legal troubles may have been largely fabricated, but they were not unrealistic. Despite his lies, he provided an accurate portrait of a particular breed of young man as an addict. The tedious rebelliousness, the transparent violence, the unrelenting strings of the f-word, are all familiar characteristics of a type of rehab male that I found intriguing when I first arrived at Hazelden and abhorrent less than six months later.
When news of the Smoking Gun expose broke, I suspected that I would be delighted. However, despite months of cultivating an aggressive resentment towards the young writer, the American media’s lancing of his remarkable arrogance has done nothing to edify me. In fact, I don’t really care. Although I read the Smoking Gun article eagerly, waiting for a glimmer of satisfaction, it never came.
The exhibition of Frey’s lies is disappointing. It is disappointing, not because his story didn’t happen, but because his story has happened thousands of times. With embellishments, Frey’s tale is not particularly exceptional, just the story of a young guy with a really, really reckless streak. Without embellishments, it is a run-of-the-mill drunkalogue, as they say in the biz (the biz, in this case, being addiction treatment facilities). The amazing thing is that Frey convinced a nation that he is totally unique.
The reason why Frey’s fabrications matter is because the validity of his story depends, not on the common elements of his experience, but on the unique elements. Take away Frey’s sordid past, and he’s not a very interesting character. But he purports to be a supremely interesting character, and uses his past as evidence.
Frey has been riding a high tide of addiction memoirs, none of which have garnered the commercial success of A Million Little Pieces, and none of which are quite as cinematic as Frey’s book. The relative success of each book seems to rely partly on the established celebrity of the author, but mainly on the appeal of the book to audiences wider than the addicted. Memoirs are interesting because they are voyeuristic, appealing either because it is so much different than the life of the reader or because it is so much like the life of the reader.
Of all the addiction memoirs of the last 10 years, Dry, Augusten Burroughs’s second autobiographical tale, bears the most similarity to Frey’s book and has achieved the most commercial success. Burroughs also presents an unusual past, a traumatic childhood, a long addiction. He is funnier than Frey; the book is very real, but it offers the ultimate recovery of its author.
Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp is another well-written story about the author’s alcoholism and recovery. But Knapp’s experience is minimally gory: she was never arrested, never violent, rarely used hard drugs. Her ultimate redemption is moving, but I suspect, for non-addicts, the book is a bit boring. Knapp offers experience that she believes contains something universal; Frey offers himself as a specimen, something foreign and strange and dangerous.
From a genre perspective, How to Stop Time by Ann Marlow is the doppelganger of A Million Little Pieces. It is a fine book, an intellectual autopsy of addiction that is long on insight but short on both gore and redemption. Marlow doesn’t preach, she doesn’t moralize, she isn’t sentimental. Her redemption is minimal because she doesn’t seem to think she needs to be redeemed. It’s a revolutionary perspective, but not one that appeals to the general population, who don’t mind addicts so much as long as he or she gets clean and learn something from the experience. From a commercial standpoint, it also generated the least amount of publicity.
A Million Little Pieces has attracted a great deal of discussion about Frey’s “redemption” and there seems to be something inherently appealing about the supposed transformation of the young man. But almost every rehab memoir on the market talks about redemption; none of them have been nearly as commercially successful as A Million Little Pieces.
Frey doesn’t actually write much about his redemption; most of the book is filled with stories of his exploits, tales of his posturing, and descriptions of his bodily functions; he almost completely ignores the universality of his experience and portrays himself as having a unique origin and behaving in unique ways. Frey’s many fans must be drawn to the gore because it is those graphic descriptions that separate A Million Little Pieces from the rest of the rehab memoirs, it’s what makes the book gripping for non-addicts, and it’s why the revelation of his lies is going to be such a big, fat deal. As someone who has heard innumerable gory stories about addiction, Frey’s exploits were not particularly interesting to me. I have, honestly, heard it all before.
What is disappointing about the expose, even for those of us that have wished James Frey would just go away, is that, unlike many people who choose to write memoirs, he displays some obvious talent for writing, an ability to capture a picture of a time and place, and an ability to evoke a sentiment in myself something like the sentiment one would have for a particularly naughty cat with an overactive bladder. Had Frey used his talent to accurately describe the absurdly difficult process of sobering up, without becoming entangled in a web of equivocations, he might have written an enduring book about a common experience.
In a recent article about the Frey scandal, Slate writer Seth Mnookin conveyed an essential point: there is a tendency among people in the early stages of recovery to embellish the events of their past. I had a great friend in rehab who, by the time I had known him for three months, had claimed to have owned a record store, an escort service, a nightclub, a restaurant, three million-dollar homes, and a drug business that ran hundreds of thousands of dollars of ecstasy up and down the East Coast. He was 22, and all of it, except the restaurant, was a lie. His and Frey’s embellishments are the result of insecurity spawned by spending time with people who are older than you and who have lived much harder and faster.
Most people who have spent any time with a vociferous group of former drug addicts can tell you that Frey’s story is not outlandish, even if Oprah thought—pre-scandal—to tout it as “like nothing you’ve every read.” While I was hanging around treatment facilities I met people who peed in soda bottles because they were too paranoid to go the bathroom, a guy who cut off his own arm while high on cocaine, a guy who was thrown in a dumpster when he overdosed and the people he was shooting heroin with thought he was dead. These people are alive, two of them are still sober, and all of them have harder stories than Frey’s, lies or no lies. But none of them are writing books, probably because they don’t think of themselves as writers and probably because they would have a hard time articulating what it was like to go through what they have been through. Frey doesn’t have that problem, he excels at articulation, but he was missing a story he thought good enough for memoir.
Frey’s victory over alcohol is cinematic. He stares down the drink, the drink stares back, and he wins. Most addicted people have had more than one of these moments. Sometimes it’s the end of the story, but more often, it’s not. It’s a scene that is repeated again and again, in different forms, over the course of years, and it often ends with one drunk alcoholic. But memoirs that show the complexity of defying a drink, not once, but many times, can seem tedious. In real life, it is tedious, but the daily denial doesn’t translate well onto the page. Other addiction memoirs are more nuanced, but less dramatic, they are less gory, but have substance earned when the writers spend less time writing about what phenomenal addicts they were, and more time writing about the process of trying to change. In fabricating a tale sexy enough for the best-seller list, James Frey wasted the chance to create something more meaningful than notoriety.