[2 February 2006]
I love Oprah. I don’t resent her power—I am awed by it. But while she generally uses her powers for good: promoting classic literature, aiding hurricane victims, raising awareness about child abuse, and so on, occasionally our benevolent queen of pop culture needs to get all Old Testament God on someone’s ass. James Frey sold his fabricated stories of criminality and addiction to Oprah, and so on her 26 January show, she took him down like Sodom and Gomorrah.
Even before Oprah declared James Frey to be America’s Next Top Author, doubts were cast regarding the veracity of Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Two root canals with no anesthesia? Really? It seemed like a bit much, but most of us swallowed it in part because the efficacy of the book hinges on our belief. For Oprah and her viewers, it was a powerful thing that Frey endured his missteps and could walk on stage with his beaming momma as an Oprah-approved writer. It validated our hope that people do change for the better.
In Oprah’s kingdom, the revelation that Frey may have bent his sophomoric dalliances into a melodramatic rampage is like a resurrected Jesus claiming that the crucifixion was “eh, not that bad.” But in order for Oprah, her viewers, and the rest of us to move on from the betrayal caused by Frey’s absurd exaggerations, we needed to see him punished. Humans are gluttons for schadenfreude, the act of finding pleasure from other’s pain. This is why we buy gritty books about addiction and crime—they provide evidence that someone suffers more than us. Then Oprah compounded our schadenfreude by taking Frey onto her stage and essentially beating him with a yardstick while Frey’s dunce cap bounced up and down to the rhythm of her vengeful strikes.
Oprah unleashed a panel of royal magistrates to further castigate Frey and his partner in crime, Nan A. Talese, the publisher and namesake of the Doubleday imprint that released AMLP. Talese is arguably the one who should be on the fryer as many believe that it was her idea to repackage Frey’s novel as a memoir to boost sales. New York Times columnist Frank Rich summed up the meaning of the public flagellation by borrowing Stephen Colbert’s concept of “truthiness.” Frey is our whipping boy for all the other lies and half-truths that we regularly consume from political doublespeak, reality television, and advertising. But Frey seems worse than all the other liars because he put it in a book, the sacred cow of the entertainment industry. The point of Oprah’s Book Club is simply that books and reading are good. So when a book is deflated to reality TV’s level of hyperbolic shit mongering, it offends us readers. We expect more from books.
Oprah had to do something big in order to take her stake in the media frenzy while divorcing herself from the negative aspects of the press. From the tearful opening moments of her Frey-centric show onward, it was a spectacular display of the awesome power that is Oprah. She apologized to her viewers for supporting Frey in the initial fall out from The Smoking Gun‘s exposé and then marched the bad boy out to her couch to explain himself. Frey acknowledged that the three-month prison stint recounted in Pieces‘s follow up My Friend Leonard was more like a couple of hours. He also confessed that he changed his rehab girlfriend’s mode of suicide from wrist slitting to hanging. Oprah, flabbergasted, demands, “Why did you have to lie about that?” The expression on her face was priceless.
After the break Oprah laid into him over the exhaustingly described root canals. After some badgering Frey confesses, “I have no idea if I had Novocain.” Within the first 15 minutes, Oprah already irreparably damaged his credibility because he clearly is still lying. You remember if you have dental surgery without anesthesia, but if that’s fuzzy to him then we can no longer be sure that any of the other characters actually existed and what was once an astonishing, if bombastic, true story is now just another shitty novel. Oprah took him out in the first round, but makes him stick around while she trots out a battery of bookish experts to perform a live burial of the former golden boy. It was brutal, but let us all be thankful that Oprah left Dr. Phil out of it.
I have no doubt that Frey will be able to corral his tangle with Oprah’s wrath into martyrdom amongst her many detractors, and possibly squeeze another memoir out of it. Now he’s an anti-hero that succeeded in duping the most powerful woman in America and sales of his book certainly aren’t hurting from the attention. I don’t know what Frey’s next move will be, but there will be one and it probably won’t be entirely unsuccessful. Plus now he can boast, with evidence, that he was part of one of the most enthralling hours of live television ever.