“James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces reads like the passages about speed addiction in David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day except the only comedy is the human one. Frey spills the deep dark innards of the rehab process in an engaging, unwavering manner, telling us about his excesses without swooning self-justified reasons for his alcoholism and crack addiction. Admittedly, the reasons are weak (as is he himself) and the destruction of his body and family is his own fault.
Hesitantly, the book is inspirational though not in a saccharine Chicken Soup way. The inspiration is derived from the ability of some humans to survive and their willingness to do so in the face of animal urges. The animal and the human live in an uneasy balance — more uneasy than most of us would want to admit. The realization that a simple genetic quark can throw the balance in favor of the animal for want of a chemical is difficult to accept. Frey brings us through his journey from animal to human. The animal desire and fury are always claiming, screaming, clamoring to get out. He finds the earliest extensions of this in therapy but never uses this as an excuse, a reason for his addiction. He finds the twelve steps, especially the submission to a higher power disingenuous because of an encounter with an amorous priest. Instead, he searches to find the balance in himself, to right the impurities and chaos he has let his animal self do to him.
Frey is not always likeable. It would be easy to pass his encounter with the priest as a fight against an abusive authority figure. But it is more a condition of his own innate violence, and poorly realized masculinity. His sexual weakness is central in A Million Little Pieces and extends to inability to keep a woman, or consummate a sexual relationship. It is of no surprise that he as an adult male could only react to the advances of another man through violence. His admitted lack of remorse is also indicative of his underdeveloped identity. But despite this (or perhaps because of this) Frey’s brutal humanity is compelling.
The true inspiration of this story is not in Frey’s ability to survive, but the fact that of the twelve other people mentioned that went through treatment with him only one other was not dead or imprisoned by the time he wrote the afterward. The human once it loses control can barely keep the animal in check. Because of this desperate struggle for control, Frey is constantly aware of the animal self. The pain of childhood disease lingers, in itself not serious but the weakness it fomented fuels his fury and rage. The need to consume cigarettes, coffee and, food becomes a pale and inadequate substitution for crack and booze.
Eventually he limits the use of these crutches and lets the human reassert itself. His outward appearance is rebuilt, teeth replaced and wounds healed, weight gained, but the process of recovering from the psychological damage will clearly, as 12-step groups emphasize, be a lifelong, one-day-at-a-time process. The inspiration remains: survival where most perish, knowing his success is on a razor’s edge and any imbalance will kill him.