The Awful Untruth

“That this man is standing in front of me and everyone else in this room is lying to us is heresy. The truth is all that matters. This is fucking heresy.”—James Frey, A Million Little Pieces, page 178

“If you’re an addict whose life has been moved by this story, and you feel that what James went through was able to—to help you hold on a little bit longer, and you connected to that—that is real. That is real. And it’s—it’s irrelevant discussing, you know, what—what happened or did not happen to the police.”—Oprah Winfrey, Larry King Live, Jan. 11

“My clients got tremendous value!”—Jack Abramoff, The New York Times Magazine, May 1, 2005

First things first: James Frey is a liar. To say someone has lied, flat-out lied, is to make a claim about that person’s internal moral workings: The person knew something was false and said it anyway, deliberately, with intent to deceive. That’s a tough standard. Better to say that what the person said “appears to contradict” the facts—even better, even safer, to put the facts in the mouth of an objective third party. According to [expert tk], some of the assertions made by author James Frey in his best-selling memoir, A Million Little Pieces, appear to—

Enough. James Frey is a liar. (By the way, so is “James Frey.”) His best-selling memoir, A Million Little Pieces, is a fraud. It is a seamless mass of falsehoods, told deliberately, for the purpose of making money.

“I still stand by the essential truths of the book,” Mr. Frey told Larry King on Jan. 11. Mr. Frey invoked “essential truth” seven times in an hour. It was his main talking point, his defense against an ever-growing portfolio of specific untruths, the bulk of them pinned down on Jan. 8 by the Smoking Gun Web site. Essentially, Mr. Frey seems to be, as his book claims, an alcoholic and probably a drug abuser, who went through rehab in Minnesota in the late fall and winter of 1992. Essentially.

That plain essence, however, would not have rung cash-register bells for the publishing industry. It would not have gotten Mr. Frey to the top of the best-seller lists and into Oprah’s Book Club. So the book includes: a double root canal for Mr. Frey, done without anesthetic under treatment-program rules. An illicit romance between Mr. Frey and a beautiful, doomed crackhead-prostitute fellow patient. A series of scuffles between Mr. Frey and various ward mates, some leading to injury. A back story of a childhood as an outcast, of the tragic death of his first love—above all, of wanton, precedent-breaking drug abuse and crime that left Mr. Frey a wanted man in three states and would eventually send him to jail for three months.

None of that happened.

That is, inquiries by the Smoking Gun, the New York Post and others into police reports, rehab-center rules and records, death records, other people’s recollections and the rules of dentistry found no sign that Mr. Frey’s claimed sufferings and exploits had matched, or could have matched, the actual circumstances of his life. His crack-fueled brawl with Ohio police was an uneventful open-container citation with a Pabst. He never “Blew a .36 and set a County Record” on a Breathalyzer; his longest stay in police custody was a few hours, not in a cell, while waiting for bail.

“The truth will be exposed in the next few days and I will be certain The Smoking Gun will be posting a retraction and apology within a few days,” Mr. Frey wrote on his Web site on Jan. 10. No such retraction or apology has appeared.

The evidence said that Mr. Frey was not a cinematic antihero after all. As a judge put it in Frederick Exley’s autobiographical novel A Fan’s Notes—the drink-wracked 1968 confession of which A Million Little Pieces is the devolutionary descendent—the author was fatuous.

And it didn’t matter. A little more than a week after Mr. Frey’s lawyer threatened the Smoking Gun with a lawsuit, on the grounds that publication of its report would jeopardize his client’s substantial future earning potential, A Million Little Pieces was back atop the paperback best-seller lists. Oprah was standing behind it. Reprints were in the works.

“What would you say to people, your readers?” Larry King had asked as the interview wound down.

“I hope the emotional truth of the book resonate[s] with them,” Mr. Frey replied.

And so it did. “[H]e was supposed to be being so honest,” a skeptic wrote on the author’s Web site on Jan. 15. “You don’t know what’s real and what’s not.”

BUT MR. FREY’S READERS WERE HAVING NONE OF THAT. What of his jail time? “Maybe it FELT like three months. And that would be the author’s perspective on an event in his life that he FELT,” one shot back. Soon the community was swapping tips on how to handle the intrusions of critics: “go to the right where the names are and right click the mouse on the persons name and hit the ignore button / then it wipes out the people talking shit.”

Mr. Frey is not the only person pouring this cocktail of lies and denial—of “emotional truth.” More than one critic quickly picked up on the link between Mr. Frey’s literary career and the fact-averse, spin-happy presidency of George W. Bush. The joint biography is easy. Both men are dry drunks with belligerent streaks, angry and cosseted children of money. Both claim to have turned their self-destructive lives around without formal 12-step treatment, through the power of mass-market personal spirituality—pop Taoism for Mr. Frey, evangelical Christianity for Mr. Bush. Both have awkward gaps in their paper trails.

But the real bond between them is conceptual. The argument for A Million Little Pieces is identical in structure to the argument for the Iraq War: Because of my project, countless [addicts/Iraqis] now know unimagined [inspiration/liberty]—what kind of person would want to take that away by niggling about details that don’t even matter anymore?

“Hold On,” says Mr. Frey, in his recovery mantra. “We’ll stay the course; we’ll complete the job,” says Mr. Bush.

“We support the book,” Oprah Winfrey told Larry King in a dramatic end-of-program phone call, “because we recognize that there have been thousands and hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have been changed by this book.”

That’s the game. Emotional truth is not a property of the story or the storyteller. Emotional truth works on the audience. Emotional truth is the name for the thing that sells.

“From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August,” said Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff, describing in 2002 how the administration rolled out its campaign for the war. It was emotionally true, at the time, that Iraq’s nuclear weapons were an unacceptable threat to the United States. “Threat” was the concept that the market was ready to hear. The mushroom cloud. Sept. 11. A new Sept. 11, but with a mushroom cloud.

Politics is commerce. Literature is commerce. Religion is commerce. Identity is commerce. The sales campaign keeps moving, without regard for internal consistency. JT LeRoy sold books because he was an authentic outsider voice, a damaged teen boy prostitute who could turn his real experience into powerful fiction. Then, as people began asking pointedly about who JT LeRoy was, he became a more ambiguous figure—a fragile transsexual for whom confusion was shelter. When he was revealed to be an outright hoax, “JT LeRoy” became a conceptual prank about celebrity and identity.

Weapons of mass destruction … weapons-of-mass-destruction-related program activities. Emotional truth doesn’t have to endure. It only has to last as long as it takes for the check to clear, for the ballots to be counted, for the money-back guarantee to expire.

So Jack Abramoff could tell the Times Magazine that his Indian clients got “value”—when he was collecting money from one tribe to fight against a gambling ban he had originally pushed through on behalf of a rival tribe in the next state over. The proof was that they were willing to pay. “If a tribe spends millions of dollars to protect billions of dollars,” Mr. Abramoff said, “that doesn’t make them saps!”

THE SAP IS AN ENDANGERED SPECIES NOWADAYS. Nobody is a gullible target anymore. Even if they’ve been gulled. In her Jan. 13 column, Liz Smith defended Mr. Frey (“one of my favorite writers”) against charges that “his hot novel [ sic] … is not entirely truthful as a piece of nonfiction.”

“I liked this book about drug addiction so much that it doesn’t really matter to me whether the author had his fictional way with it or not,” Ms. Smith wrote. The veteran gossip was not credulous, mind you: “I did balk at believing one thing, however,” she added. “I honestly doubt anyone could have root canals done on an entire mouthful of teeth without anesthetic. Maybe, but not likely.”

Maybe. But not likely.

“There’s a great debate about memoir,” Mr. Frey told Larry King, “and about what should be most properly served, the story or some form of journalistic truth.”

Mr. Frey and his defenders were moving the target, retreating into the language of criticism and sophistication. The book was “a subjective story,” he told Mr. King. It was “one person’s event” and “an individual’s perception.” It should not be “scrutinized the way a perfect nonfiction document would be or a newspaper article.”

Mr. King, the old-line interview guy, couldn’t quite get it. In a baffled coda, he mused about the limits of the unreliable narrator. Were he writing his own memoir, he said, “I know that the first famous person I interviewed, let’s say, was Bobby Darin. Now, I have—that’s 49 years ago. Now, maybe it was Danny Thomas, you know?”

What Mr. King was getting at, in his secretly tenacious way, was that no, you can’t fudge the root canal. You can’t fudge the jail time. The truth that James Frey had been offering was not divisible. It was not shaded or interpreted. It was the truth of experience—of testimony: This happened, and I bear witness.

“If James can face his fears and conquer them, I can certainly face mine,” one of Ms. Winfrey’s staffers declared on the Oprah show where Mr. Frey appeared. Ms. Winfrey herself on the program used the power—the literal power, not the subjective power—of Mr. Frey’s story to convince an addict to check into rehab. Then she sent Mr. Frey to visit the patient and urge her on, an emissary of hope. “I truly, truly mean it,” Mr. Frey said, “when I say if I can do it, you can do it.”

A FAN’S NOTES BEGINS WITH A NOTE TO THE READER from Frederick Exley: “Though the events in this book bear similarity to those of that long malaise, my life,” Exley wrote, “many of the characters and happenings are creations solely of the imagination. In such cases, I of course disclaim any responsibility for their resemblance to real people or events, which would be coincidental. The character ‘Patience,’ for example, who is herein depicted as my ‘wife,’ is a fictionalized character …. To this extent, and for this reason, I ask to be judged as a writer of fantasy.”

The question is still open as to what extent Mr. Frey ever presented himself as a writer of fantasy. His original hardback publisher, Nan Talese, now directly disputes Mr. Frey’s claim that her imprint ever considered publishing the book as anything but nonfiction.

There is no disclaimer in the front of Mr. Frey’s book. But he pointed out to Mr. King that his follow-up book, My Friend Leonard, does contain one: “I mean, after some of the issues with A Million Little Pieces were brought up, my editor and I discussed whether we should run a disclaimer, and we thought we should.”

Thus, the copyright page of My Friend Leonard informs readers: “Some names and identifying characteristics have been changed. Some sequences and details of events have been changed.”

Fine. Then comes the opening sentence: “On my first day in jail, a three hundred pound man named Porterhouse hit me in the back of the head with a metal tray.”

In other words: “On my first day in jail*, a three hundred pound man** named Porterhouse*** hit me in the back of the head**** with a metal tray*****.”

*The author never went to jail.

**Weight is an estimate; also the author, not being in jail, never met such a person.

***Not his real name; also the author never met such a person.

****Because the author’s head was not present in jail, such a blow did not actually land.

***** The composition of the tray is a guess, because the author did not actually get hit by it, because the author was never in jail.

The disclaimer in Leonard serves roughly the same role as the author’s note at the front of The Da Vinci Code—which says “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” It’s a false certificate, a stamp of limited authenticity on a work of no authenticity at all. The Da Vinci Code is actually built around spurious texts and bald-faced inventions, but the conflict becomes publicity. Factual truth, or the appearance of it, is another tool to make the sale. In the end, there comes the Da Vinci Code movie trailer, using the language of inquiry to forestall inquiry: “Whatever you’ve read …. Whatever you believe …. ” Whatever. The trouble with Mr. Frey’s memoirs is that the most glaringly fictitious character is not “Porterhouse,” nor “Lilly,” nor even “Leonard.” It is “James Frey.”

MS. WINFREY, FOR HER PART, BLAMED THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY. “I am disappointed by this controversy surrounding A Million Little Pieces,” she said in her phone call to Mr. King, “because I rely on the publishers to define the category that a book falls within, and also the authenticity of the work.” Because Mr. Frey’s work had meant so much to readers, however, she was standing by it, and by his “underlying message.”

It was a hollow performance by Oprah, on two levels. Ms. Winfrey’s readers—the addicts and their families looking for inspiration—are the very ones who most depended on the book not to be a lie. Mr. Frey says that he, the worst of the worst, could beat his demons through willpower and the Tao, without the 12 steps or the psychologists’ advice. In one scene, he throws his Bible and the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book out the window, into a howling storm.

But if Mr. Frey was not the worst of the worst—if he was, under his book’s classification system, one of the Wussies rather than a member of the Hardcore—then his do-it-yourself success is a dangerous prescription. The message to addicts is, as recovering addict Seth Mnookin wrote in Slate, “if you do have a problem, you don’t need to necessarily get treatment or look to others for support; all you need to do is ‘hold on.’”

And Ms. Winfrey’s rebuke to the publishing industry was as false as Mr. Frey’s root-canal story. At that moment, on Larry King, she had the power to do something about the industry’s practices. She could have given Random House the same treatment she gave Hermès—calling out Mr. Frey as a fraud right there, denouncing the book as a lie and urging her viewer-readers to return it en masse, demanding refunds. She could have ordered the company to take the hundreds of thousands of extra dollars that Oprah’s Book Club had brought it and use the money to hire a raft of $25,000-a-year fact-checkers to ensure that nonfiction books were sold on something more than the author’s say-so.

But that would mean admitting that she, Oprah, had been peddling false redemption. And that sale had already been made. The units had shipped. The selected viewer is in rehab, and the audience saw her go there.

The safe call, then, was to stick with James Frey—or with “James Frey.” “James Frey” knows that the world is full of liars and phonies. He tells you about it, in A Million Little Pieces, as he punctures their pretensions. “To make light of it, brag about it, or revel in the mock glory of it is not in any way, shape or form related to its truth, and that is all that matters, the truth,” he writes.

Of himself, contemplating his own death and possible obituary, he writes, “No happy lies, no invented memories, no fake sentimentality, no tears …. I deserve to be portrayed honestly and I deserve nothing more.”

The Awful Untruth