As many of you have heard, there is quite a controversy in the book world right now. James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, had been a best-seller several years ago, and then disappeared from the radar. But when Oprah Winfrey highlighted the book as her book-of-the-month selection, new attention was drawn to the work in a big way.

Frey appeared on Oprah’s show. Oprah gushed. There was lots of talk of hope and healing, and the crowd dabbed at their eyes. Oprah wanted the whole world to know that this man had overcome his demons, and shown that there was always a dawn following the storm. The apparent dawn, though, appears to have had a few clouds.

Some of Frey’s “facts” seemed less than factual, and some folks went searching into the author’s past looking for the truth. It turns out Frey’s “memoir” was as much fiction as fact.


The Truth

An acquaintance gave me A Million Little Pieces to read a couple of years ago, long before the Oprah controversy. I had asked the woman if she would read my own memoir entitled Prodigal Song, and she was struck by the fact that my story was in some ways thematically similar to a “wonderful” new book she had discovered. She wanted me to read it, and I did.

The book had a strange effect on me. I thought the author’s style, a sort of bare, stark prose, was edgy and in ways effective. But the tone kept me uncomfortable. It wasn’t the incessant crude words (though certainly he and I seemed to hold different ideas about the beauty of language), or the details of the author’s experiences in a drug and alcohol treatment facility; these are all topics with which I am personally very familiar indeed. There was something else about it, something unsettling. Something dark. And once I reached the end of it, I was convinced the book couldn’t be true.

“What do you mean?” the woman asked when I’d told her my feelings. “It’s a memoir. Of course it’s true.”

“I don’t doubt that the story is real,” I said, and at the time I had no reason to. “That’s not the kind of truth I’m talking about. I do not judge the man’s heart. But reading the book, I couldn’t help wondering if the guy really is an alcoholic.”

The woman blinked. She had just finished my book, and now knew about my own alcoholism and resulting plunge into hopelessness and near death. She had read what happened to me that created such darkness, and the miracles that saved me. She knew about my work now as an addiction counselor.

“What are you talking about?” she asked.

“Well, I can’t diagnose the guy from a distance,” I said. “But he sounds like a rage addict who partied too much. He’s angry at the beginning of the book, and angry at the end. He struggles with surrender. He discounts 12-Step recovery and its reliance on God, and to the bitter end denies that alcoholism is a disease.

The book has very little beauty, grace, or redemption. At the end, he stops drinking by staring down a shot of whiskey and then swaggers away like he’s just won a gunfight. I came away from the story feeling that if he is alcoholic, he’s a relapse waiting to happen.”

The woman was confused, but unconvinced. She vigorously defended the book, and questioned my motives. Finally, she said diplomatically: “Well, your book certainly is a different kind of book.” That was as close as she got to expressing anything resembling a compliment. As much as she liked Frey’s story, I doubt she cared much for mine.