The Missing Peace of 'A Million Little Pieces'
- 2006 1 Feb
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.
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.
Hope and Healing
As I’ve said, all this happened long before the Oprah scandal. When I found out that she had recommended the book to her vast reading audience, I was stunned. I’d always perceived her as someone deeply committed to bringing people a message of hope. I assume her motives were honorable. But this book?
I couldn’t care less whether or not all of the details of the man’s story were factual, frankly. There was something else about the book that concerned me. Something that made it not only a bad choice for representing healing from addiction, but in fact made the book dangerous.
I’m an alcoholic, and a drug addict. I’ve been clean and sober for 17 years. I now work in private practice, counseling those who share my disease. I know how we think. I know how we feel. I know how lonely we can be, even in a room full of people. The pathology of our thinking is a baffling one, even to trained professionals who might have considerable “book knowledge” regarding addiction; if you’re not “wired” like an addict, it’s tough to figure us out. We’re a special breed. And healing must come to us in a special way.
What disturbs me about A Million Little Pieces isn’t its factual dishonesty. My concern has to do with how it might impact addicts who read it, as well as how it could negatively affect the already distorted impressions held by many in society.
Frey’s “solution” for his “problem” wallows in the same emotional existentialism and narcissism embodied in the addiction disease model. In true recovery, we addicts discover the seeming paradox of faith that Jesus taught concerning all humans: To win, we must surrender. To find strength, we must become powerless. To keep the boat from crashing on the rocks, we must give up control. The anger and resentment to which we have desperately been clinging will kill us, unless we give it all away. Lost in the smoke and mirrors of shame and fear, we addicts must discover an elusive Truth indeed.
The Missing Peace
In my own memoir, near the end, I recount a conversation with the man who walked alongside me during my difficult first months of getting clean, a companion from within my new-found recovery fellowship.
Twenty-one years—he says again. I hadn’t believed him the first time. He’s giving me a ride to a meeting, just as he had for two weeks now. The neon night of Memphis moves past us in blurred streaks.
Twenty-one years—I let the words ride out of my chest on a deep, hopeless sigh, feeling small and inconsequential, like an ant surveying the pyramids.
He smiles. “I wouldn’t get too hung up on time,” he says, one hand on the wheel, in control. He’s in his fifties, face deep-lined, eyes both tired and wise, body still hard and military-trim, gray hair cropped close to his head. He looks confident, at ease with himself and with me.
“How did you do it?” I ask, and there must be something miserable in my voice, something straining against my pitiful first few days, against the seemingly endless and impossible road before me, because he looks over for a moment, silent, then back at the road.
“Don’t push,” he says, and the lightness in his voice is gone. “You’re going to have to let it all go. “The peace won’t come until you stop fighting…” and his voice trails off. A brief nothing. Then—“Really, all you have to know right now is this…”
And I hold my breath, waiting for the magic solution, the answer to my growing madness, some easy way out. And he says, with the smallest of smiles playing at the corners of his mouth, looking at me as if he’s known me all my life—
“There is a God. And you’re not Him.”
Jesus, the Great Healer, turns to the cripple alongside the pool at Bethesda, and asks a simple yet terribly complex question: “Do you wish to get well?”
Well, do we? Because the healing of hopelessness and resentment is about much more than some universalistic mish-mosh of “inner discovery.” The disease of addiction has biological, psychological, social, and spiritual elements inherent in its structure; no one-dimensional approach to treatment will suffice.
But primarily, recovery is about getting honest—with ourselves, God, and others. That’s the missing peace. AA literature, for example, stresses the need for “rigorous honesty,” knowing that all addicts have long since lost touch with what the word even means.
To finally connect with my true self, I must one day at a time lay at the feet of Christ all the anger, fear and shame. To stubbornly hold it in my clenched fists will rob me of the peace and joy that God offers to all who have wandered far from Him.
For the Christian in recovery, we must learn that our courage comes not from staring down the enemy, but instead looking deep into the golden eyes of Christ.
And in them, we find Peace.
Jim Robinson is a successful songwriter, musician, speaker, author, and recovery counselor. A graduate of Christ Center School of Counseling and Addiction Studies, Robinson is founder of ProdigalSong, a Christian ministry utilizing music, speaking, counseling, and teaching to convey healing for the broken spirit. His autobiography, Prodigal Song: A Memoir, has been lauded by professional writers and publishers alike; the book was given the highest star rating and called "a moving and life-affirming portrayal, spiritually rewarding and reader inspiring" by Midwest Book Review.