by Michael Stuart Kelly
A Million Little Pieces by James Frey seems like an Objectivist’s dream of addiction recovery. Granted, there is a lot of foul language and an overly simplistic writing style. Both are objectionable, but the message of personal responsibility with rational metaphysics is loud and clear. At the end of the book, here is what James Frey said to his drug clinic recovery counselors right before he was released from his three-month stay:
I don’t believe in the Twelve Steps. I don’t believe in God or any form of the Higher Power. I refuse to turn my life and my will over to anything or anyone, much less something I don’t believe in.
Then he continued:
I’m going to live my life. I’m going to take things as they come and I will deal with what is in front of me when it is in front of me. When alcohol or drugs or both are in front of me, I will make a decision not to use them. I’m not going to live in fear of alcohol or drugs, and I’m not going to spend my time sitting and talking with people who live in fear of them. I’m not going to be dependent on anything but myself.
How’s that for independent selfishness in the finest Randian spirit? And capitalism-wise, the book sold over 3.5 million copies, enriching both publisher and author with literally millions of dollars. Great promotion. Win-win for everybody. A shining example just begging for an Objectivist endorsement.
At least it used to seem that way. A recent public scandal broke and it was discovered that many of the facts in this book were simply made up.
The basic problem
Barbara Branden sent me an email a few months ago suggesting that I read this book as research for my own writing (a book of memoirs I am doing right now covering a spiritual journey Objectivism-wise through situations I have lived through, including alcoholism and drug addiction). When I started reading Frey’s book, I wrote back to her that it was not very good, and that it was way too sensationalist and gruesome to be real.
On seeing how popular it had become back then, I decided to write this review. I had already targeted my audience. I wanted to write for addicts and sympathizers who leaned toward Objectivism. The matters I wanted to discuss were a bit different than what was given in other reviews, though. I wanted to question Frey’s actual drug and recovery experiences and look at some of the philosophical principles involved.
Now that the scandal has broken wide open, I find that these issues have become more crucial than ever. So, in a word, this review is about a successful book that has now failed and become disgraced. (The metaphor to an addict’s life is spinning circles in my mind.)
Let’s start with the crux of the matter: ethics. How important are ethics to recovery from addiction? Is the problem of addiction merely psychological and due to forces beyond the individual’s control, or is it a matter of morality, i.e., simply a matter of choice? As I have stated elsewhere, I strongly believe that this is a false dichotomy and that it actually is a mixture of the two.
Without going into all the different free-will versus determinism arguments, let’s use a little common sense. There are parts of an addict’s mind that are ill and they need to be treated. Regardless of any other consideration, this treatment needs to be objective, i.e., it needs to identify symptoms, diagnose the maladies, administer appropriate treatments, and most importantly, effect a cure for what was diagnosed. Let us call this part the psychological area. Then the addict needs to make certain decisions – basic value choices – in order for any treatment to continue to be successful once he is out on his own. Let us call this part the philosophical area.
Since I am basically talking to an addict and sympathizer public, let me stress that almost any recovery book is valuable. Simply reading a case history about another person overcoming the torment of addiction is inspiring. Even if it does nothing else, even if it has no extra wisdom to impart, it adds to a subconscious list of people who found the way out. It lets the addict know that this was possible for one person, so by implication it is possible for him.
There is only one essential condition: the story must be based on reality. This reality must ring true for both the addiction and the recovery. James Frey’s book does not meet the reality test at all. Both his addiction and recovery are wrong. But he goes two steps further. His personality is wrong and his history is wrong.
There is only one thing that rang 100% true to me. That was the fact that Frey did have some contact with addiction at some time in his life. However, I strongly suspect that he read up on addiction and recovery before he started writing, and I would further bet that he read some kind of literature on how to create best-sellers, highlighting the parts about creating tough guys, overcoming extreme situations and presenting gruesome scenes for shock value.
The world has loved the circus since recorded history. People have constantly paid good money to see deformities and monsters. And this is Frey’s real target audience, not intelligent readers, not the afflicted and not their loved ones. Frey tries to show the world of the addict as a circus attraction to people who pay the price of admission. Oprah Winfrey was his ringmaster for awhile, but her particular extravaganza needs attractions based on reality and the exposure of Frey’s scam started affecting her own credibility. (She recently roasted Frey in public in a widely promoted backpedal.)
This book is less than worthless. It is potentially harmful. At the very least, a real addict will smell a rat when he reads it. His reaction, however, is anyone’s guess. He might throw it away in disgust at the falsity. Or he might relapse from bitterness that the world rewards such hypocrisy. Or worse, he might adopt some of the false attitudes in the book as rationalizations to keep a “back door” open in his mind for any future temptation.
Addicts exaggerate their experiences. All addicts do. This comes from the desire to manipulate people, but a lot of it is due to emotional turmoil and plain bad thinking. One essential part of long-lasting recovery is learning to identify reality correctly, both the good and the bad – nothing less and nothing more. What Frey seems to teach is that you can exaggerate and lie all you want to and the more you do, the more you are rewarded for it. That is not a good lesson for a recovering addict.
If any of this rings a bell with you about this book, or if you have some other negative reaction, then please let me remind you that you just paid to see the two-headed dog and the bearded lady. Nothing more. Reality is intelligible, it is rational and it is a great place to be. The world of James Frey does not exist. It came from the same place you go when you get high.
A few bogus elements in the book
What kicked off the exposure of Frey’s fabrications was an investigation by the website, The Smoking Gun, called “The Man Who Conned Oprah.” I will not go through the full story since you can read about it here. But basically, Frey’s criminal records were examined and found to be vastly different than what he stated in the book. He presented himself as some kind of tough guy with a multiple record of hard time – very belligerent and sassy to police officers. Actually, he spent very little time in jail and was characterized by the law officers interviewed as being quite polite.
One other detail has caused a bit of a stir. Frey acquired a girlfriend in the clinic named Lilly. He claimed that she hung herself in the end. Investigations have proven this to be untrue and doubts are now even raised about her suicide.
Thus, much of Frey’s history is falsely embellished.
The medical facts and events did not convince me at all when I read the book. Many have now become debunked. But let’s look anyway.
The day after being checked into the rehabilitation clinic, One Doctor Baker administered 41 stitches to Frey’s cheek, lip and mouth (and scrapped off scabs), all without the benefit of anesthesia. Also, the good doctor then proceeded to re-break his broken nose (with an impressive “crack”) and set it. All this hurt like hell, of course, but essentially Frey was nonchalant and cool about it.
Later, he had two teeth capped and two root canals done without anesthesia. They strapped his head with a belt to a dentist's chair to keep it from moving. According to him, the dentist was prohibited from administering any kind of drug since he was in rehabilitation. Oh, yeah... I forgot. After that particular excruciating and mind-blowing experience (which he bravely faced while suffering superhuman agony, writing “bayonet” a few gazillion times), he humbly thanked the dentist on the way out and magnanimously told him not to feel guilty for the pain he inflicted.
In one notable event, Frey went off by himself and slowly pulled off one of his own toenails to fight his inner “fury.” That part I can almost believe, except that it worked perfectly as therapy in the book. He didn’t do much limping afterwards, either. Even all the vomiting didn’t come off as real. Here’s a typical quote:
Blood and bile and chunks of my stomach come pouring from my mouth and my nose. It gets stuck in my throat, in my nostrils, in what remains of my teeth. Again it comes, again it comes, again it comes, and with each episode a sharp pain shoots through my chest, my left arm and my jaw. I bang my head on the back of the toilet but I feel nothing. I bang it again. Nothing.
To be fair, Frey’s descriptions of the onset of craving attacks are pretty accurate from my own experience. There is one part of this he glossed over, however, and it is of the utmost importance to addicts. Craving attacks lessen in intensity over time once you stop using. Granted, the book only covers three months, but even in that short time span, this is noticeable and should have been highlighted. If I remember correctly, Frey only mentioned this in passing during discussions with the clinic staff. He did not include it in his long sensationalistic descriptions of the attacks, probably for that very reason – weakening attacks are not very sensationalistic.
Frey’s handling of one recovery experience called User Dream bothered me enormously. I had forgotten about my own experiences. In a User Dream, you actually use your preferred drug in all the glorious details. The sensation is so real you can even get high for an instance. Almost always, you wake up in a cold sweat and tremendously upset for having relapsed. Someone who has not experienced this has no idea how real and devastating it can be. The impact is so horrible that it does not need to be exaggerated. A mere description of the emotions will do to cause a reader to empathize mightily.
Well for Frey, his User Dreams were something out of a low-budget horror film. Here’s how the first one starts:
I sit alone at a table. It’s dark and I don’t know where I am or how I got here. There are bottles of liquor and wine everywhere and on the table and in front of me there is a huge pile of cocaine and a huge bag of yellow crack. There is also a torch, a pipe, a tube of glue and an open can filled with gasoline.
To any real addict reading this, go ahead and laugh. I mean it. Come on! All that stuff at the same time? Gasoline too? Even really young slum kids will not touch that stuff if they have glue to sniff. Dayaamm!
Of course, he proceeded to go through it all in sequence, lingering on all the outrageous and shocking details. Frankly, I admit I got a bit angry at being reminded of the deeply upsetting and harrowing User Dreams I had gone through by this circus-like account.
If I wanted to, I could go on and on about the false ring that permeates this book. Character-wise, Frey’s tough-guy personality completely leaves out the self-pity that most all addicts have to deal with. Imagine a John Wayne character strung out on crack and you have this knucklehead.
Believe it or not, there are even more elements in the book that just don’t cut it, not to mention a cast of characters that includes a mafia gangster and a judge.
The dishonesty of all this becomes quite clear when you look at Frey’s history. He was born on September 12, 1969. That makes him about 35 years old right now and 33 when the book came out. According to the book, he was 23 years old when he checked into the rehab clinic. He had started drinking at 10 and doing drugs at 12. At 15 he was drinking daily and at 18 had crossed alcoholism with hardcore drug addiction. He was the son of a rich man, not a street kid, and his parents didn’t have a clue. Right. Gimme a break!
Apparently after surviving all that and cleaning up at 23, he not only had finished high school, he did his normal 4 years of college. Do the math and see if it adds up.
In 1998, Frey worked as a screenplay writer on the movie, Kissing a Fool, then wrote and directed Sugar: The Fall of the West. In 2000 he was a producer for Bad Seed (originally Preston Tylk) and in 2001, See Jane Run.
I had never heard of any of these films before, I got the titles from research, but still, one thing stands out. This guy directed a commercial feature film in his mid-twenties, shortly after serious addiction recovery. (You can read more about James Frey in a Wikipedia article.)
Why am I mentioning this? Because, my dear addict/sympathizer reader, this book sold over 3.5 million copies and I want you to understand that this is not the place to get any information or inspiration about addiction recovery. It does not deserve even the minimum benefit of doubt. This guy is a phony from the get-go.
If you are still having doubts, think about this. A Million Little Pieces was originally shopped around to the publishing houses as a fiction novel. It was turned down by everybody. It was published only after it was repackaged (apparently without any change to the text) as a true nonfiction memoir.
A final note
There is one major point that stands out about Frey’s writing style for Objectivists. He does a silly little thing about eliminating all spaces between lines, paragraph indentations, quotation marks and so forth. All this makes it hard to read the book. But Frey uses very simple language. And he repeats. Then he repeats. Then he repeats some more. So you can read the whole thing completely out of focus and still get the good parts. It seems like Frey has done Rand one better and come up with a more perfect style for Why Do You Think you Think? in Atlas Shrugged than she did.
(A devastatingly correct analysis of Frey’s writing style is given in “A Million Pieces of Shit” by John Donal. This is one of the first negative reviews of the book – May 29, 2003 – and it is by an American expatriate in Russian, of all places.)
Here is an extremely perceptive quote from “James Frey's real crimes? His rich-kid fibs” by Ian Brown (you need to register to read the article, though):
Emotionally clichéd, intellectually vapid and stylistically excruciating, the vast majority of these books rely on boilerplate format: Start with the darkest, most hackneyed account of one's downfall; invent a lily-white and utterly infantalized vision of goodness and redemption at the other end of the scale; and proceed swiftly from one to the other, simplifying all emotion along the way.
Does this sound like any recovery experience you are personally familiar with? Anywhere? Well that is a pretty accurate outline for A Million Little Pieces. I am greatly tempted to say that if you are an addict and take James Frey seriously and relapse because of it, then you deserve it. But relapsing is too critical an issue for me. So please, don’t take this book seriously. Throw it in the trash. And don’t relapse.