Truth or fiction?
Some years ago, a magazine asked me to write about the Texas Prison Rodeo. Never having visited a penitentiary, I asked the only college professor I knew with a Marine Corps tattoo for etiquette tips. Should I ask convicts about their crimes? If I didn’t, he said, they’d take me for a coward. Actually, that’s not the word he used. A former prison superintendent, my friend was not given to polite euphemisms. He said there was one big thing to remember. He leaned back, put his boots up on the desk and lit a cigar for dramatic effect. “I don’t think you’re a naïve person,” he said slowly. “But some of those boys will lie to you.”
Would that somebody at Doubleday or the Oprah Winfrey program had gotten that advice before dealing with James Frey, author of the allegedly non-fiction memoir of drug and alcohol addiction “A Million Little Pieces.” Actually, it’s doubtful they’d have listened. After 17 publishing houses turned down his lurid, sentimental tale of woe and redemption as fiction, Doubleday proposed packaging it as a true story.
Frey went happily along.
Largely because Oprah, the queen of daytime TV talk, featured the author on her program, “A Million Little Pieces” became a huge best-seller. The paperback sold 1. 77 million copies last year, more than any non-Harry Potter book. Its sequel, “My Friend Leonard,” the story of a mobster Frey supposedly met in rehab, is currently at No. 9 on the New York Times’ hardback bestseller list.
It will be interesting to see if the books remain on the “non-fiction” list, because last week, the sleuths at the smokinggun.com Web site posted the result of a careful investigation into the facts behind “A Million Little Pieces.” As some skeptics had suspected, they’re mainly fabrications.
An author who repeatedly writes, “I am an Alcoholic and I am a Drug Addict and I am a Criminal,” also turns out to be a Big Liar like almost everybody else down at your friendly, neighborhood state penitentiary. Except, get this: Frey’s never actually been to prison, unless you count a few hours in a small-town Ohio lockup waiting for a frat brother to
bail him out on a DUI charge. Shoot, I’ve spent a lot more time in jail than he has, albeit only as a journalist.
According to smokinggun.com, “documents and interviews show [Frey] wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms and status as an outlaw ‘wanted in three states.’”
There’s no evidence Frey was ever wanted anywhere.
That crack-fueled brawl with redneck sheriff’s deputies that left him beaten half to death and facing felony charges of “Assault with a Deadly Weapon, Assaulting an Officer of the Law, Felony DUI, Disturbing the Peace, Resisting Arrest, Driving Without a License, Driving Without Insurance, Attempted Incitement of a Riot, Possession of a Narcotic with Intent to Distribute and Felony Mayhem”? Never happened. The cop who booked Frey for DUI says he went along like a little lamb.
That FBI cocaine-dealing probe Frey claims targeted him at Ohio’s Denison University? He wasn’t targeted, and no feds were involved.
“We’re not talking Detroit here,” says the local cop who conducted the probe. “It’s like Biffy and Buffy saying, ‘I think we should steal a stop sign.’”
Even that heartbreaking tragedy straight out of the classic corn-ball song “Teen Angel” turns out to be bogus. Two high school girls died in a tragic train-car collision in Frey’s hometown years after he says it happened, but neither was his girlfriend and he wasn’t involved.
Like another dry-drunk ex-frat boy I could name if I were in a partisan mood who swaggers around telling tall tales to gullible audiences, Frey’s a big faker. If he’s ever even been in a fistfight, I’m sure he lost a one-punch KO.
My guess is that Leonard, the warmhearted hit man, is either purely imaginary or just another big-talking addict, along with Lilly, the suicidal crack whore with a heart of gold. So what happened when Frey got caught? He went on “Larry King Live” to alibi that, well, he’d been drunk or loaded when most of the events happened, so maybe he got some
details wrong. He compared himself to Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Then Oprah called in to say she stands by him. They said they loved each other. “What’s relevant,” Oprah said, “is that he was a drug addict who spent years in turmoil... [and] stepped out of that history to be the man that he is today, and to take that message to save other people and allow them to save themselves.” What’s dangerous, say experts in addiction, is Frey’s contemptuous dismissal of 12-step recovery programs and psychiatric intervention. And what’s downright alarming is an American culture that increasingly rejects hard truths for emotionally satisfying fables.
•–––––—Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and recipient of the National Magazine Award.
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