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A Million Little Pieces

By Jules Siegel

By James Frey
384 pages, $22.95
April, 2003
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, New York

"I woke to the drone of an airplane engine and the feeling of something warm dripping down my chin," begins "A Million Little Pieces," James Frey's story of his ascent from crackhouse ground zero. "I lift my hand and feel my face. My front four teeth are gone, I have a hole in my cheek, my nose is broken and my eyes are swollen nearly shut." His clothes are covered with spit, snot, vomit and blood. He doesn't know how he got on the plane or where he is going, but as he soon finds out, he's on his way to rehab.

This is today's "Bright Lights, Big City." Instead of cocaine and The New Yorker we've got crack and a rehabilitation treatment center in Minnesota. The grungy editorial style diligently avoids glorifying the brilliant descriptions of medical torture, explicit (and often hideously demeaning) sex and even more explicit drugs. A stream-of-consciousness lite effect is provided by the absence of quotation marks and paragraph indents. Certain words are idiosyncratically capitalized -- the Bathroom, the Nurses -- perhaps to suggest that old cosmic paranoia feeling that comes with over-indulgence in hallucinatory substances; perhaps to be literary and cute.

Despite the Burroughs-inflected literary tics, this is an emotionally penetrating narrative that faithfully portrays the institutional rehabilitation process [Oops. Not exactly. See note below.]. It's very commercial, too. Unlike "Naked Lunch," it would make a nice gift for a friend considering detox (one of the Bush girls, maybe?), whether as a warning or a comfort. Faithful to hallowed marketing considerations going back to St. Augustine, all users are portrayed as hopeless addicts. Drug rapture is described in physical and sexual terms and always leads to horrible crashes. There are no hints that self-medication can be a very effective form of self-treatment for emotional and physical maladies.

James Frey operates in a literary zone where the worst case rules to the exclusion of all others. You can't write about the masterpieces that are created while enraptured, the psychological knots untied, the revival of the sheer joy of living. No one can handle drugs. Period. Got that clear? Begin writing. These days, when so many successful folks routinely rely on weird brain torques without requiring professional detoxification, it's not easy to get a gifted writer to fit a book into this Procrustean headlock, much less sign it. It appears that "Go Ask Alice," by Anonymous, the eternally best-selling classic teenage descent-into-drug-hell tale, supposedly based on a fifteen-year-old girl's diary, was faked. As far as anyone can tell, there never was any teenaged girl's diary. Beatrice Matthews Sparks, a Mormon lady from Utah, most likely made it all up.

In "A Million Little Pieces", they've got something better -- a real (and very talented) writer with a real [Oops. Not exactly. See note below.] story who believes very firmly in individual responsibility. The author portrays himself as quite heroic in both his rebellion and his determination to quit, reminding me of John Galt in "Atlas Shrugged." Although it has some synthetic moments, the book is obviously sincere, but the resolution finally boils down to "Just say no."

Frey's case demonstrates that the treatment model can work if the victim is a highly motivated upper-class college drop-out with a concrete physical infancy trauma that can be rooted out in therapy. It also helps to have a loving family show up to help out, even if Dad does have to leave in the middle on one of his emergency business trips. Then there are the political connections made in rehab that enable him to avoid having to do time for an outstanding conviction. Frey mentions these factors in passing, but mainly attributes his recovery to willpower.

"A Million Little Pieces" could be part of the softening-up campaign for the switch toward treatment rather than punishment. Venereal disease prevention in Paris in the 17th Century eventually led to the criminalization of prostitution. Now the high cost of drug criminalization results in the need to declare recreational drug use or self-medication to be symptoms of a treatable disease. Unfortunately, the involuntary treatment model as currently formatted is merely another take on criminalization. It's a lot better than jail for abusers of dangerous addictive drugs such as crack, cocaine, speed and heroin, but how many people would need treatment for marijuana dependency except to avoid prison?

The cost of scorched earth drug enforcement is distorting the entire criminal justice system so ferociously that government financial administrators at all levels are hard put to pay for it. Just as the mentally ill were turned out on the streets because it was so much cheaper, outpatient therapy enforced by the threat of imprisonment will now replace the war on drugs, at least for middle class whites. It probably won't work, but it doesn't use weapons resources that would better go to conventional wars of conquest.

Treatment Description in Memoir Is Disputed -- New York Times

By EDWARD WYATT

[Excerpts]

Since "A Million Little Pieces" was published in 2003, it has been widely reported that the center described in the book is Hazelden, assertions that neither Mr. Frey nor Hazelden has disputed. Hazelden officials, citing medical confidentiality regulations, say they can neither confirm nor deny that Mr. Frey was there. But Mr. Frey's descriptions of the center in his book, which say that it is a lakeside retreat in rural Minnesota that opened in 1949, leave little doubt that he is talking about Hazelden.

"His description of treatment at Hazelden is almost entirely false," said Ms. Jay, who trained as an addiction counselor at Hazelden's operations in Minnesota and who is the co-author of two guides to treating addiction published by the Hazelden Foundation. She has appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" at least six times to discuss issues related to alcohol and drug addiction.

Ms. Jay said she voiced her objections about "A Million Little Pieces" to a senior producer for Ms. Winfrey's program on Oct. 1, nearly a month before Ms. Winfrey's interview with Mr. Frey was broadcast. "I'm coming forward because his descriptions of treatment are so damaging," Ms. Jay said. "These are things that could not happen to anybody at Hazelden or at any reputable licensed treatment center."

Carol Colleran, who worked for 17 years in the Hazelden system, including two years at the Minnesota locations, said that unlike Mr. Frey's contention on "Larry King Live" that only about 5 percent of his book is in dispute, "98 percent of that book is false" in its descriptions of how Hazelden works.

Ms. Colleran, now a certified addiction professional in West Palm Beach, Fla., said she sent her complaints about the book to the Winfrey program by e-mail in November. Ms. Colleran also posted questions about the book on Amazon.com that month.

"I have had young people say to me that if they had a child who was having problems, they would never send them to treatment after reading that book," Ms. Colleran said.


"Book Club" author's best-selling nonfiction memoir filled with fabrications, falsehoods, other fakery, TSG probe finds

JANUARY 8--Oprah Winfrey's been had.

[Excerpt]

Three months ago, in what the talk show host termed a "radical departure," Winfrey announced that "A Million Little Pieces," author James Frey's nonfiction memoir of his vomit-caked years as an alcoholic, drug addict, and criminal, was her latest selection for the world's most powerful book club.

In an October 26 show entitled "The Man Who Kept Oprah Awake At Night," Winfrey hailed Frey's graphic and coarse book as "like nothing you've ever read before. Everybody at Harpo is reading it. When we were staying up late at night reading it, we'd come in the next morning saying, 'What page are you on?'" In emotional filmed testimonials, employees of Winfrey's Harpo Productions lauded the book as revelatory, with some choking back tears. When the camera then returned to a damp-eyed Winfrey, she said, "I'm crying 'cause these are all my Harpo family so, and we all loved the book so much."

But a six-week investigation by The Smoking Gun reveals that there may be a lot less to love about Frey's runaway hit, which has sold more than 3.5 million copies and, thanks to Winfrey, has sat atop The New York Times nonfiction paperback best seller list for the past 15 weeks. Next to the latest Harry Potter title, Nielsen BookScan reported Friday, Frey's book sold more copies in the U.S. in 2005--1.77 million--than any other title, with the majority of that total coming after Winfrey's selection.

Police reports, court records, interviews with law enforcement personnel, and other sources have put the lie to many key sections of Frey's book. The 36-year-old author, these documents and interviews show, wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms, and status as an outlaw "wanted in three states."

 


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