Lies That Sell, Lies That Kill
February 4, 2006
By Mark T. Harris
is almost too bad writer James Frey's spiraling literary reputation
stumbled so soon after his initial triumphal appearance on the Oprah
Winfrey Show. With his book A Million Little Pieces an Oprah
Book Club selection and New York Times number one bestseller,
you could almost imagine an upcoming audience at the White House.
There America's latest literary sensation might have enjoyed a pleasant
afternoon sharing "war stories" from his stoned-out past with that
other reformed frat house wild boy.
Frey could have entertained the President with tales from his
harrowing three months in jail (or was it five hours?). The President
might have reminisced about his days of sacrifice and glory in the
Texas Air National Guard (or was that hell week at his Yale fraternity?).
Perhaps they both could have shared a laugh over the President's
whopper about those infamous Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
No matter. In today's America, truth is apparently an ever-fluid
thing, one more commodity to be marketed, manipulated, twisted,
burnished, tweaked, sold and sacrificed for the sake of a business
deal or a political agenda. If there's enough money involved, the
rule in effect seems to be the New Age mantra: "You are your own
In Frey's case, reality meant selling what was a work of fiction
based on his life as whatever a buying publisher wanted it to be.
Publisher Nan Talese thought it was great nonfiction for her Doubleday
imprint. And then along came Oprah's Book Club, whose selection
of A Million Little Pieces turned the book's modest success
into a number one bestseller. But the pinnacle of Frey's success
was soon followed by his nadir. Thanks to the Court TV-owned website,
The Smoking Gun, Frey's story of an addict's debauchery and redemption
were exposed as more a writer's fantasy of the life not exactly
Of course, any memoirist is allowed certain license in his or
her recollections, inherently subjective as they are. Ann Patchett,
author of Truth and Beauty: A Friendship, the story of her
relationship with author Lucy Grealy (Autobiography of a Face)
recalls a book reading where an impressed reader once asked Grealy
how she could remember so many long-ago details and conversations
from her life. Grealy responded simply, "I didn't remember it. I
wrote it," making the point that her autobiography was not a verbatim
transcript, but a work of literature. As an artist she recreated
her life on the written page, but presumably did so honestly and
to the best of her recollection.
Unfortunately for Frey, if everyone is entitled to their opinion,
as someone once said, everyone is not entitled to their facts. Frey
fabricated important parts of his book, then spent two years telling
everyone it was letter-perfect truth. He even obliged interviewers
and audiences at book readings with further embellishments of some
of the made-up material. Do you want to know how the author supposedly
kept himself from being bored during his phantom three-month imprisonment?
Well, Frey would tell you about the reading list of Russian novels
he used to pass the long, dreary days in his imagined Cell Block
Obviously, Frey and his publisher didn't call the book fiction
or use some appropriate disclaimer because the story as "the raw
truth" was seen as the best marketing angle. In other words, it
was all about profits. To make matters worse, the publisher insisted
in the wake of the Smoking Gun report that Frey's book remained
"deeply inspiring and redemptive." Oprah also stumbled when she
dismissed challenges to the book's authenticity as "much ado about
nothing" when compared to its larger, inspiring message of redemption.
In other words, the lies shouldn't matter as long as the book had
made people feel good.
But even Oprah could not extinguish the critical flame burning
around Frey, putting her own reputation at risk. And so much ado
about nothing quickly became much ado about Oprah. This was not
a moment for issuing a statement and moving on. Rather, the media
savvy host invited Frey back on the show, where he was now vilified
as The Man Who Betrayed Millions. You would have thought Frey would
have already snuck off to the Solomon Islands with his millions,
rather than stick around for Winfrey's version of Court TV. Instead
the author endured this denouement, confessing all before the church
of Oprah and promising to be a "better person" in the future. As
deceitful as Frey was, there was something unsettling about the
show-trial tenor of the televised spectacle.
No doubt Oprah understands damage control. But did she ever understand
more than just the allure of Frey's fictionalized wild action drama?
Few commentators have discussed the fact that Frey's writing shows
little real interest in the why of his addiction. Instead A Million
Little Pieces exhibits the attitude that understanding the root
of addiction just leads to blaming others. No way was this sexy
outlaw writer, or however he likes to think of himself, going to
become one of the stereotypically whining voices of a recovery movement
that supposedly celebrates "victimhood."
So instead we got an overblown soap opera, complete with James
Frey "wanted" posters. Frey's blood, vomit, and bullshit
story was the literary equivalent of the Hollywood action movie
that leaves the impression the average American shoots two or three
people on any given day. It's all entertaining apparently in a voyeuristic
sort of way, as our protagonist kicks and screams (or is it struts?)
his way to sobriety. In place of real insight and self-reflection,
we got the message to just "hold on." But hold on to what exactly?
A ruggedly romantic determination to get straight on your own fighting
terms? It doesn't matter. Frey was incapable of exploring with any
integrity the roots of his troubles when the truth was along on
this ride strictly on a standby basis.
Tellingly, Winfrey's and Doubleday's early willingness to shrug
off Frey's trickery suggests the ways American society has become
contaminated by the sludge of media hype, marketing, and public
relations that now saturates so much popular discourse and culture.
Indeed, America is spin nation extraordinaire. The electoral process
expresses less the functioning of a vital, lively democracy than
the capacity of highly paid consultants to cynically manipulate
public opinion. Public relations has become the respectable term
for an entire industry devoted to manufacturing reality for a price.
Even wars are launched now like new ad campaigns for SUVs or the
latest prescription drugs "you should ask your doctor about."
The lies can totally collapse (e.g., "Saddam's Weapons of Mass
Destruction pose an imminent threat to U.S. security") and today's
schemers of spin barely blink as they shift to a new narrative (e.g.,
"The occupation of Iraq is really about democracy and freedom, not
WMDs"). Remarkably, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz
could openly admit in Vanity Fair that the alleged threat
from Saddam's WMDs became the paramount issue in the case for war
simply because the White House thought it was the best public relations
angle for selling the war, one they had long ago made up their minds
to wage. Yet such a cynical admission mostly evoked only equally
cynical shrugs from a jaded corporate media, not to mention that
sector of the anesthetized public rendered numb and mute to all
the lies, scandals, and outrages of contemporary public life.
Ironically, Frey's ignominious second appearance on the Oprah
Show was interrupted in the Chicago area for a press conference
with President Bush. From Frey's frying pan of lies viewers were
suddenly taken into the very mouth of American mendacity.
Unfortunately, it will most likely be a long wait before we see
Oprah confront George W. Bush about those missing liters of anthrax,
sarin, mustard, and VX nerve agent that made a U.S. invasion of
Iraq a matter of such once-pressing national security. Nor is it
likely she'll be asking any questions about how exactly you define
"freedom" in an occupied land where the electricity is as erratic
as the unemployment is steady. And where endless killing reveals
a country growing not into "democracy," but into civil war.
Mark T. Harris first reviewed James Frey's A Million Little
Pieces for Chicago's Conscious Choice magazine in 2003.
His latest article, "Welcome to 'Whole-Mart' - Rotten Apples in
the Social Responsibility Industry" appears in the Winter 2006 issue
of Dissent magazine. You can contact him at TheEditorPage@aol.com.