Democratic Underground

Lies That Sell, Lies That Kill

February 4, 2006
By Mark T. Harris

It 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 reality."

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 well lived.

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 9.

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

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