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From “Brutally Honest” to Just Plain Brutal: James Frey Gets a Spanking from Oprah

I wasn’t planning to write anything about James Frey and A Million Little Pieces, but watching his second appearance on Oprah has kind of encouraged me to organize my thoughts. It was a riveting piece of TV, mostly because we have so few opportunities in this day and age to view a public flogging. When Oprah said, “I regret that phone call”—referring, of course, to the call she made to Larry King defending Frey—it was kind of like watching Bill Clinton apologize for lying about Monica Lewinsky. It was almost that uncomfortable. My unease, of course, was nothing compared to Frey’s. These were among her first words to the disgraced author: “It’s difficult for me to talk to you.” I mean, the woman talks for a living. She’s talked to wife-beaters and teen sluts. She’s talked to Dr. Phil, for heaven’s sake. Ouch.

Frey might have been a little more discomfited had he not maintained a near-sublime state of disconnection. When Oprah asked him about The Smoking Gun, he replied, “I think most of what they wrote was pretty accurate.” It was like he was talking about something utterly unrelated to himself.

His cool, kind of stupid—turns out he’s quite the mouth-breather—detachment was an interesting contrast to the tough customer named “James Frey” he created for his memoir (I haven’t read it, but I’ve, you know, read about it). Of course, this may be because Frey is now a successful author rather than a recovering addict; during the show, he explained that he found self-aggrandizement to be a useful coping mechanism during his darker days. I think most of us can relate—Lord knows, I cherish my anecdotes of alcohol poisoning—but most of us don’t publish memoirs in which, say, a failure to take out the trash when mom asked turns into matricide.

Mostly, this episode of Oprah was a chance for her to say she was wrong, and then make Frey pay for it by sending him through a journalist spanking machine. I’m not saying he didn’t deserve it, but the show really didn’t address the more interesting facets of the situation.

At one point, Oprah asked him whether or not his successfully suicidal girlfriend really existed, and Frey affirmed that she did—she cut her wrists rather than hanging herself, though. This turned into a brief conversation about whether or not other individuals in the book were fabricated or misrepresented, and Frey tried to make a distinction between characters and real people. Oprah wasn’t buying it, but he kind of had a point. Speaking as someone who has written some autobiography—I’ve got a little something in an anthology coming out later this year—I can say that, in order to craft an effective memoir, one has to turn one’s friends, relations, and self into characters, and one has to turn one’s experiences into story. This transformation is an aesthetic necessity. I’m not talking about making shit up—I’m talking about writing. I guess I’m saying that the people—the real people—in the memoirist’s life might be surprised by the way they are portrayed, and that the memoirist might be a little surprised by what the process of writing reveals, too.

As part of their insanely exhaustive coverage of the Frey scandal, The New York Times ran an essay by Mary Karr. Not only do I feel like the hard-luck memoir maybe could have been retired after her The Liar’s Club—she so totally nailed the form—but I also think that Karr’s response was one of the more illuminating to come out of this sad episode. Here’s my favorite part

...I rejected the strong suggestion of one publishing executive that I include a touching goodbye scene with my mother. “But I don’t remember it,” I told him, and readers were left without what I’m sure would have been a narratively comforting farewell. Sometimes to forget an event may be the most radiantly true way of representing it.
Mr. Frey seems to have started with his perceived truth, and then manufactured events to support his vision of himself as a criminal. But how could a memoirist even begin to unearth his life’s truths with fake events? At one point, I wrote a goodbye scene to show how my hard-drinking, cowboy daddy had bailed out on me when I hit puberty.
When I actually searched for the teenage reminiscences to prove this, the facts told a different story: my daddy had continued to pick me up on time and make me breakfast, to invite me on hunting and fishing trips. I was the one who said no. I left him for Mexico and California with a posse of drug dealers, and then for college.
This was far sadder than the cartoonish self-portrait I’d started out with. If I’d hung on to my assumptions, believing my drama came from obstacles I’d never had to overcome—a portrait of myself as scrappy survivor of unearned cruelties—I wouldn’t have learned what really happened. Which is what I mean when I say God is in the truth.

Nan A. Talese, Frey’s publisher, tried to make a distinction between truth and authenticity that reminded me of a friend’s description of her senior thesis on the difference between history and heritage: History is a good-faith attempt to describe the past; heritage is what you get at Colonial Williamsburg. However, Talese was right when she said that “People do not remember the same way.” Oprah wasn’t interested in exploring this idea, but it’s an important one, I think. Throughout the show, Oprah kept emphasizing the value of truth, but at no point did she acknowledge that it’s not always easy to find. One doesn’t have to deny the existence of objective reality to argue that the truth is sometimes inaccessible, and that memory is subjective.

In any case, I think Oprah’s concern for the sanctity of the truth is not something she shares with all or most of her viewers, or all or most Americans. Rather, I don’t think people are disappointed to learn that Frey is a big, fat liar simply because we all cherish the truth as an absolute good. I think people are pissed because we all love a freakshow. We love stories filled with degradation and debasement, and we not only want writers to tell us these stories—we want them to be the story. The JT Leroy saga is good illustration of this phenomenon: Leroy’s books were bought and sold as fiction, but would they have been as successful—as beloved by hipsters and the literati—if people didn’t believe that these novels of a transgendered teen hustler weren’t written by a transgendered teen hustler? And, as we all know by now, Frey actually tried to market his manuscript as a novel, but he was only able to sell it as a true story. I don’t know what this says about us as a culture, but it can’t be anything good. As for Mr. Frey, I guess he’s got one thing going for him: At least he didn’t pretend to be Native American.

January 26, 2006 | Permalink

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