To Tell the Truth: What Therapists Can Learn from James Frey

Article excerpt

To Tell the Truth What Therapists can learn from James Frey

By Molly Layton

As everyone probably knows by now, in his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, James Frey cast himself as a hard-drinking, hot-tempered, drug-selling cokehead, addicted since junior high. Twenty-three years of age and new to an inpatient rehabilitation program, he was, by his account, wanted in three states by the police for dealing and bail-jumping and cop-fighting.

Only none of this was true. There was no cop-fighting, no "three states," no bail-jumping. The truthfulness of these and many other assertions in A Million Little Pieces was shot down in a report from the Smoking Gun website. Nonetheless, in a palavering television interview with Larry King, Frey argued that, despite some discrepancies, his memoir possessed "emotional truth."

As a therapist, when I realized that a memoir about recovery was in fact filled with falsehood, I got very interested. Not only did I buy the book, but I even watched a tape of Oprah Winfrey's confrontation of Frey on her television show. She'd elevated him to celebrity status by choosing his book for her book club, touting it as a true tale of endurance in the face of unspeakable suffering. And now that Frey had been exposed as a rich-kid screenwriter lying to make a better story, she confronted him for his betrayal and deceit with a deftness that came as close to a classic family therapy intervention as I've seen on television.

I found Winfrey's takedown of Frey, with its smoldering air of personal hurt and moral outrage, thrilling and even inspiring. But even more than that, it got me thinking about storytelling, about true and false stories, and good and bad storytelling.

Will the Real James Frey . . .

I'd bet good money that any addictions therapist who read Frey's work could see the falseness in the ranting story long before the Smoking Gun ran it through the ringer. Like addiction itself, A Million Little Pieces isn't blessed with much discernment or thought. It's an enactment; it enacts a dream of exceptionalism: the rules don't apply to me.

James Frey, or as we might more accurately call him, "James Frey," is by his own account a stubborn, macho badass. He stares people down, he picks fights, he amazes the gangster-types whose table he joins at lunch, he snarls and makes people back off--improbably, even the staff at the rehab center. "James Frey" hates the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous: AA is a "replacement of one addiction with another addiction," he writes. "Too much whining, too much complaining, too much blaming." He portrays himself as particularly hating the idea of a higher power, all the while evidently not putting that declaration together with his own account of his daily reading of the Tao Te Ching. "James Frey" comes into rehab and leaves rehab with the same severely incurious principle: have some pride, be a man about it, and just say no. I was reminded of addictions expert Jo-Ann Krestan's observation: "It doesn't matter whether you believe in a higher power, only that you ´get it' that you are not it."

A Million Little Pieces is at bottom an act of self-enchantment. It's a fantasy, a vehicle for desires and wishes. Much of the fantasy, when it isn't about being a tough guy--which, according to Smoking Gun, the actual Frey wasn't--it's about abasement. In the memoir, "James Frey" has to endure terrible physical trials whose number and repetitiveness quickly lose credibility. He's an unstable crackhead with only a few days of sobriety, but we're asked to believe he was sent to get a root canal without anesthesia--a recipe, if you ask me, for a psychotic breakdown. But he himself must be brought down, over and over, to his knees, it seems--throwing up in a toilet (a dozen times in the first 80 pages), or pulling out his own stitches, or having his nose reset by a rebreaking, or bleeding from his fingernails as he grips the chair during that root canal. …