Mixing Memoir and Desire: James Frey, Wound Culture, and the "Essential American Soul"

By Hamilton, Geoff | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), September 2007 | Go to article overview

Mixing Memoir and Desire: James Frey, Wound Culture, and the "Essential American Soul"


Hamilton, Geoff, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


I made other alterations in my portrayal of myself, most of which pictured me in ways that made me tougher and more daring and more aggressive than in reality I was, or I am. People cope with adversity in many different ways, ways that are deeply personal. I think one way people cope is by developing a skewed perception of themselves that allows them to overcome and do things they thought they couldn't do before. My mistake, and it is one I deeply regret, is writing about the person I created in my mind to help me cope, and not the person who went through the experience.

-James Frey's "a note to the reader," A Million Little Pieces

The imagined person we encounter in James Frey's blockbuster "memoir," A Million Little Pieces (AMLP) (2003), proved alluring not just to the author and supposed addict himself, but to an American public deeply interested in stories of recovery, personal transformation, and heroic self-reliance. The "James" of AMLP-troubled, swaggering, prone to violence, intimate with death, in hot pursuit of a radically autonomous selfhood-is close kin to a prominent type in the national literary canon, as well as a familiar protagonist in what Mark Seltzer calls contemporary "wound culture," where versions of that type and their relationship to "torn and opened private bodies and torn and opened psyches" (Seltzer 109) command extraordinary attention.

The popularity of "James," up until the public debunking of his authenticity, had much to do with his status as a contemporary permutation (if a rather bathetic one) of D. H. Lawrence's "essential American soul," the mythical New World man who is "hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer" (Lawrence 68). Fantasies of "regeneration through violence," as Richard Slotkin has so compellingly demonstrated in his studies of frontier mythology, still linger long after the closing of geographic frontiers (Slotkin, Regeneration; Gunfighter). Commenting from across the Atlantic on "the brash explicitness of American capitalism," Terry Eagleton puts the point bluntly: "The pioneer spirit [of the nation] was displaced rather than dissolved. The epic rapacity which subdued the land in the first place carried on as regular business. Probably no other people on earth use the word 'aggressive' in such a positive fashion, and no group outside psychoanalytic circles is so fond of the word 'dream'" (Eagleton 66). We find in AMLP an evocation-profound, timely, and disturbing-of the enduring magic of these words in the popular imagination.

Teasing out the literary and cultural affinities of Frey's imagined person or personified coping strategy helps us understand better, I suggest, the abiding attraction of radical autonomy as a personal ideal, along with the inevitable implication of violent action in such autonomy.

Frey's "non-fiction" book explores a young addict's time at a rehabilitation clinic, and it presents to us a pop-cultural protagonist we know well: the injured soul who overcomes daunting challenges, manages to heal, grow strong, and flourish, and who brings his pain and redemption to the public as abject confession and spiritual guide. The initial success of AMLP depended heavily on its claims to gritty realism in its public probing of private wounds, its supposed "honesty" in relaying the harrowing details of personal redemption, and of course also its visual legitimization in the form of the photogenic and brash young author himself, alive to tell the tale, who claimed in early interviews that he wanted to be "the f-ing best" writer of his generation (qtd. in Valby 64).1 This was a story, above all, about success in self-creation.

When Frey's claims to have written a true story were revealed as largely fraudulent by journalists at thesmokinggun.com and by Oprah Winfrey, a former patron, his authority as an honest evangelist was sabotaged.2 That the book strains credulity (or should) on nearly every page-from its preternaturally stoic and arrogant narrator, to its preposterously stereotyped supporting cast, to its relentlessly maudlin plot twists-is a curious and rather overlooked element of this saga. …

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