"His voice betrayed a craving for terrible things." -- Don DeLillo

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February 1, 2006

A Million Little Cute-Headlines-That-Are-Too-Easy-To-Write--OR--Why You Should Never, Ever, Ever Piss Off Oprah
Seriously, really, can we please stop the holier-than-thou raping of James Frey? Please?? It's been out of control for a while now. Here's the situation (and, yes, I read the book way before Oprah picked it and everything spiraled into insanity, so I'm not talking completely out of my ass). You're James Frey. You've grown up an out-of-control addict starting at a young age. After finally hitting bottom and out of fear that death is not far away, you allow yourself to be admitted into rehab. The withdrawal and recovery is excruciating. You have terrifying nightmares, you experience gut-wrenching pain as your body purges itself, and you completely dismiss the 12-step program, meaning you need to find the willpower within yourself to get through the process without a religious support system. You fall in love with another broken soul and the two of you push each other through the pain. After an arduous stay, you're finally able to leave and attempt to get your life back on track. Soon after, the girl that made it possible for you to survive kills herself. Years pass and the user-dreams and desires still remain. In an attempt to rid some of the demons that still hide in your heart, you begin to write a book about your experiences. Looking back on your life, you're stunned by how much of a monster you used to be. This monster takes on a life of its own in your writing. It becomes a little more angry, a little more addicted, a little more dangerous. You want the monster out of your life and forever trapped in the pages of this book. Some of the details change--after all, a lot of the memories are a little fogged after years of excessive drug use and brain cell genocide. But you think that the details aren't what's important, the message of finding the power within yourself to defeat the demons that have overcome your life is what's most important. And, besides, a little extra sex and violence never hurt book sales before, right? You finish your book, it's released, and you breathe a little easier at night knowing that your cautionary tale is out there and hopefully some people will find solace in knowing they're not alone with these problems.

Now, a few years after releasing your book, Oprah picks it as her new Book Club selection. You didn't ask Oprah to do it, you didn't send her letter after letter pleading with her to listen to your life story, but it's done and you're happy for the increased exposure. But now your book is put under the microscope like few ever are. You make a ton of money, but now those little details are coming back to haunt you. Unfortunately for you, you chose to change a few details that can be fact-checked fairly easily. If only you'd written a standard "my-family-is-fucked-up-and-now-I'm-fucked-up" memoir that no one could attack. If you'd just written about how terrible your parents were and how they drove you to become an addict (instead of how your parents stood by your side the whole time), it'd just be another he-said-she-said and we wouldn't be talking about this right now.

No, James Frey is not innocent. And, yes, he's now made a lot of money off this book and for some that's more than enough reason to enjoy throwing him under the bus. He changed and embellished parts of his life story and then, at best, obfuscated this fact or, at worst, completely lied about it. It's happened before and, believe it or not, it will happen again. But saying the changes themselves are dirty, dirty lies or that the whole book is a sham is an outrageous ploy by a hungry-for-blood press. You know what a lie is? That James Frey never used drugs. That would be a lie. That he never went to rehab (and, by the way, they have proved that he did). That would be a lie. But changing the way his girlfriend committed suicide (in the book, she hangs herself; in real life, she slit her wrists) is not a lie. Everyone's bitching, "Why would you change something like that? Why does it matter?" My response? Exactly! Why does it matter? You know to whom this might matter, though? Not to readers, not to other struggling addicts, and certainly not to Oprah, but to the family of the poor girl who killed herself. A family that probably doesn't want to get dragged into all this cacophony and a family that Frey was trying to protect by changing little inconsequential details of her life in order to maintain her anonymity. At least, that was the idea before Oprah dragged it out of a reluctant Frey and used it to fuel her vitriol-spewing and self-righteous spite. And, you know, say he never did use drugs. Would that change the way I feel about the book? Does it change the essential message? No. All it does is move the book from non-fiction to the fiction stacks at the bookstore.

And Oprah? Oprah's not innocent here either. She runs one of the largest multimedia empires in the world. She's one of the most powerful women on the planet. She knows that her Book Club picks are awaited with baited breath by millions of readers. So she picks what she must know will become her most controversial pick yet and doesn't do everything she can to make sure she's covered her bases. Yeah, maybe Frey's editor could have been more forthright, but if these details are easy enough for The Smoking Gun to check on pretty quickly, couldn't she have dedicated 0.00000001% of her massive empire to check on this stuff beforehand too? With all of the facts in hand, she could have either rejected the book outright and avoided any problems altogether or been upfront with her audience about the changes right away and with Frey in their initial meeting. Honestly, it was pathetic watching Oprah kowtow to a small, angry portion of her enormous audience by eviscerating Frey on live, national TV. She should have been the first one to know about the problems that would arise and it's her own fault for not triple-checking everything before putting the book on a worldwide stage. If you want to know whom all of this is really about, check out this video made by TMZ.com (thanks to Salon's The Fix for the link).

Most of you who haven't read the book probably want nothing to do with James Frey right now after this media circus and that's a shame since it covers up the fact that he wrote a blistering, searingly-written story about the hell of drug recovery. It was deserving of Oprah's pick and Frey is not deserving of the beating he's received ever since. His name is forever tarnished by this incident and it all should have been foreseen and prevented a long time ago.

As I was finishing writing this, Random House released Frey's new Author's Note that will be included in all future editions of the book. It can be found here and is worth a read. It's eloquently written and, in my opinion, dovetails nicely with what I've written here. My thoughts remain the same and I hope that Frey is able to move beyond all of this chaos and continue down the path of recovery and the path towards becoming an important American author. It would be a shame if all of this only served to stifle his creative voice. I wish him well.