It would seem that James Frey and Cupcake Brown have a lot in common. Both overcame crack addictions and wrote memoirs about their fights for sobriety, both published their books under the vast Random House umbrella, and both have enjoyed welcomes into the mighty bosom of Oprah Winfrey. Last fall, a gushing Oprah made a star out of Frey by inducting A Million Little Pieces into her book club; back in 2001, O magazine singled out Brown — an abused foster child at 11; a gangbanger, prostitute, and drug addict at 14; sober lawyer at 41 — as a ”Phenomenal Woman,” leading to a book deal of her own.
But then in January, the Smoking Gun tugged at a nagging thread of Frey’s fantastical story; a furious Oprah pulled it tight around the author’s gulping neck; and Brown, whose memoir, A Piece of Cake, had already shipped to the printers, is left having to convince people that she’s really nothing like James Frey at all. (One bit of luck: Brown says the best-selling author never responded to her publisher’s requests for him to blurb her book.)
”I’m angry about the whole Frey controversy,” Brown says. ”All my life, since I was 11 years old, I’ve been saying, ‘These people are beating me! I’m being abused!’ And nobody would believe me. And now because of this guy, people might not believe me again.” Brown’s never read A Million Little Pieces, but she heard about his terse anthem — ”Hold On!” — for struggling addicts. ”’Hold on’ to what!?” she remembers thinking. ”If you’re drinking and using, all you got is dope and booze and you’re probably a liar and a thief. What the f— you want to hold on to that for? You’ve destroyed your family relationships, you got no-good two-faced friends. What the f— you going to hold on to?”
Brown, a 12-step veteran who celebrated her 16th year sober in October, doesn’t feel any sympathy for Frey’s fall from grace. ”A friend of mine used to say, ‘If you’re a drunk lying son of a bitch and you get sober, but you don’t work any steps, don’t make any changes, don’t peel away those layers of your onion, well, you’re just a sober lying son of a bitch. And that’s how I see Frey. He’s just a sober lying son of a bitch.”
Brown lives in a charming three-bedroom house in Oakland, Calif. She’s not married and she doesn’t have any kids, besides ”my son,” her spoiled cat, Squirt, that she rescued from a pound two years ago. Brown loves the color purple. Her living room walls are purple, and so is her velour jogging suit, her toenails, the iridescent balls in her double-pierced ears, and the beaded collar around Squirt’s neck. Ask her if the deal for A Piece of Cake made her a rich woman and Brown spits Pellegrino back into her purple wine glass. ”Ha!” she barks with laughter. ”Ha! Let me remind you that you are in the hood. This is a nice house on a nice street, but go one block to the right and you can buy some weed and probably get a ho.”
Trust this woman when she warns you off of certain neighborhoods. Born in San Diego, Cupcake Brown (so named after the delivery nurse misunderstood her mother’s dazed plea for a cupcake and entered it on the birth certificate) was dumped into the foster care system after her mother died of an epileptic seizure. Horrified by the relentless physical and sexual abuse, Brown hitchhiked to Los Angeles, where she started running with the local Crips. ”To this day, I haven’t felt that kind of love and camaraderie,” she says, almost wistfully. ”The thing about a gang, all you had to be was down. In AA, if you get drunk, we’re gonna leave your ass alone. But in a gang, they don’t care if you’re drunk, loaded, crippled, blind. But, yes,” she sighs, ”it’s an unhealthy kind of camaraderie.” After Brown was shot in a drive-by, a social worker returned her to the foster home where at six months pregnant, she’d been beaten up so badly that she miscarried. (Her readers should prepare themselves for an onslaught of tough, ugly scenes.)