Stephen King on James Frey's ''Million Little Pieces''
In the 50 years or so since first watching Mike Wallace verbally mousetrap various guests on Night Beat, I don't think I've ever seen such an emotionally exhausting hour as Oprah Winfrey's late-January interview with James Frey on her talk show. I suppose truth was the winner, but it was messy; by the end it was like watching Mike Tyson in his prime beating up some tank-town palooka in a grudge match where the ref refused to stop the fight.
At the beginning of the show, the best-selling memoirist was the deer-in-the-headlights Frey first glimpsed in the Larry King softball interview earlier in the month; call him L'il Jim Dorito. By the end, Frey had been reduced to a sullen, downcast nonentity, sitting silently with his chin tucked into the open collar of his shirt as his intellectual betters and financial inferiors, how weird is that sat around debating the eternal question what is truth. It's beauty, stupid, I can hear John Keats saying, over there in the corner by his Grecian urn, and there ain't none here. True. This ritual scourging may have been necessary, but it had all the charm of squeezing a pimple on your neck. The amazing thing is that anyone including Oprah believed any of Frey's stories once they realized he was trying to manage good sobriety without much help, because this is a trick very few druggies and alcoholics can manage. I know, because I'm both.
Substance abusers lie about everything, and usually do an awesome job of it. I once knew a cokehead who convinced his girlfriend the smell of freebase was mold in the plastic shower curtain of their apartment's bathroom. She believed him, he said, for five years (although he was probably lying about that, it was probably only three). A recovering alcoholic friend of mine reminisces about how he convinced his first wife that raccoons were stealing their home brew. When she discovered the truth, she divorced him. Go to one of those church-basement meetings where they drink coffee and talk about the Twelve Steps and you can hear similar stories on any night, and that's why the founders of this group emphasized complete honesty not just in ''420 of 432 pages,'' as James Frey claimed during his Larry King interview, but in all of it: what happened, what changed, what it's like now. Yeah, stewbums and stoners lie about the big stuff, like how much and how often, but they also lie about the small things. Mostly just to stay in practice. Ask an active alcoholic what time it is, and 9 times out of 10 he'll lie to you. And if his girlfriend killed herself by slashing her wrists (always assuming there was a girlfriend), he may say she hung herself, instead. Why? Basically, to stay in training. It's the Liar's Disease.
And did I wonder, pre-Oprah, if there were other lies in A Million Little Pieces? Nope. I just wondered when they'd start coming out. Because if my own career as a drunk both active and sober has convinced me of anything, it's convinced me of this: Addictive personalities do not prosper on their own. Without unvarnished, tough-love truth-telling from their own kind the voices that say, ''You're lying about that, Freckles'' the addict has a tendency to fall back into his old ways. And the chief old way (other than using, of course) is lying through one's teeth. And speaking of teeth, did I believe Mr. Frey's were root-canaled without benefit of anesthetic? Nope. Never did.
Why did it take so long for what Oprah Winfrey saw as the redemptive core of A Million Little Pieces to start coming apart? In a word, anonymity. The very shroud of privacy, which alcoholics and addicts have used to protect themselves since my coffee-drinking group's inception in the 1930s, protected Frey's more outrageous flights of narration. The rehab counselors associated with his stay at Hazelden are forbidden to tell their side of the story...and Frey undoubtedly knew it. But in a New York Times article published shortly before what will almost certainly be Frey's Final Rematch with Oprah Winfrey, Carol Colleran, who worked in the Hazelden system for 17 years (but never directly with Frey), stated flatly: ''98 percent of [Pieces] is false.'' By my count, that leaves...um...nine pages.
Did Oprah come out of her bout with Frey unmarked? Each viewer will judge for himself, but I was made uncomfortable by how many times I heard her say he ''embarrassed'' her. In the book world, Ms. Winfrey is a person of great power. The unstated warning of her cool and methodical dismantling of James Frey seems to have been Embarrass the Book Queen and the Book Queen will get you back double, in front of millions...and your editor, too.
Surely there are more important lessons to be learned here. They have to do with drugs and alcohol as well as truth. Addiction is a plague on American society. The cruelly ignorant assumption that addicts bring it on themselves (and thus can take care of the problem themselves) only exacerbates the problem. No child on third-grade Careers Day says he wants to grow up to be an alcoholic like Mommy or a rock hound like Dad, and no addict struggling to get clean before the spike or pipe can do him in deserves to be told, ''Just pull yourself together and clean up your act like James Frey did.''
Because, dig: James Frey isn't the way you sober up...and if you think I'm lying, let's go to the videotape.