There’s something intriguing and important about the controversy surrounding James Frey’s book, A Million Little Pieces. I’m not sure why that is, exactly, but I’m sure that it is important. Well, it’s important to me. By trying to tell you why it’s important to me, maybe I’ll gain a better understanding of it. That’s one function of writing or preaching.
Frey’s book is a story of drug addiction. There’s no argument about his addiction. The argument is about his habituation to lying, which is a common ingredient to addictions.
Like the Queen of England, Oprah Winfrey laid her sword of approval on the book, effectively launching James Frey into the dubious realm of fame and fortune. Three and a half million copies of the book were sold and Frey became an overnight celebrity. He wasn’t in Oprah’s class of stardom, of course. Frey is one of those shooting stars that flash across the illusive heaven, visible in the mind’s eye of every author.
The controversy is about telling the truth in a memoir. He submitted the book as fiction, but apparently he was advised to try it as non-fiction – the other column in the New York Times book review section. We expect non-fiction books to be factually true. We long to know the truth, believing, as the Bible says, “The truth will set you free.”
Joseph Campbell defined a myth as a Truth story; it’s not meant to be true, in the factual sense. Most Biblical stories are in this category: Truth stories, not intended to be literally true.
Oprah confessed she was captivated by Frey’s story, holding it up as an example of redemption or salvation, nudging it into the realm of religion. On the Larry King show, she publicly defended him against accusations of lying. Then she found out that he lied about some significant aspects of his memoir: he didn’t spend three months in prison, for example. The Queen went into a rage, softly screaming ‘off with his head.’ “How dare you lie to me! I made you, now I’ll ruin you!” He sat there looking like Adam with the half-eaten apple.
I’m reminded of my all-time favorite short story, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, by Dostoevsky. The narrator has a dream in which he’s transported to a wonderful utopian land inhabited by people who never lost their innocence. He teaches them how to lie. He writes “They learnt to lie and they grew to appreciate the beauty of a lie. Oh, perhaps, it all began innocently, with a jest, with a desire to show off, with amorous play, and perhaps indeed only with a germ, but this germ made its way into their hearts and they liked it.”
“When they became wicked, they began talking of brotherhood and humanity…when they became guilty of crimes, they invented justice, and drew up codes of law, and to ensure the carrying out of their laws they erected a guillotine. Every one of them became so jealous of his own personality that he strove with might and main to belittle and humble it in others; therein he saw the whole purpose of his life…Religions were founded…”
The controversy about Frey’s book is about the lies we’ve been told about Iraq, the spying scandal and the president’s arrogant indifference to the rule of law; it’s about Enron; it’s about the undermining of public trust. It’s about Oprah’s media power. It’s deep. It’s intriguing.