The Case Against James Frey
As a journalist who celebrates multiple paths to recovery, I was inclined to support James Frey’s infamous 2003 memoir, A Million Little Pieces, because it championed a method of kicking drugs that is an alternative to 12-step programs. But when it turned out that his book was a patchwork of lies—and that many people were inclined to forgive him just because it was “emotionally true"—I became furious.
This week, Frey is on a comeback tour, promoting a new book about a drug-addicted Jesus, The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, appropriately labeled as fiction, and heading up a fiction mill that reportedly pays MFAs peanuts to churn out pages for the “young adult” category.
Launching his tour, he popped up on back-to-back Oprah episodes this week, and the departing talk-show maven offered him her apologies for the harsh dressing-down she doled out when he appeared on her show in 2006. (On Monday he told her, truthfully or not, that he'd never even watched the segment.)
It's often said that Americans have a short memory, especially regarding misdeeds by public figures. So as I watch Frey ride his new wave of sympathetic publicity (his newborn son died in July), I worry that the damage he did to the addiction community will be not only forgiven but also forgotten, by hundreds of media outlets Including The Fix. If Frey had set out to write an “emotionally true” but exaggerated memoir based on actual research, I might have joined those die-hard fans who continue to offer him their qualified support. Instead, he simply reinforced dangerous myths that harm millions of people who suffer from this disorder, all the while collecting millions of dollars for his deception.
The fabrication that seemed to most offend Oprah and other readers of his memoir was the author's claim that he spent three months behind bars (as it turned out, he spent only a few hours in police custody.) But what I found most disingenuous was his false account of enduring root canal without anesthesia so that he wouldn’t endanger his sobriety. Put aside for a moment the fact that it would be physically impossible for anyone to keep still long enough to withstand such pain (you’d need head restraints not found in dental offices) or that no dentist would risk the malpractice lawsuit that would inevitably result from such barbarism. It’s the twisted morality behind this tall-tale that rankles me most.
I don’t mean the typical macho posturing that runs like a river through A Million Little Pieces. What’s more troubling is the idea—all too common in the 12-step programs and other rehabs Frey disses in his book—that appropriate anesthetics are more dangerous to addicts than extreme pain.
The truth is, the stress of unrelieved agony is far more likely to prompt relapse than the commonsense use of analgesics. Indeed, some dentists, including my own—whose practice include large numbers of people in recovery—have no problem prescribing opioids after painful procedures, along with a bunch of safeguards. If you’re in the program, for example, he advises checking in with your sponsor or having a family member dole out your meds as a way of checking any temptation to abuse.
The idea that addicts cannot safely receive compassionate medical care—or that compassion is riskier to their health than brutality—is destructive not only because it keeps people from seeking needed treatment for fear of pain. Even more insidious, it’s a rationalization of punishment and a moral model of addiction, not a view of the condition as a disease or disorder. It promotes the all-too-popular myth that addicts are so driven by pleasure that they do not deserve to be treated humanely.
The reality of addiction is much more complex. Most of the addicts I know tended to use drugs and alcohol primarily to relieve their pain—most often a deep-rooted emotional pain—not to enhance their pleasure. The idea that we must suffer further to successfully recover simply reinforces a concept of addiction as a sin that needs expiation in agony.
And the other thing that pissed me off about Frey? The way he fed longtime stereotypes about addicts as incorrigible liars, especially if they recover without 12-step support. Again, there’s no evidence that people who recover through methods other than 12-step programs are more inclined to lie than those who attend meetings.
Furthermore, there’s also no evidence that addicts are more inclined to lie about matters unrelated to addiction than anyone else. Research shows that people with addictions accurately self-report drug use and risky sexual behavior when they will not be punished for doing so. Addictive “denial” is typically seen only in situations where telling the truth would have negative consequences—for instance, with counselors who try to push their patients too hard.
Of course, Frey is not solely to blame for these pernicious stereotypes—but he does deserve to be held accountable for perpetuating them, no matter what Oprah now says. His unrepentant pose after all these years suggests that he is still far from real recovery.
Maia Szalavitz is a health reporter at Time magazine online, and co-author, with Bruce Perry, of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered (Morrow, 2010), and author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead, 2006). Her previous piece for The Fix was An Ex-Addict Aims for Motherhood.