01/16/2006 12:38 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

James Frey: His Real Victims Aren't Readers --- They're Addicts

I am old enough to have lost friends to drugs and alcohol addiction.

And I am old enough to have people in my life --- people very close to me --- who wouldn't be here if they hadn't gone to rehab.

If you lined all those people up, you wouldn't know who was who. Addicts are liars, and because they're lying all the time, they get good at it. Because most of us have trouble believing that someone can stare us right in the eye and fib, we tend to believe them. And the lies continue until there is an event --- an overdose, a car crash, a fall --- that presents us with evidence we can't deny. At which point, if the addict has an ounce of common sense left or a loved one with great powers of persuasion can break through the denial, he finally admits the problem and gets help.

I don't know James Frey. I haven't, despite much encouragement, read his books. But I've read The Smoking Gunand the transcript of his chat with Larry King, and I feel I've got the picture --- he's an addict wannabe who inflated his problems in order to get a book deal. He wanted to be famous, and he didn't care how. And his little scheme worked.

It's still working. Frey's publisher had a chance to put a stake through his heart and chose not to do it. Larry King --- who's never met a celebrity he didn't like --- declined to do a public service. And then Oprah phoned in a blank check, which ended all conversation in upper-echelon media.

Oprah's was the voice that counted, but it seems as if she spoke with no one wiser than Dr. Phil before going public with this: "One of the things James says in the book, for all the people who are going through any kind of addiction, is to hold on. And I just wanted to...say to all those people out there who have received hope from reading this book, keep holding on, because the essence of that, I don't doubt." (Am I the only one who sees a familiar story line: Yes, the intelligence was flawed, but the war is basically a good idea.)

Well, I do. "Hold on" is probably the most useless advice you could give to an addict. Hold on --- to what? Hold on the idea that you can beat your problem on your own? Hold on to the James Frey argument that therapeutic programs are flawed? Or just hold on to the fantasy that time alone will heal you? (I hear "hold on" and I can't help but recall George Bush's explanation of his cure: "I don't think I was clinically an alcoholic. I've had friends who were, you know, very addicted...and they required hitting bottom and going to AA. I don't think that was my case.")

Alcoholics and addicts don't have the objectivity to decide the severity of their disease. For a simple reason --- with the exception of James Frey, they tend to minimize their problem. What they need to grasp is that concerned loved ones and worried employers are fire bells in the night. The message they need to hear is "Get professional help."

If James Frey does indeed have an addiction problem, he is --- by the terms of the only therapy I know that works --- still addicted. "You're only as sick as your secrets," they say in AA. Does anyone out there think Frey only lied about the "five per cent" of the book he admits to fabricating? I mean, do you really think someone can be only a five per cent liar?

I'm not the only one who takes a black-and-white view of l'affaire Frey. Seth Mnookin --- if you want to read a really terrific story about beating a heroin addiction, read his --- wrote about Frey in Slate:

For those struggling with their own substance-abuse issues, Pieces sends the message that unless you've reached the depths Frey describes, you don't have anything to worry about --- you're a Fraud. And if you do have a problem, you don't need to necessarily get treatment or look to others for support; all you need to do is "hold on." In building up a false bogeyman --- the American recovery movement's supposed reliance on the notion of "victimhood" --- Frey has set himself up as the one, truth-telling savior. In fact, it seems clear that Frey would have been well-served by taking the kind of unflinchingly honest look at his own life that most recovery programs demand.

Beyond the disservice Frey does to those with drug and alcohol addiction is the damage he's done to the idea that the truth matters. And on this subject, James Frey is not a one-off. We all deal with his kind. Do you think such people get punished? If there is karmic justice, yes. But in the short run --- and, often, the short run is all we know --- it doesn't look like there's any reward for virtue. James Frey may be disgraced, but his book moved up to #1 on Warner Bros. hasn't announced it's dropping his movie deal. So how do you explain to your kid --- or yourself --- that it's a good thing to do the right thing?

Let me take a small stab at answering that. Contrary to what Frey, his publisher, Larry King and Oprah believe, writing is not a career. For some writers --- for the writers who, I like to think, will endure --- it's a calling. Those who write especially well are like priests. It follows that books are sacred texts, and that the best ones --- even the best novels --- faithfully deliver what the writer believes is the truth.

That is why we have favorite writers, just as we have favorite musicians; their works "speak" to us. And it is why we have very definite ideas who they are. George Orwell ends his essay on Charles Dickens by addressing this:

When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page. It is not necessarily the actual face of the writer. I feel this very strongly with Swift, with Defoe, with Fielding, Stendhal, Thackeray, Flaubert, though in several cases I do not know what these people looked like and do not want to know. What one sees is the face that the writer ought to have. Well, in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens's photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man of about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry -- in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.

I see that man in Dickens. And I see him too in Orwell. In James Frey, alas, I see a face more representative of these times: a self-serving equivocator who has done serious harm to those he says he wants to help --- and is, sadly, too small a man to know how to undo it.