I mean, if I come out of this experience with anything, it's being a better person and learning from my mistakes and making sure that I don't repeat them.
--James Frey to Oprah Winfrey on The Oprah Winfrey Show,
Jan. 26, 2206
If anyone could get James Frey to see the error of his ways, get him admit to the world that he lied and get him to offer an apology to the millions of readers who bought his book under the mistaken belief that they were reading a work of non-fiction, it was Oprah Winfrey.
Saint Oprah, the nation's foremost spiritual guiding light, a woman who if she so chose could be elected President in 2008 by such a landslide margin that Nixon would be spinning in his grave in a fit of jealousy.
If anyone could get serial bullshit artist James Frey, the wannabe bad boy who conjured up fantastic tales of drooling tomfoolery and raucous antisocial, anti-authoritarian hijinks and put them to paper as his authentic history, it was Saint Oprah, heroine to underappreciated housewives from coast to coast.
For once, Saint Oprah couldn't pull it off.
Frey could have gone a long way in rehabilitating his tarnished image with a heartfelt mea culpa, in which he admitted that his need for acceptance and yearning for money caused him to fabricate most of his memoir. Instead, with that trademark flat affect, he hemmed and hedged. He took some responsibility for his actions, but still held those ludicrous rationalizations and slick semantic dodges.
Oprah asked the fabulist, Frey, what the name of the halfway house that he was in before meeting his doomed lover, Lilly, was. Frey, with the smoothness of a lifelong con artist, with Scott McClellanesque grace, answers: "I mean, one of--one of the things I did there was--when I talk about the characters in the book..."
Instead of homing in on the serial fabricator, Oprah, no Mike Wallace, allowed Frey to change the subject.
Frey tried to play the sympathy/empathy card when he addressed his reasoning for altering the arc of his misbegotten youth.
"I mean, I think part of what happened with a number of the things in the book is when you go through an experience like the one I went through, you develop different coping mechanisms, and I think one of the coping mechanisms I developed was sort of this image of myself that was greater probably than--not probably, that was greater than what I actually was. In order to get through the experience of--of the addiction, I thought of myself as being tougher than I was and badder than I was, and it--it helped me cope. And when I was writing the book, I--instead of being as introspective as I should have been, I clung to that image."
In other words, 'Mr. Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire' lied. Let's go out on a limb and say it for him, since he's constitutionally incapable of parting with sheer truth: he lied. He lied to make himself feel like a big badass. He lied to make his book more readable and saleable. He lied to fill up a hole in his soul that makes him feel unworthy, a vacuum of heart that led him to fill the gap with illicit and licit substances, instead of things of substance. Less manly stuff like integrity, kindness, humility.
I'm not tossing stones of self-righteousness from a soapbox, mind you. Much of Fry's story, the essential truths-that he drank and snorted and smoked too much to try to fill in some gaps in his heart and soul-was my story. Ten years ago, I put a cork in the jug, as they say in some circles that the wannabe badass Frey dismisses with hardass succinctness. In 1995, I said no more. I surrendered. And you know what that final straw was that made me wave the white flag? It was nothing memorable, and certainly wouldn't have made the cut if Frey were ghost-penning my biography: I accrued about 16 parking tickets, and I asked my father to loan me some money to bail the car out of the impound lot. My father asked me what the fuck was the matter with me, and I decided then to come clean. So I surrendered. Not just surrendered to the comprehension that I couldn't snort or smoke or drink my way to happiness or a state of serenity. I surrendered to the knowledge that I was, frequently, full of shit. I was bullshitting myself when I thought I was doing OK, when in no way shape or form was I living a life that was a credit to me or my family. Frey, I can see on Oprah, hasn't surrendered at all.
He's still a scheming sack of crap, who will alter the script as he sees fit, in order to further his own agenda.
Addicts are masters of this. It's all about them. All the time. They don't consider others around them; they exist for themselves, by themselves.
I fight that inclination every day, to this day. I choose, most of the time, right over wrong. And so my days are more mundane than they could be. And my nights, with my wife and my cats and my dog, are wheatbread wholesome. But when I put my head down on my pillow, I can fall asleep quickly. I don't have to puzzle over my choices I made, and wish I had reacted differently that day. I don't have to lacerate myself in a marinade of guilt and shame, which I'll bet my meager savings Frey does
The tendencies of self doubt and loathing that led him to seek substances to suffer the slings and arrows of life are still in him. They were on blatant display on Oprah, despite his weak protestations.
I know it because I share more of Frey's mental makeup than I'd like to admit. But in no way, shape or form do I want to identify with Frey as an addict. The guy who throws down constantly, but only after being baited endlessly by black-hat baddies. The guy who rejects proven methods of rehabilitation for his own brand of hard-ass self-help. For me to stay substance free for 10 years, as I have, many, many people have helped me. They picked me up when I was down, wallowing in a pit of self pity.
And instead of saying, Get over yourself, stop feeling sorry for yourself, they said, you can do it. It's hard, but you can do it.
That's why the characterization of addiction as a disease makes me queasy. Because so many of us were caught in a self-made cycle of depression and self-loathing. We tried to cope with our emotional valleys with inappropriate methods. To say that addiction is on par with cancer or MS, or some other disease that involves no willful act on the part of the diseased to contract it, is false, and insulting to anyone who's suffered chemo. Now that's a disease. What Frey suffered from, and what I struggled with, is chemical dependency. And what drove him to overindulge lingers in him today. The defects of character reside in him today, and whether those stem from nature or nurture, genetics or what, I can't say. Frey was an uncaring con quite a bit when he was a rampaging frat boy, just as I was, and he existed only for his own gratification. He may have grown up some, after all he has a wife and child, but essentially, he's the same sad scumbag who does what he wants and says what he has to in order to further his agenda.
Some readers might wonder where my fury comes from, why I'm so harsh on the guy. I'm pissed off because so many of the exploits in his book are not too far from what I went through in my 10 years of drinking and drugging. I lived with a former cocaine dealer in Boston who looked like a Hell's Angel straight out of central casting. And during a drunken bash at my apartment, Big Larry juggled a carving knife behind his back as we argued. This was relayed to me by an onlooker later. Presumably, Larry was contemplating stabbing me. He'd spend some years in prison, for dealing, but from his history that he'd relayed to me, that level of violence wouldn't have been a tremendous departure from the norm for the man. So I have loony, loopy tales to tell. I could turn my foolish exploits into a rehab memoir along the lines of Frey's.
I could go the "literary compost" route, and turn my tales of wasted days and nights into a compelling compilation, with a tidy coda of redemption tacked on. There is an element of jealousy on my part, because Frey has amassed millions with his inventive retelling of his misspent youth. I too would like to amass, if not millions, then at least hundreds of thousands. But now there will be a dubiousness attached to whatever I turn out, all because Frey had to gussy up what is most likely a fairly unexceptional period of reckless overindulgence.
He stretched the truth like taffy when he said on Oprah that Lily, his doomed lover, actually slashed her wrists instead of hanging herself. Oprah, acting as much like Mike Wallace as she could, pressed him. Why? Is hanging more dramatic than cutting? Frey had an opportunity to choose truth, instead of the familiar path of bullshitting that he's incapable of deviating from. And he failed. As he has repeatedly.
"I don't think either are more dramatic than either."
Why, Oprah Wallace asked.
"(E)very one of the characters was altered," he said, "to protect them."
Frey, presented with an opportunity to fess up, get some of the guilt that presumably must be weighing upon him when he lays his head down at night and waits for his whirring brain to slow down so he can sleep, failed. He could have admitted that yes, the image of hanging painted a more resonant portrait for readers, and that's why he chose fiction over fact.
I still can't stomach this sack of crap, and that's why I am making the following offer: I will fight James Frey, at the site and date of his choosing. We can use gloves and headgear, gloves and no headgear, or, if it's not illegal at whatever location is chosen, we can go bare-knuckle. We are both 36, overfed wannabe hardasses with some anger management issues. It should be an even matchup.
If I win, Frey will donate a portion of his ill-gotten gains to charities. I suggest some substance abuse facilities, and also some organizations that support research and treatment for kids with cancer. Frey, most definitely, could still use some lessons in humility and selflessness, and pondering the unfairness of kids with cancer should help. If I lose, I will give Frey the fulfillment of walloping by proxy every critic who has taken him to task. He can pretend I'm the homo priest he savaged in Paris, if that floats his boat. To be honest, me and my wife live month to month, so I don't have a stash of money to put on the line. Maybe Huff wants to put up a stake on my behalf, say $10,000 or so?
I am dead serious about this offer. My e-mail address is Mi28W@aol.com, James. Shoot me an e-mail and we'll hash out the time and the place. Fuck The Bullshit It's Time To Thrown Down, isn't that what your tattoo says? Is that just so much ink, or do you really have the guts to live up to that credo? If you do, Mr. Frey, let's get ready to rumble.