THE BLOG
01/13/2006 03:18 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

My Letter to O: Oprah, I'm Worried About You

Oprah, I'm a huge fan of your literacy work. You're under fire now over this Frey thing, but I've got good news: help is out there for people like you, too - the ones who get things done, who love too much, who are overachievers, who organize the lives of alcoholics, addicts, and con men. You know, enablers.

Everyone knows the Frey story now - how he spun a drunk driving arrest (which apparently consisted of five hours sitting at a folding table in the police station) and a rehab stint into a myth of hardened criminality and crack addiction. How you made him rich and famous by endorsing his book - a gritty true-life tale of violence, sin, and redemption through his owniron will. How that book turned out to be a fraud in all of its basics. (I'm late to post on this, but I've been travelling - and by the way, Frey's book was sold out at the airport bookstores.)

I'm not worried about Jimmy Frey. He's obviously a survivor - whether or not he's an addict. But I'm worried about the ones out there who are still sick and suffering from addiction and alcoholism, and their families. And Oprah, I'm worried about you.

Hey, don't feel bad. Enabling addicts is itself a kind of addiction and it's hard to let go of it. I'm no expert on Al-Anon, but programs like that exist for people who can't stop letting themselves be used. And no more how well the rest of your life is going, it doesn't feel good to be used.

Is our James really an addict? The most convincing evidence of that now is his demonstrated skill at the con, which those of us who've experienced or been close to addiction will recognize right away. Nobody knows how to run a phony line or a hustle like an addict of a certain type. The fact that Frey pulled this whole scam off, and was so charming at it, is more convincing evidence of his addictive nature than his false claims ever were.

By coincidence, I had just finished reading Frey's book when the truth was revealed. I've been involved with the recovery community for years, and there's a lot that doesn't wash. Unlike some, however, I enjoyed the book very much. Unfortunately his portrait of narrow-minded rehab workers seemed believable to me, especially when contrasted with the glowing portraits he paints of other staff. His descriptions of how he rebelled against coloring books and whiteboard exercises were hilarious. (I now realize these incidents may never have happened.)

Although I've seen a lot of 12-step success stories, I keep an open mind. While I saw the harm Frey's book might do by driving some away from these programs, I also thought it provided an opportunity for AA-ers to look at their own behavior. It's a 12-step principle to look at your own part in any difficult situation, and I thought Frey's book might help people in "the Program" to reflect on any occasions where they might have seemed narrow-minded, unwelcoming, too insistent on a religious interpretation of God, or too reliant on formulaic answers.

But, Oprah, you might tell your audience this: While Frey makes much of his rejecting AA , he's never actually experienced it. If we can believe what he writes, he only attended AA meetings in the rehab, led by its staff. But AA (and its sister groups, like Narcotics Anonymous) are non-professional organizations. Frey only describes run-ins were with paid rehab staff (people who had obvious control issues). While they espouse AA principles, they don't represent AA - either officially or informally. And meetings run by paid professionals are not genuine AA, according the the group's literature and traditions.

Had Frey tried actual AA, he would have found atheists and agnostics (including groups formed especially by and for them), Buddhists, and other self-described Taoists like himself. Oprah, nobody in AA should tell anyone they are required to believe in a supernatural deity, as the rehab's staff allegedly did. That's a violation of AA's practices and traditions. A "Higher Power," yes - but many non-believers use scientific principle or the AA group itself for this purpose.

Do I think Frey should have gone to "real" AA, or that he would have benefited from it? That's not for me to say. I don't know him. In general, though, if someone doesn't want to go they shouldn't. (I'm an opponent of court-ordered attendance at any 12-step program.)

The book's a great read, but catchphrases like "hold on" and an unproven claim for an addiction self-cure are no substitute for providing an unrecovered addict or alcoholic with the help of experienced and caring people. The worst thing you can do for drinkers and users is to feed them more bullshit - con games and fancy words like "just hold on" - so Oprah, this where you can be strong and do the right thing.

For all the harm he's done, I still have a soft spot for Frey. I recognize and identify with the familiar patterns - the resentment, the ego needs, the deceptions, the grandiosity. But let's forget about him and look forward. Why not use your program to present a range of treatment options for addicts and alcoholics - meaningful ones, based on honesty? You don't have to push the Twelve Steps or any one approach. Give your viewers a range of options. There are a lot of talented and capable people who could participate.

Go for it - for the alcoholic in need of help, and for yourself. You've accomplished a lot, and should feel good about yourself. You're one of the good guys, so I hope you do. But you'll probably feel even better when you're not being used anymore.

(NOTE: My apologies if you posted a comment and it's been lost. I posted an old draft by mistake, and had some technical problems re-posting it. Feel free to try again -- I'll be careful!)

A Night Light