WARNING: Contains SPOILERS for the book A Million Little Pieces.
“I believe there has never been a realistic book about addiction.” – James Frey, promotional CD for A Million Little Pieces.
This is a brief introduction to James Frey and his 2004 memoir, A Million Little Pieces, which has sold over 3.5 million copies and topped bestseller lists in the nonfiction category, thanks to Oprah’s decision to make it her Book of the Month for October 2005.
The book describes Frey’s stint in rehab at the age of 23 (he is now 36), and how he managed to overcome crippling addiction to alcohol and crack through the force of his own will, eschewing AA and the 12 Steps because, as an atheist, he refused to relinquish his life to a Higher Power. Frey’s story has become an inspiration to thousands of addicts and recovering addicts, all of whom embrace Frey’s mantra of recovery: “Hold on.”
Then, in January 2006, The Smoking Gun website posted a refutation of some of the claims James Frey made in his memoir, specifically the amount of time he spent in an Ohio jail. As you will see, this is central to the story told in A Million Little Pieces and Frey’s topselling follow-up, My Friend Leonard (2005).
Frey appeared on Larry King Live with his mother, Lynne, to defend the “emotional and essential” truth of his memoir, and Oprah Winfrey herself phoned the show to express her continued support of the book’s central message of redemption. Frey’s father, Robert, also defends the book.
A Million Little Pieces is categorized as non-fiction, so few of the people and places in the book are actually named. To make things a bit easier to understand, I’ve incorporated what is known of James Frey’s real life into my summary of his memoir.
A Million Little Pieces opens on a plane. James Frey, 23, wakes up to find himself covered in blood and vomit after a two-week blackout caused by drinking and crack-smoking, four of his teeth knocked out and a gaping hole in his face. He learns that a buddy found him facedown in the street after he fell from a fire escape somewhere in Ohio, and that he was taken to hospital. For some reason a doctor put him on a plane instead of patching him up. This part of the memoir is challenged by those who doubt an injured, blood-encrusted, unconscious man would be allowed to board a commercial flight, but that matter hasn’t been settled yet.
Frey’s parents, Robert and Lynne Frey, picked James up at the airport and took him straight to Minnesota’s famed Hazeldon rehab clinic (Robert Frey was a top exec with Whirlpool’s Latin American division at the time). Nearly the whole book deals with rehab. No one disputes the facts that James Frey was seriously addicted to drugs and alcohol, nor that he spent a period of time at Hazeldon.
James received about 40 stitches in his face. Later he underwent extensive dental work (root canals, caps) without Novocaine or painkillers; the dentist explained to him that people in rehab can’t be given anesthetic. This part of the book, while graphic and horrifying, doesn’t ring true. Novocaine is non-narcotic and can be safely administered to addicts in any stage of recovery. (In fact, it was created specifically as an alternative to the narcotic painkiller procaine.)
Also, the current president of the Minnesota Dental Association has stated that such extensive and painful work would not be done without anaesthetic.
During an Oprah appearance, Frey talked in detail about this experience and insisted the physical pain he felt during the dental procedures was far preferable to any emotional pain.
In A Million Little Pieces, James befriends Leonard, a Mafia figure; Lilly, a crack addict about his own age (male-female interaction is forbidden at the clinic, but they sneak into the woods to be alone together); and Miles, a federal judge and alcoholic. Leonard prevents James from leaving the clinic and becomes his mentor. Lilly quickly becomes James’s girlfriend, and the two plan to live together in Chicago after James serves some jail time in Ohio.
In flashback, we see scenes of James’s past: A miserable, destructive childhood in the ‘burbs and a small town (Cleveland, Ohio and St. Joseph, Michigan), alcoholism that began in his early teens, the death of a junior-high girlfriend for which he is responsible, drug and alcohol abuse that caused daily blackouts and bouts of vomiting. Somehow, he was able to graduate from high school and college (Dennison College in Granville, Ohio). James even pledged to a fraternity, but this isn’t mentioned in the book.
James grapples with intense rage he calls “the Fury” and suffers through family therapy with his parents, who are supportive and loving but appalled by what their son has done to himself in their absence (they reside in Brazil).
Lilly runs away from the clinic after being told she can’t associate with James anymore. James, with the help of a friendly driver, tracks her to an abandoned building (presumably in Minneaoplis) where drug users congregate. She is trading sex with a stranger for crack. James drags her out of the building and back to the clinic.
James refuses to accept the tenets of AA, arguing that relinquishing his will to a Higher Power would be swapping one addiction for another. He ignores the daily lectures. Despite his unwillingness to cooperate with the clinic’s treatment plan, James graduates from the clinic. The counselors warn him he won’t stand a chance in the outside world if he doesn’t embrace the 12 Steps and attend AA meetings, but James is convinced that his willpower and careful decision-making will keep him away from booze and crack.
An epilogue catalogues the aftermath of rehab for James’s friends: Lilly hung herself in a Chicago halfway house the day James was released from jail; Leonard the Mafioso died of AIDS; others were murdered or committed suicide. Only James and the judge, Miles, avoided relapse.
Now that you know the background story, let’s take a look at why A Million Little Pieces is really A Million Little Pieces of Crap…
When Bill and Marianne Sanders left their New York home late last year to attend a funeral in St. Joseph, Michigan, a relative introduced them to a book written by a native son named James Frey. That book was A Million Little Pieces, a memoir. In the book, Marianne Sanders read that James Frey was indirectly responsible for the death of her daughter.
As Frey tells it, he was a troubled 12-year-old already well on his way to alcoholism when his family moved to a Small Town (Frey loves to capitalize). No one there liked him, but a beautiful and popular cheerleader named Michelle bucked the crowd to hang out with him. One fateful night when they were in the 8th grade, Michelle wanted to go on a date with a high school guy without her parents knowing, so James agreed to accompany her to the movie theatre in her dad’s car. From there, Michelle’s date picked her up in his car. Returning to the theatre a couple of hours later, the guy tried to beat a train across the tracks.
“His car got hit and Michelle was killed…She was my only friend.”
As if this burden wasn’t heavy enough for a 12-year-old, the community blamed James for Michelle’s death.
“I got blamed by her Parents…and by everyone else in that f***ing hellhole…I got taken to the local Police Station and questioned. That was the way it worked there. Blame the f***-up, feel sorry for the Football Hero.”
James blamed himself, too. He is haunted by the image of his lost friend as he spends his first day in rehab, wishing he could see her one last time, tell her he loved her.
“If I hadn’t lied for her, it wouldn’t have happened.”
“Michelle” was clearly Bill and Marianne Sanders’s daughter, Melissa, who had indeed been killed in a train collision in St. Joseph, Michigan. But reality stops there.
Melissa Sanders died at age 17, not age 12.
As far as her parents know, she was not friends with James Frey.
James Frey did not accompany her to the movies – or anywhere else – on the night of her death.
James Frey was not to blame for the death of Melissa Sanders.
His story is b.s.
On the night of November 16, 1986, Melissa Sanders was picked up at home by her friend Jane Hall. The girls went to a house party hosted by Dean Sperlik, 17, and left with Dean in his ’79 Olds around 8:30, destination unknown. At 9:17 a C&O train barrelled into the car at the Maiden Lane railroad crossing in St. Joseph. The two girls died within the hour. Sperlik was injured, and served 6 months in jail for negligent homicide.
Sounds like Dean Sperlik got the blame, not James.
James Frey wasn’t involved. He was neither blamed nor questioned in relation to the incident. Bill Sanders has stated he never met Mr. Frey and never drove him anywhere.
This radically altered account of a young woman’s death is one of many exaggerations, obfuscations, and bald-faced lies sprinkled throughout A Million Little Pieces. When you tally them all up, you have to wonder how much of this factual memoir is even remotely factual.
All we can say with any certainty is that James Frey was an addict who spent time in rehab.
Here are a couple of the falsehoods uncovered by The Smoking Gun (see their report, A Million Little Lies: The Man Who Conned Oprah, for more details):
The Ohio Dust-up
The Ohio arrest and its aftermath are central to the story of A Million Little Pieces and Frey’s follow-up “memoir”, My Friend Leonard (2005). It resulted in a post-rehab jail term that prevented him from being with his girlfriend, Lilly, when her beloved grandmother died. Lilly hung herself in a Chicago halfway house the same day James was released from jail; he arrived merely hours too late to save her.
James Frey’s version:
When his parents sent him to Europe after college, James scecretly returned to Ohio to see his girlfriend – drunk. She refused to see him, so he parked his car on the sidewalk where she was talking to friends outside a bar, accidentally striking a cop. He had a bag of crack on him, but no insurance or license. He was dragged out of the car kicking and screaming, urging onlookers to rush the cops and free him. The cops beat him with billy clubs to silence him. He was charged with an array of felonies, including Felony DUI, Resisting Arrest, Felony Mayhem, Assault with a Deadly Weapon (the car), and attempting to incite a riot. He jumped bail and returned to France.
Two years later, in rehab, James learned he would have to serve at least 3 years in prison for the Ohio charges. The cops had plenty of evidence against him: A big bag of crack, 30 witnesses, and results of a blood alcohol test that showed a .29. He’d also have to pay $15,000 in fines and do 1000 hours of community service. Lucky for him his roommate was a federal judge and his best buddy a feared Mafioso. The two of them secretly cooked up a deal that got James a dramatically reduced sentence: Three months in county jail, no fines.
James decided he could live with that. A Million Little Pieces ends as he has just been released from the clinic and on his way to Ohio to serve his time. He’ll come back for Lilly as soon as he gets out, and they’ll begin a new life together in Chicago.
The Granville Cops’ Version:
James doesn’t name the town in which his rampage occurred, but it was Granville, Ohio.
On the night of October 25, 1992, officer Dave Dudgeon saw an ’89 Mercury pull up on the curb of a Granville street, nearly hitting a power pole, in a no-parking zone. James seemed drunk and there was a half-empty bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon in the car. He cooperated with a field sobriety test, which he failed, and made no fuss when a second officer arrived to drive him to the station. He refused a blood alcohol test, but was otherwise “polite and cooperative”. James was given two traffic tickets, one for a DUI and one for driving without a license, and given a misdemeanor criminal summons for having an open alcohol container in his car. He was to appear in Mayor’s court in 10 days, but jumped bail.
Upon release from rehab, James returned to Ohio to clear up the charges. He was not given any jail time. Licking County Jail records show he was never an inmate there. Despite the evidence, James Frey maintains he served time in Licking County. He did admit to The Smoking Gun, off the record, that the time was “significantly less” than three months.
- He nearly hit a power pole, not a cop.
- He may have had a blood alcohol level of .29, but there’s no test result to prove that.
- He didn’t resist arrest.
- He was not beaten with billy clubs.
- He didn’t try to incite a riot.
- He didn’t have any drugs in his car, though he insisted to The Smoking Gun that he did have a bag of crack in his pocket.
So what are we to think of the touching jailhouse scenes that open My Friend Leonard? The gut-wrenching realization that Lilly would have survived if only James hadn’t been confined to Licking County Jail? I’ll tell you what I think of it: There was no Lilly. She is a fragrant, blue-eyed figment of Mr. Frey’s imagination.
“I am a Criminal wanted in three states.”
This is a frequent refrain in A Million Little Pieces: “I am an Alcoholic, I am an Addict, I am a Criminal.”
Frey may have been wanted in Ohio, but charges in Michigan and North Carolina were settled before he started university in the fall of ’88.
James Frey certainly was an Alcoholic and an Addict, but I think his third epithet should be “Lying Creep.”
Update: Oprah Changes Her Mind
As most people know, Oprah changed her mind about Frey’s “essential truth” after reading The Smoking Gun report, and brought him back on her show to confront him. Looking blankly slack-jawed and speaking vaguely, as always, he admitted that he had never spent any time in jail and that he changed some locations and events for no apparent reason. For instance, Lilly killed herself with pills (not by hanging herself), and not in Chicago.
“Is there a Lilly?” Oprah asked pointedly.
“Absolutely,” Frey replied.
Jerry Stahl (recovering heroin addict, author of Permanent Midnight) has written a hilariously funny essay on James Frey, posted at laweekly.com: “Free James Frey! In Defense of the Post-Truth Memoir.” His imitation of Frey’s writing style is spot-on.