How does one begin to defend James Frey, the infamous lying memoirist? By asking readers to imagine a future in which memoirists write and sign affidavits when they hand in their manuscripts? Who will check their facts? Will it be editorial assistants? Computer programs? Psychic profilers? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who shall Google the guards?
Still another suggestion: Ask readers to ponder whether the James Frey Affair marks the end of a time when writers who wish to record how they perceive their own lives may do so rather than stick to what is on public record? Judging by the media fallout and Oprah’s indignation, many would applaud such development. But there are other ways of looking at the Frey fallout. Whole wings of psychotherapy await their debunking; whole shelves of memoirs, from Harriette Wilson to Primo Levi, wait for their warning stickers. The next Hunter S. Thompson, if there will ever be one, should expect knocks on the door by the Authenticity Police, asking him if he really took that many tabs of acid that weekend in Vegas.
How does one begin to defend James Frey? I can’t. I can, however, try to tell you some stories, confess my own sins and ask how others deal with theirs.
Here’s a story. On the afternoon of April 12, 2005, I spent an hour with James Frey at Nan A. Talese’s Doubleday office in the Saatchi & Saatchi building on 375 Hudson Street. That lower-Manhattan building’s shiny, postmodern curves show up in exterior shots on the sitcom “Seinfeld” to set up scenes at Elaine’s publishing office.
I was assigned to write a profile of the memoirist for Poets & Writers, a magazine that goes out to 60,000 aspiring creative writers nationwide. I had just read both of Frey’s books—“A Million Little Pieces” (2003) and the then sequel, “My Friend Leonard”—in rapid succession. Along with review copies of these books, I held two tape recorders (one digital, one analog), pads of yellow legal paper, a box of black uni-ball ultrafine pens and a printout of my questions in my shoulder bag.
When I mention my Frey story to people, that I met him and all, many think it was after he was picked for Oprah Winfrey’s book club. People forget or don’t realize that “A Million Little Pieces” had a life of its own before then. His raw account of rehabilitation was, in fact, Amazon.com’s best-selling book of 2003 and The New York Times best seller, and it had garnered a huge following. Frey got the one-two punch from The New York Times that only big-time books get: a review in The New York Times Sunday Book Review and a “Books of the Times” article, in which Janet Maslin called attention to the fact that the book was sent around as fiction then as a memoir.
Back then, however, I knew of Frey only from the now infamous article by Joe Hagan for The New York Observer in February 2003, in which Frey talked shit about Dave Eggers’ 2000 memoir, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”:“[A] book that I thought was mediocre was being hailed as the best book written by the best writer of my generation,” he said. “Fuck that. And fuck him and fuck anybody that says that. I don’t give a fuck what they think of me. I’m going to try to write the best book of my generation, and I’m going to try to be the best writer.”
In “Writing Personal Essays: On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character,” Phillip Lopate writes that to make an essay successful and interesting, “we need to dramatize ourselves” [italics his] and that as part of that character-inventing process, we “maximize that pitiful set of quirks, those small differences that seem to set us apart from others, and project them theatrically, the way actors work with singularities in their physical appearances or voice textures.”
Frey certainly presented himself theatrically, both in his books and to the media. He seemed like a total badass. A famous image at that time was a black-and-white photo of Frey with buzzed hair and no shirt, staring at the camera, crouched on a futon bed. One of his many tattoos is an inspirational acronym: FTBSITTTD (Fuck The Bullshit It’s Time To Throw Down).
Here’s a confession: I have never, ever wholly believed dialogue in a memoir. Especially in a coming-of-age memoir. It rarely reads as real to me.
Maybe that’s because it isn’t. When I was a teenager, I thought the opposite: Writers had these photographic memories for every word ever said. But since then, I have become well aware that the arbiters of creative nonfiction, essay, autobiography, memoir and lyrical whatchamacallits have all convened somewhere and given “quoted dialogue” a free pass on the authenticity highway. But let’s speak plainly here: It is a lie. As we all know, in memoir, dialogue usually comprises representative snatches of what might have been said; it’s an emblematic device to remind us that This Important Discussion took place, refracted through the author’s subjective, often faulty memory. Set aside that bad writers crutch on dialogue in every genre; even the great memoir with dialogue rubs me the wrong way. In bad memoirs, I find myself skipping through these made-up, composite conversations.
Part of the blame rests on my 12 years of Catholic catechism, where I was taught, among other things, that sins are subdivided into those of thought, word or deed (cordis, oris, operis). Thought and word and deed are not only all the same thing, but any combination of this unholy trinity not only reinforces but compounds the sin. Comedian George Carlin sums up the compounding of sin on his 1972 album “Class Clown”:
It was a sin to wanna feel up Ellen; it was a sin for you to plan to feel up Ellen; it was a sin for you to figure out a place to feel up Ellen; it was a sin to take her to the place to feel her up; it was a sin to try to feel her up; and it was a sin to feel her up—it was six sins in one feel, man!
When I read dialogue in a memoir, then, I can’t help but have my Catholic thought-word-deed sin-detector go off. The writer is vouching for these people’s words and has gone and placed them inside “quotation marks,” those most authoritative punctuation marks of the journalist and researcher. Memoir dialogue, to me, is three sins in one: The writer not only lies about what is said but also provides the exact words for that lie and then writes down whatever is accounted as gospel truth. How easy for the memoirist to enfold event and detail inside these conversations! And the memoirist who embellishes an event, is he or she more or less guilty of sin?
April 12, 2005 was a beautiful spring day, a perfect 61 degrees. I sat at the head of a long table, and James Frey sat about four feet away. He was not a psycho badass motherfucker. He was a nice guy. He was calm and comfortable. He did not smile. He wore flip-flops and drank Diet Coke. His Tribeca loft, according to one of the publicists, was a couple of blocks away. “Should we get you a limo for the ride home?” the publicist joked to him.
I slid both tape recorders toward him. There was no need: His voice was loud, much louder and confident and easygoing than it would be in his television appearances months later on “Larry King Live” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
Me: I find it amazing when my novelist friends lash out at me and say, “You don’t know what it’s like, how much work is involved in this.” I know people who have been working on their novels for six to seven years, and I sometimes think, “Shit or get off the pot.”
James Frey: I hear those stories, too. I feel like I work with a lot of confidence. I never doubt myself at the beginning of the day, that I’m not going to do what I set out to do. I never worry that I’m not going to get my work done. I don’t self-edit. I don’t read what I write. I start something, and I just keep going forward. I don’t think I’m the best judge of my work, so I just keep going forward and let someone else take a look at it.
Me: That’s a gift. I mean, that’s a gift to have that kind of confidence as you write. I know so many people who don’t.
James Frey: Well, I think part of what holds people up is a fear of failure or a fear of criticism. And neither of those things scares me at all. If I fail, I fail. I give it my best shot every day. I work really hard. And I think if anything, that’s my gift. It’s the ability to work really hard, very, very consistently. Now I know a lot of people who are smarter than me or who are probably more talented than me or more naturally gifted than me. But what I can do that they cannot do is go back every day for eight to 10 hours a day and work. And it seems to be working for me.
Under the klieg lights of Oprah’s Book Club, it didn’t take long for reporters to reveal that the hard-working and super-confident James Frey had lied, had over-dramatized himself. In January 2006, The Smoking Gun Web site published “A Million Little Lies: Exposing James Frey’s Fiction Addiction,” a 13,000-word expose on the inconsistencies between Frey’s book and what is public record. “Frey appears to have fictionalized his past to propel and sweeten the book’s already melodramatic narrative and to help convince readers of his malevolence,” the story read. The Web site also found that Frey had sought to expunge what record did exist of his criminal past to build “walls” around himself.
“So why would a man who spends 430 pages,” it continued, citing a page count not found in any English edition of “A Million Little Pieces,” “chronicling every grimy and repulsive detail of his formerly debased life…need to wall off the details of a decade-old arrest?”
How do others deal with their own stories? On July 28, 2003, three months after “A Million Little Pieces” was published and two years before the James Frey Affair, writer Vivian Gornick also found herself in an authenticity bind when, speaking at a writers conference at Goucher College, she mentioned that in her critically acclaimed 1987 memoir “Fierce Attachments,” she had combined scenes and conversations, and that in a couple of pieces she wrote for The Village Voice between 1969 and 1977, she had used composite characters.
Let me back up. Gornick is a hero of mine. She is the author of “The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative,” a standard text in many memoir and creative nonfiction classes. In it, she emphasizes that what happened to writers of personal narrative “is not what matters” but rather what “is achieved when the reader is working hard to engage with the experience at hand.”“These writers might not ‘know’ themselves—that is, have more self-knowledge than the rest of us,” she continues,“but in each case—and this is crucial— they ‘know who they are at the moment of writing.’” Personal essay and memoir focus on different things to accomplish different goals; the essayist focuses on a particular situation, while the memoirist must “deliver wisdom.”
Four days after the talk at Goucher College, Salon published student-journalist Terry Greene Sterling’s account of the events. The scene at the Gornick Q-and-A segment that followed, Sterling writes, led to a “culture clash”: “a sophisticated New York memoirist facing off against a crowd that included highly regarded journalists.” [Sterling may be referring to herself here; one of the first Google search results for Sterling is a reprint of “Sterling Gets Top Reward” (Phoenix New Times, April 22, 1999), penned by Sterling herself, which announces her as winner of Arizona’s Journalist of the Year award, in part for her “exhaustive investigation” into the Baptist Foundation of Arizona.]
The Gornick story gained still more traction when book critic and Georgetown University professor Maureen Corrigan offered her own response on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air.” Corrigan was “disheartened” and “betrayed” by the “oddly offhand admission” that Gornick “played fast-and-loose with the truth.”
“Any reader who falls in love with a work of nonfiction leaves him or herself open to being betrayed,” Corrigan said in Cassandra fashion.
How do we deal with the sinner? That the ruckus and fallout over the lies in James Frey’s memoir “A Million Little Pieces” started only after its selection for Oprah’s Book Club can’t only speak to the popularity of a talk show. It says something about the insularity of literary culture, if such a thing even exists. But there has to be more.
Maybe it suggests that pre-Oprah readers suspended their disbelief, as I do reading dialogue, or that they were more sophisticated than post-Oprah readers, who not only sought wisdom from the book but looked to it for a pragmatic, utilitarian, self-help function. Or maybe it speaks to the fact that every writer does what Frey did, though he had the misfortune of choosing to embellish verifiable facts rather than inner states of being, torn-down buildings, dead people’s accounts of events. Or maybe it’s simply that success always breeds a smackdown.
Or is it the unseemliness of a writer entering the public realm and being on television at all? “The writer on a television talk show,” Richard R. Lingeman wrote in his essay “Writers As Show-Biz” for The New York Times Sunday Book Review in 1971,“is a little like a minister touting his next sermon at a kootch show, while being frequently interrupted by the barker’s spiel.”
Here’s another story. I am a tragically hip, middle-aged professor with a dusty record collection. I am reading the June 2006 issue of the English music magazine Mojo and its cover story on Joe Strummer, the rhythm guitarist, singer and main songwriter for The Clash. Reading Pat Gilbert’s story, “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” I learn for the first time that Strummer, far from being a man-of-the-people who sang such manifesto-anthems as “London Calling,” “White Riot” and “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.,” was actually the son of a junior-level English foreign diplomat and had lived in Turkey, Egypt, Germany and Mexico before he was sent off to boarding school at 9 years old. At 17, he went to Buckingham Palace to see his dad become a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for services to Queen and country. Yet the former John Graham Mellor rarely addressed his middle-class background when he played in The Clash. Instead, he helped other Clash camp members “act working class” and talked to reporters about “slitting people with flick-knives.”
It would be fair to say that Strummer lied, to a certain degree, all his life. Had I found out about Strummer’s past as a 14-year-old punk rocker, I would have stopped listening to The Clash and denounced them, no questions asked.
My reaction now? I wouldn’t question Strummer’s punk status, and I’ll still listen to “London Calling,” but for me the question remains: Why did Strummer/Mellor do this? Why didn’t he present himself as a middle-class kid sympathetic to working class causes rather than present himself as a character who has dramatized himself?
Maybe those post-Oprah readers and critics of Frey are the equivalent of 14-year-old punk rockers who denounce their heroes when they find out they don’t get their clothes from the gutter. Frey’s book, with its tale of overcoming addiction that inspired so many of Oprah’s viewers, was especially ripe for this kind of backlash. Frey’s confession, “a note to the reader,” was posted on Riverhead’s Web site in January 2006. Frey lied and exaggerated, he explains, because he “wanted the stories in the book to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require.” He also changed details, he says, to protect other people’s anonymity. He had outlined a couple of these on his second visit to “The Oprah Winfrey Show”; for instance, Frey admitted that his girlfriend, called Lilly in the book, had killed herself not by hanging but by “cutting her wrists.”
He writes that he spent three months in jail. That, too, was a lie; it was more like “several hours.” There are other “embellishments” in the book as well. “I made other alterations in my portrayal of myself, most of which portrayed me in ways that made me tougher and more daring and more aggressive than in reality I was or I am,” he writes. When I read this, I think back to Frey’s dented-in boxer’s nose as I talked to him. It clearly had been broken, and every time he spoke, there was a clear whistle from his septum. People’s “skewed perception of themselves,” he writes, helps them “overcome” problems, “do things they thought they couldn’t do before.”
“My mistake,” he writes, “and it is one I deeply regret, is writing about the person I created in my mind to help me cope and not the person who went through the experience.”
Gornick didn’t offer up a confession. She didn’t feel the need to. In her response to Corrigan on Aug. 11, 2003, she sounded angry, like my sister scolding one of her sons in stern staccato. She called “Fresh Air” from the Yaddo artist colony and said:
A memoir is a story taken directly from the raw material of a writer’s own life and shaped into a piece of experience that can hold meaning for the disinterested reader. What actually happened is only material; what the writer makes of what happened is everything. To state the case briefly: Memoirs belong to the category of literature, not of journalism. It is a misunderstanding to read a memoir as though the writer owes the reader the same record of factual accuracy that is owed in newspaper reporting or literary journalism. What is owed [by the memoirist] is only the ability to persuade that the narrator is honestly trying to get down to the bottom of the experience at hand.
Just as Oprah gets the last word with Frey, so Corrigan is given the chance to comment yet again. In her first commentary piece, Corrigan had spoken of an “Autobiographer’s Pledge,” which each writer implicitly recites when taking an “accounting” of one’s life, as well as an “Autobiographer’s Contract. ”To those of the more academic persuasion, these terms, pledge and contract, might recall French literary theorist Philippe Lejeune’s 1973 essay, “The Autobiographical Pact” (“Le Pacte autobiographique”). Unlike Corrigan, Lejeune does not map out a doomed, litigious writer-reader relationship, nor does he assert the lack of any relationship at all, as Roland Barthes does in his 1977 essay “The Death of the Author.” Instead, Lejeune describes a middle path where the author connects the “world-beyond-text and the text.”
“An author is not a person,” he writes. He is “defined as simultaneously a socially responsible real person and the producer of a discourse. For the reader, who does not know the real person, all the while believing in his existence, the author is defined as the person capable of producing this discourse, and so he imagines what he is like from what he produced.” Paul John Eakin, a scholar in life writing studies and a professor at Indiana University, writes that “Lejeune’s position resides in his willingness to concede the fictive status of the self and then to proceed with its functioning as experiential fact.”
But what’s perhaps the most maddening to me about Corrigan’s second commentary, her response to Gornick’s response, is the interchanging of the words memoir and autobiography. In her 359-word commentary, forms of the word autobiography are used nine times; memoir, four times. The difference between memoir and autobiography, to many writers, is a crucial one. Gore Vidal goes to great pains to point out the difference in the introduction to his memoir, “Palimpsest.” A memoir, he writes, “is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.” “[I]n a memoir,” Vidal continues, “there are many rubbings-out and puttings-in.”
How should we deal with such sins and sinners? I don’t think it’s an accident that while Frey embellished his stories consciously to punch up his narrative, many of his fellow memoirists who gathered in the town square to cast stones were, by and large, ones who—whether they want to admit it or not—embellish their own work unconsciously and punch up their own unverifiable, emotional truths, for which there are no notes, no Smoking Guns, nothing but a conscience to fact-check them.
Take, for instance, memoirist Mary Karr’s op-ed piece, “His So Called Life,” written for The New York Times, in which she calls Frey a “skunk” who broke the “cardinal rule” of memoirs: You don’t “make stuff up.” The key phrase that Karr, whose classic 1995 memoir, “The Liar’s Club,” recalls chunks of her childhood with remarkable detail, uses to explain why she doesn’t “make stuff up”—she tells how she declined her publisher’s request to make up a happy ending to her memoir—is “God is in the truth.” Had she found out Helen Keller was “merely nearsighted, not deaf, blind and mute,” she writes, her “bubble might have popped.”
Perhaps a more apt comparison of Frey with Keller, however, would be if Frey were merely a problem drinker, not a drug addict. Or if the author of “The Story of My Life” embellished the set of circumstances that led to her condition and situation, as Frey did with a made-up criminal past that led to his stint in rehab. Keller, you may recall, became deaf and blind at 19 months, an age for which, most neurologists and psychologists agree, humans have few if any memories. Here’s what Keller claims to remember:
I fancy I still have confused recollections of that illness. I especially remember the tenderness with which my mother tried to soothe me in my waking hours of fret and pain, and the agony and bewilderment with which I awoke after a tossing half sleep and turned my eyes, so dry and hot, to the wall, away from the once-loved light, which came to me dim and yet more dim each day.…
“[D]uring the first 19 months of my life,” she continues, “I had caught glimpses of broad, green fields, a luminous sky, trees and flowers, which the darkness that followed could not wholly blot out.” Picking on Helen Keller isn’t exactly playing fair, I know. I suppose what I am asking is if we should allow the existence of more than one kind of memoirist. On one end of the spectrum, there are memoirists who invoke fancy and God’s will to get to the Truth. They take pledges and sign contracts. On the other end are memoirists for whom the truth is their own to name. These are the ones who do not profess an allegiance to fancy or a fictive god. They value emotional truth over public record. They do not take an oath or sign a contract. On the one end, we have faith; on the other end, will.
What I mean by will is that perhaps what enrages people most about James Frey is that he willfully changed the details in his life to serve the story, whereas for so many other memoirists, doing so is an unacknowledged sin. The cobbled-together childhood conversation as a major plot-point registers as less of a sin on the authenticity meter—and diminishes less a writer’s capacity as truth-teller—than a tall tale of a criminal past.
“Do these members of the Goucher College audience imagine that memoirists walk around wired for conversation capture like snitching mobsters?” Tom Bissell writes about Sterling’s Gornick account in Salon. “Do they believe that everything in nonfiction has to be exactly documented to be emotionally true? Do they not understand the huge difference between literary memoir and a newspaper article entitled ‘Property Sale Raises Questions Amid Ethics Inquiry’?”
Take for Exhibit A Kenneth Goldsmith’s “Soliloquy,” a 400-page book in which the author—a poet, visual artist and freeform radio DJ—transcribes everything he says in a week in 1996. Nothing is edited. Here’s an excerpt of a still longer excerpt that appears in the online journal Readme:
It was Rick, Aki, Mike, there was this guy also that you probably never heard of named Nick Arbatsky. Sure you never heard of Nick. He dropped out he did a Alaskan oil spill project his big claim to fame he had this big fundraiser so when the Titanic crashed out there in the waters the oil spilled all over the Valdez he went up there with canvases, right? Everybody chipped in he had a big party. He went up there with canvases to try to make like oil Valdez soaked. And he came back, man, and this. That was a good idea. And then he had a coming back party so he could show what he got. And the guy comes back with like, we figured he would have like these dripping, rich canvases, you know, like birds plastered. They were like these canvases he kind of drew on a little bit and and and. No no there was no tar. It was the most like like Helen Frankenthaler washes and it was his impressions in it and that was it for Nick, man, that was the last you ever heard of Nick. Nick was like like like pegged to be the next huge thing in those days too because of that project. And and the Village Voice might have written something about him. So, have you read the Voice since it’s free? I I hate the Voice. When did we stop reading the Voice what year? Yeah. Everybody once, yeah yeah. Well we picked it up because it was free and it’s the same thing. It’s like a cliche. Oh my god, yeah. Much better. We like Time Out. Yeah, the ad is good.
You get the idea. Just as Bissell proposes, Goldsmith wore a wire— a hidden, voice-activated microphone, actually, one that, Goldsmith writes to me over e-mail, tripped on and off “from the moment I woke up Monday morning till the moment I went to sleep Sunday night.”
Before he wrote his story and after he left rehab, James Frey was an aspiring screenwriter. He wanted to write something that “someone would pay me money for.” His first two screenplays, he tells me, “were just awful.” The third, a “very commercial romantic comedy,” was readable. He sold it.
That very commercial romantic comedy was 1998’s “Kissing a Fool,” a box-office and critical flop that Frey co-wrote with director Doug Ellin. In an opening scene, aspiring writer Jay Murphy, played by Jason Lee (“Clerks II,” “My Name is Earl”), has set up his best friend, the womanizing sportscaster Max Abbitt, played by David Schwimmer (“Friends”), on a blind date with his editor, Samantha “Sam” Andrews, played by Israeli actress Mili Avital. (Jay is working on a novel, by the way—a roman a clef based on his own life.)
Max bangs on Jay’s door at 6:30 the next morning to complain about Sam’s behavior at a fancy restaurant, where, Max says, she “drank like a fish” and “acted like a psychotic.” Minutes later, Sam knocks on Jay’s door. Jay hides Max in the closet. Sam complains about how Max took her to the Crazy Horse, a gentleman’s club, for drinks and came onto her in his convertible Mercedes. Max rushes out of the closet and argues with Sam. Jay can’t decide which conflicting account to believe. He leans toward Sam’s story. Max is shocked his best friend would do this.
“I’m not taking sides,” Jay says. “It’s just that her story sounds a little more like you than your story sounds like her.”
The whole thing, it turns out, is a ruse. Sam and Max had a great time on their date and spent the whole night together. They decided to wake up their friend and play a joke on him.
“Wow,” Jay says, taken aback. “You guys really over-plotted this thing, didn’t you?”
So how will we define memoir now? Is the state of the genre any better or worse after the James Frey Affair? As I write this, I have my notes from my interview with Frey and a big stack of philosophy books on my desk. I thought I’d consult the Great Thinkers to help me define words like truth and memoir and autobiography and lying. I’ve got the Pablo Picasso quote ready: “We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” Then there’s Ralph Waldo Emerson: “All history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no history, only biography.”
Then I thought about dragging out that hoary device of using the dictionary to look up all those words, their histories. I thought better and went back to philosophy. “When we are disputing about the proper meaning to be attached to a particular word in a sentence, etymology is of little use,” the great literary critic Owen Barfield writes in his essay “The Development of Meaning.” “Only children run to the dictionary to settle an argument.”
How does one begin to defend James Frey? I haven’t even started. I haven’t mentioned how Oprah made this more about herself and her own addiction to veracity. I haven’t even started on the publishing industry’s role, its genre relativism, its obsession with marketing authenticity. I want to point out that no quotation marks appear in either “A Million Little Pieces” or “My Friend Leonard,” that there’s no attempt at made-up dialogue, recreations for what was or was not said. Jerry Stahl, author of another extreme addiction memoir, “Permanent Midnight,” writes that Frey “stepped over standards and precedent as an impediment to Getting The Job Done. The job, in this case, being the creation of a history compatible with one’s own myth.” Whether Stahl means it or not, I agree with him.
In the “Poetics,” Aristotle talks about the two sources of poetry. One is our instinct for imitation, to reproduce reality, our pleasure in the artist’s attempt. The other is our instinct for harmony and rhythm, our “rude improvisations.” I don’t think I can defend what Frey lied about as such as much as his right to imitate and harmonize, those “rude improvisations.” Single-source news stories will still run on the front page and be accepted as fact. Future writers’ parents will wear wires. Everything will be transcribed into a public record; nothing will be edited or crafted, and no one will be dramatized into a character. No one will be disheartened or betrayed as the drudgery of documentation continues. It might be a step forward. But writers will always have the desire to imitate and transform, not simply record, real life.