America's Been Freyed
At first I felt sorry for James Frey, author of “A Million Little Pieces.”
Here is a guy who, according to him and his mother (who seems to always be behind him, which is weird, because isn’t that his wife’s job?), was in the depths of addiction.
As a sister and a daughter of alcoholics, I understood that. Anyone can make a mistake, or even a series of them writing about their own lives, especially when you're writing about a period in which you weren't in your right mind, right? Upon reviewing my brother’s medical records for my own book, I saw inconsistencies in the stories he told the VA doctors. I don't think he was making things up, but his memory and mind became so clouded as the years past, he told them the best he could remember. So I had to verify some stories with my mother to get as near to the truth as she could recall, that’s what you do in memoir. Frey was right on one point, memoir is a personal recollection of events and everyone sees a situation in a different light entirely. So, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and thought that's all the hubbub was.
I felt for Frey also because I had written a memoir, my part based on my own recollections and what I knew of family history. And I knew how damned hard it was. I can say with certainty that I have a great memory, that I know I see things as near to the truth as possible based on my own experiences as a journalist, but can I say with absolute, 100% certainty that all of my memories are completely accurate? No. I also say at the beginning of my book that I had to infer some dialogue, which is why some of it is in italics.
When I saw Frey on Larry King, I knew by the look in his eyes and his evasive answers that it was more than a few little errors. He had changed significant parts of the story, not just to protect people, but also to heighten the drama - even making up events and putting himself in situations where he never was. In narrative non-fiction, which includes the genre of memoir, you are telling a story as dramatically as possible, sometimes inserting dialogue (because who carries a tape recorder around with them or takes notes of their lives minute by minute?), sometimes inserting scenes in which you think something might happen.
But even with dramatic effect, a memoir is always suppose to be as close to the truth as you remember it or can get. You don't make up girlfriends who commit suicide (some people who have examined the story now don’t even believe “Lilly” existed), you don't place yourself at the scene of a fatal accident that had nothing to do with you, you don't place yourself in the middle of a non-existent narcotics investigation and you sure don't put yourself in jail for 87 days when you've never spent an hour there!
Some people in the media believe the controversy over Frey’s book was the “flavor of the hour,” something that will die down and people will forget. There’s no doubt that the controversy will die down, it already has. But while controversy dies down, it doesn’t mean that it won’t have lasting implications.
In the short term, exposing Frey’s lies raises even more questions about what we see as traditional journalism. After all, although some newspapers had questioned Frey’s book as many as three years ago, they were virtually ignored until thesmokinggun.com did their expose.
For the genre of memoir, years down the road, I think Frey’s antics will forever hurt the genre and further disintegrate public perception about truth vs. fiction. “A Million Little Pieces” will always be remembered for when the public was first made aware that not everyone who is supposed to be writing the truth in memoir does; it will always be remembered for when the public was Freyed.