I am an Alcoholic and a Drug Addict and a Criminal.
This is James’s standard, oft-quoted definition of himself, and it is repeated several times in the book. It is a bald, hard sentence, with no commas to soften the blows between the words, and capital letters drawing attention to each term. Whether he meant to or not, James has completed the first and primary requirement of AA’s Twelve Step program: he has admitted that he has a problem with drugs and drink. At no point in the book does James deny this. He is passively placed on a plane, and when his parents meet him at the airport and drive him off to a clinic, he offers no objection whatsoever. He’s unhappy and unresponsive, but he puts up no real fight.
The part of this sentence that should probably be looked at most closely is the inclusion of the term “Criminal.” That James has a drug and alcohol problem is completely understood—but to lump in the word criminal takes the sentence in a whole new direction. To admit that you are an alcoholic and drug addict is to admit that you have a problem. To add that you are a criminal seems to imply, “I am also a dangerous man.” It is a show of bravado. It is this bravado that gets James into trouble several times in the clinic. The crimes, as well as the prison terms described in the book, are fictitious, and they are the very lies that caused Frey’s literary downfall in real life.
To make light of it, brag about it, or revel in the mock glory of it is not in any way, shape or form related to its truth, and that is all that matters, the truth. That this man is standing in front of me and everyone else in this room lying to us is heresy. The truth is all that matters.
This quotation comes in the middle of the book, after a famous rock star and former addict has just given a speech to the patients. In his speech, the rock star claims that at the depths of his addiction, he did $5,000 worth of heroin and cocaine a day and took up to forty valiums to sleep. These claims enrage James, and he despises the fact that the rock star has embellished his addiction for show. These words take on new meaning in light of Frey’s public outing. Once the story of Frey’s embellishments to the book was public and undeniable, he stuck by the claim of the “essential truth” of the book—meaning that it is acceptable to alter facts as long as the emotional impact of the story is there. In the book, James himself calls self-aggrandizing lies “heresy.”
If an individual is fat but wants to be thin, it is not a genetic disease. If someone is stupid, but wants to be smart, it is not a genetic disease. If a drunk is a drunk, but doesn’t want to be a drunk anymore, it is not a genetic disease. Addiction is a decision.
This is arguably the most powerful statement in the book and may be considered the central message. James has just been told that his grandfather was an alcoholic and is essentially being given an out—it is not his fault he became an alcoholic and drug addict, he simply has a genetic predisposition. James rejects this idea completely and says that he chose to drink. His problems are his fault and his fault alone. To recover, he must decide to stop drinking. This is a grand dismissal in a culture of blame. Of course, it’s also an oversimplification. Intelligence levels, metabolism, and the like are governed by some biological factors. But the message still comes through, and it is quite optimistic. James believes that people can change themselves and are capable of much more than they realize. But the first requirement is total acceptance of responsibility.
It is a fight not to eat more, to eat three or four pieces at a time, to eat five steaks or maybe ten or as many as I can get, but it is not a difficult fight
James makes this statement while watching the feeding frenzy among the patients during a banquet thrown by Leonard. In this scene, James is eating calmly and slowly. Throughout most of the book, James has replaced his addictions to alcohol and drugs with uncontrollable eating. He can see his old self, reflected now in the other patients, and realize that his eating was merely a manifestation of his life of addiction. While James is observing the men in his unit shoving food down their throats, he also realizes that this behavior is not unique to him. All of the men are trying to feed something that can never be satisfied by alcohol, drugs, food, television, or money. Things in life must be consumed slowly, deeply, and seriously. This lesson from the Tao is an exercise in control, something that has long been absent from James’s life.