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A Million Little Pieces

James Frey

From James’s first day in the unit to his second dental appointment

From the beginning of book to James’s first meeting with Ken

From being exposed to AA to walking out of the clinic

Summary

James wakes up in the dark in his new room. In the bathroom, he makes an attempt to look himself in the eyes, but fails. He bumps into Roy, who tells him that his job is to clean the group toilets. After cleaning the toilets, James goes back to his room and vomits. James sits by himself at breakfast. After breakfast he is driven to a dentist appointment by Hank, a recovering alcoholic who now works for the clinic. In the dentist’s office, James recognizes a picture book—Babar the Elephant—being read by a little boy. The dentist tells James that he’ll have to come back in a few days so that they can do root canals on his two front teeth and cap the teeth next to his front teeth.

At lunch James meets Leonard, a man who claims that James has been calling him Gene Hackman for days. There’s a small confrontation after which Leonard and James become friends. James infers from their conversation that Leonard’s line of work is not legal, and that he makes an enormous amount of money. This is oddly comforting to James. At lecture, James starts to feel sick. He deals with it by squeezing his face, the pain taking his mind off feeling sick. On his way back to his room, Ken calls him in to take the MMPI, a personality test. There are 557 true/false questions on the exam. James is able to answer all but one: whether or not “[His] sins are unpardonable.” After the test James makes some calls to his friends and family. They inquire after his health. He calls his mother and father in Chicago. He tells his brother to come to visiting day if he can.

James has dinner alone. He goes to lecture and gets his first taste of the Twelve Step program and then goes back to his room to play cards with his roommates. Larry has just found out that he has HIV and is worried he gave it to his wife and kids. That night James has a dream about sitting in front of a pile of drugs, using them all, and enjoying the high. He wakes up, takes a shower, and gets sick, as usual. Afterward he feels very emotional and cries, thinking about his life. When he comes out of the bathroom his roommates tell him that Larry has left, and no one knows where he’s gone.

James cleans the toilets. When he’s done, Roy gives him a hard time about the state of the toilets yesterday and challenges him. James feels trapped and angry. Something he calls the Fury begins to rise in him and he throws Roy around in front of everyone. James goes to his room and destroys everything he can before he gets a sedative to calm down. He wakes up in a different room. Ken brings two new people to visit him: Lincoln, his unit supervisor, and Joanne, a staff psychologist. They talk about the incident with Roy. James is instantly at odds with Lincoln. Joanne asks to speak to him alone and offers to help. At lunch, Leonard introduces James to two of his friends, Ed and Ted.

After lecture, Hank gives James a warm coat and a pair of tennis balls (to squeeze if he is afraid or in pain) and drives him to the dentist. James asks to hold the Babar book from the waiting room during the procedure. The dentist tells James that he is not allowed to have any painkillers because of his drug use, and he must be strapped down to keep him from jerking around while the procedure is going on. When the horrific scene is over, Hank drives James back to the clinic. On the way, James passes out from the pain.

Analysis

James’s attempt to look himself in the eyes is an early indicator of his desire to get better. He also feels regret for the first time in the narrative. There’s the impression that James is beginning to really consider his life and how he ended up in his current position. At the dentist’s office we see even more humanity emerge. James is struck by the sight of a little boy reading a book that James himself enjoyed when he was a child, and he’s touched by the way the boy’s mother protects him. James lets on that he’s feeling guilty for putting his mother through any pain. At this stage in the book, James is beginning to reveal his need to feel. He has a real desire to experience emotions to the extreme. Frey spends eight pages recounting the horrible experience of going through two root canals, two tooth cappings, and a cavity filling without Novocain. He is almost elated at this extreme sensation, after so many years of not remembering or feeling anything. He is clearly in shock after the procedure but refuses treatment, choosing to feel the pain and agony. James welcomes these experiences as a vast improvement over his previous feelings of apathy.

Another incidence of extreme emotion is James’s confrontation with Roy. The rising tide of anger that he calls the Fury is obviously provoked by feelings of entrapment. There are parts of him that try to deny the Fury, but a large part of him enjoys the sensation of being out of control. He feels no remorse after his confrontation with Roy, and he paints Roy in such a way that the reader feels no remorse either. James indicates his return to being a feeling human in smaller ways, as well. When James hears that Larry has left the facility, he has nothing but good thoughts about Larry, and even goes so far as to send blessings Larry’s way. He identifies with Larry’s feelings of remorse and guilt.

Three characters in this section provide a backdrop against which James can measure his eventual return to humanity. Hank is the only person thus far who has really asked if James is feeling okay. He acknowledges James’s fears—even simple, childish ones like going to the dentist—and validates them by recognizing them. He hears that James has no real possessions and gets him a jacket to keep him warm. He knows that he doesn’t have too much power to assuage James’s pain at the dentist, but his gift of the tennis balls proves to be one that really helps James at least to pretend that he can handle the pain. Hank is also the first person to touch James in a friendly way at the facility. His hug makes James feel a little uncomfortable, but good, nonetheless. It’s a marked contrast from the way he feels when his mother tries to hug him.

Leonard’s appearance in James’s life marks a new period of making friends. Indeed, Leonard’s way of making friends seems to be very much in line with James’s attitude toward anyone who approaches him: be on guard, and be as disagreeable as possible. If the person can still stand you, perhaps you were meant to be friends. His interactions with Leonard may provide a foil for James’s other friendships. Finally, James seems to gravitate toward Joanne’s method of dealing with him, which is to stand back and allow him to come to her when she’s needed. He makes a note of her office number and forces himself to remember it. In sharp contrast is Lincoln, who personifies an authority figure, and, in doing so, turns James off entirely.

In perusing the Babar book, he notes that, as a child, he daydreamed that he and Babar used to travel the world, “kicking some . . . ass.” This is a strange comment to make about a children’s picture book, and it provides cause to wonder how James’s bravado colors his telling of his own history. It flashes up again when the dental assistant looks at him, and he repeats his famous sentence: “I am an Alcoholic and I am a Drug Addict and I am a Criminal.” This sentence is repeated several times in the book, and seems to be James’s way of identifying himself. Here, he uses it to show that the dental assistant sees him as the dregs of society—a bloody, disgusting, dangerous mess. Between the Babar reference and this, James seems to be saying that he is extremely dangerous and has been since childhood.

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