During his stay at the clinic, James hears a lot of cautionary advice and learns a lot about how others deal with recovery from addiction. Which types of advice resonate best with him, and why?
James finds that he is surrounded by patients and counselors at the clinic who genuinely want to help him, but he rarely gives in and takes their advice. Although he rejects the Twelve Step program, which is based on giving in to a higher power, as the primary guide to recovery, he seems, once he’s decided to get sober, to perpetually be on the lookout for something else he can cling to. Conversely, for James’s entire life, he has acted first and then thought about the consequences. He is constantly trying to take matters into his own hands. James does, indeed, prefer advice, but the kind that allows him to continue to have control of his recovery process.
James finds inspiration and solace in two very different, and perhaps unlikely, sources. First, his friend Leonard’s advice to “be smart, be strong, be proud, live honorably and with dignity, and just hold on,” is a simple directive that resonates strongly with James. The concept of having honor and dignity is one that he is ready to accept. He realizes this when he hears the Bald Man cry in front of his fellow patients. The impetus to “hold on” is already within him, and one that’s easy for him to understand. It’s a mantra that he can easily remember even in the hardest of times. Another source of strength for James is in the Tao Te Ching, a book that James’s brother brings for him to read. Perhaps reluctantly, he realizes that the book is the perfect source of guidance. Its very philosophy is rooted in simplicity, a concept that James prefers to a concept like the Twelve Step, which involve God or a higher power. The Tao deals specifically with the here and now, things that James can concentrate on easily.
At a certain point during his stay at the clinic, James feels capable of being a source of strength for others. What events might have propelled him into this role?
Not until a full third of the way through the book does James meet someone that he believes might be worse off than himself. His roommate John, whose father molested him as a child, is so irreparably damaged that James can’t even identify with him. But even meeting John isn’t James’s real turning point. First, James is told that he is going to die if he continues to abuse alcohol and drugs. He takes stock of his life and imagines his own obituary, a list of all the terrible things he’s done in life. He believes his family and friends have “written him off.” However, shortly afterward, he finds that this is not entirely true. Leonard, who he hardly even knows, forces James to make friends with him and stops James when he tries to give up and leave the clinic. Also, James’s brother Bob and his friends Julie and Kirk, old friends he assumed had written him off, come to see him on visiting day. His friends and family do, in fact, care about him and want to support him.
This renewed outlook makes James realize that he is truly not alone in the world. This type of interaction allows him to see the pain and hopelessness of others’ situations, starting with John. Later, he will act as a support system to his girlfriend, Lilly, and his second roommate, Miles.
It has come to light that A Million Little Pieces is not entirely a work of nonfiction. However, James Frey defended the choices he’d made to embellish, fabricate, or change certain parts of the book by saying that an “essential truth” still exists in his telling of the story. Do you agree or disagree with Frey’s assessment of the situation? Do you think that there is an “essential truth” to the book?
Although A Million Little Pieces was initially listed as a nonfiction memoir, it has come to pass that this is not entirely true. However, author James Frey may have chosen to position the book as a memoir because the story is essentially true: he was once an addict who entered rehab, recovered, and is now sober and has written about it. The fabrications to the plot vary. For example, he changes how Lilly commits suicide at the end. This is not an incredibly important detail. On the other hand, his prison stay is much shorter than the one he talks about in the book. In fact, he was in prison for a mere two hours, instead of the three months he says he had to serve in the book. But does prison time really matter in this story of how an addict became sober? Likewise, Frey never really knew Michelle, the girl who was killed in the train wreck, despite the fact that he claims to have been her best friend and partially responsible for her accident. But he has chosen to link himself closely to this event as a way of illustrating the reason that he’s become such a stubborn and belligerent individual. The events that have been shown to be untrue are ancillary to what is, ultimately, a story of redemption and self-reliance.
1. James frequently turns to bravado or isolates himself when dealing with hard times at the clinic. What other coping mechanisms does he use? Which of these seems most effective?
2. How does James’s relationship with Lilly differ from his relationship with the Girl with the Arctic Eyes? How does each relationship relate to each part of his life?
3. Frey’s writing style has been called “gritty,” “raw,” and labeled as “stream of consciousness.” What does this style say about his state of mind during his stay at the clinic? Is it an effective vehicle for his thoughts?
4. How does James’s relationship with his family change throughout the course of his stay at the clinic? In what ways does James show the changes? Why is this change important to James’s recovery?
5. What role does Leonard play in James’s recovery? What does Leonard stand to gain from making friends with James? What is the significance of Leonard accepting James as a son?
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