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James Christopher Frey was born September 12, 1969,
in Cleveland, Ohio. Frey’s early life was spent in Ohio and Michigan.
His father was a successful business executive, and the Freys were
a financially comfortable family. After graduating high school in 1988,
Frey attended Denison University in Granville, Ohio, where he was
a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. In 1993,
at age 23, he entered Hazelden clinic for drug
and alcohol rehabilitation. He spent six weeks there as a patient.
Following this, Frey held a number of jobs, ranging from janitor
to screenwriter. His screenplay for Kissing a Fool was
made into a movie starring David Schwimmer in 1998. A
Million Little Pieces, an account of his stay at Hazelden,
was started in the late 1990s. To complete
the book, Frey mortgaged his house and lived on the proceeds while
he wrote. Frey claims that he initially tried to sell the book as
a work of fiction, but seventeen publishers rejected it. The book,
first published in May 2003, was classified
by both Frey and the publisher (Random House) as a memoir, or a
narrative taken from personal experience.
Early on, a handful of critics questioned the truthfulness
of the book, but Frey’s claims of its veracity went largely uncontested.
In 2005, talk show host and magazine publisher
Oprah Winfrey selected A Million Little Pieces for
her book club, bumping Eli Weisel’s Night for the
December slot. Sales of Frey’s book shot into the multimillions,
and Frey appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show to speak
about his experiences as an addict and his eventual rehabilitation.
In January of 2006, the Smoking Gun (www.thesmokinggun.com),
an investigative website owned by Court TV, began a search for a
mugshot of Frey to put in their gallery and were surprised to find
almost no records of Frey’s multistate criminal activities. Digging
deeper, they uncovered one police report that had missed Frey’s
attention—it detailed a major event described in the book, in which
Frey, high on crack, hits a police car and almost starts a riot.
The reality was that a slightly inebriated Frey ran the wheel of
his car up onto a curb and was taken into custody in an extremely
uneventful arrest. In the book, this is the crime that threatens
to land Frey in maximum security prison for several years, until
Leonard and Miles Davis, James’s closest friends at the clinic, work
to have the sentence reduced to three months. The crime is more
or less fiction, and the sentence is completely so. Frey’s actual jail
time amounted to a few hours, and it occurred on the night of his arrest.
With this information, related parts of the story were called into
Up to the point of the Smoking Gun’s investigation, Frey
claimed the book was completely honest, and that he had only changed
some names to protect the identities of the people involved. He
also claimed that his publisher had contacted people portrayed in
the book and verified what he had written. In interviews (including
one for Barnes & Noble’s Meet the Writers program), Frey went
as far as to describe his activities during the nonexistent three-month
jail term, down to listing the books he read while whiling away
time in his cell. Frey appeared on Larry King Live on
January 11, 2006,
to defend himself against the charges. He admitted some alterations but
repeated that he stood by the “essential truth” of his book. Oprah
Winfrey called the show while Frey was on the air and voiced her
support. She would soon withdraw it.
Over the next few days, the case against Frey grew too
overwhelming to ignore. Frey was called back to Oprah’s show along with
his publisher, industry veteran Nan Talese, on January 26, 2006.
The result was a blistering hour-long program, in which Frey finally
admitted that he lied about some of the events. He did not recant
his decision to label the book a memoir, and he still claims to have
documentation to support much of the story. The controversy surrounding A
Million Little Pieces has led some journalists and readers
to call for strict fact-checking of all nonfiction books. Many supportive
fans have touted its “essential truth,” a phrase used by Frey during
his interview on Larry King’s show to denote the story’s emotional
impact. Still others are simply wondering whether the book should
be categorized as fiction or nonfiction. Random House, publisher
of both paperback and hardcover copies of the book, has simply issued
an apology. A publisher’s note and an author’s note will appear
in all new printings. Frey’s follow-up to A Million Little
Pieces, My Friend Leonard, starts on the
eighty-seventh day of his fabricated ninety-day stay in jail and
is also billed as a memoir. It contains a note to the reader explaining
that some elements of his story “have been changed” for the book
Within a month of Frey’s public outing at the Smoking
Gun, LA Weekly uncovered a bizarre tale of a gay
erotica writer masquerading as a Navajo writer. That writer, Tim
Barrus, had been writing as “Nasdijj” since 1999 and
had won numerous awards for his memoirs. Novelist JT LeRoy, presumed
to be a young man who wrote gritty novels based on his former life
as a male prostitute, was revealed to be the creation of middle-aged
female rock musician and her husband. “LeRoy” went many steps further
in the ruse, including using a physical stand-in for readings. These
findings shook the public’s confidence in the publishing industry
even more so. But A Million Little Pieces, with
its Oprah seal and widespread news coverage, remained at the center
of the debate. The scope of the discussion ranged from the sublime
to the extreme. Some commentators focused on the specific definition
of the word memoir. Several widened the topic to
ask if Frey’s actions are symptomatic of a larger problem: the erosion
of the notion of truth in modern American society and politics.
Ace your assignments with our guide to A Million Little Pieces!