I first read about James Frey's A Million Little Pieces in a New Yorker review. I was working on my own memoir, Parched (Chamberlain Bros.), at the time, so I scanned the piece with interest. Frey and I had a couple of things in common: we'd both had major substance abuse problems; we'd both been to Hazelden (him for six weeks, circa 1992; me for four weeks, six years earlier). But there the similarities seemed to end. It wasn't so much that we were of different genders, that I was a teensy bit older than him, that we'd chosen different approaches to staying sober. No, it was that Frey was angry. The whole tenor of the review was that Frey was angry. The testosterone-fueled rage! The studly ire! In light of my own 20 years as a falling-down blackout drunk, it struck me as an odd stance. The people who really had cause to be angry, it seemed to me, were the ones I'd trampled, cheated on, stolen from and lied to on my way to the nearest bar.
Now that the accusations of lying have surfaced and I've read the book, I see the differences go even deeper. Drama is the movement from narcissism to humility, but Frey is exactly the same at the end of his story—minus the drugs—as he is at the beginning: an insecure braggart without a spark of vitality, gratitude or fun. "A ballsy, bone-deep memoir," Salon.com called it, but for an alcoholic, throwing up blood, puking on oneself, and committing petty-ass crimes couldn't be bigger yawns. What's gritty is the moment, knowing you're dying, when you realize My way doesn't work. What's ballsy isn't just egomaniacally recounting your misdeeds; it's taking the trouble to find the people you've screwed over, looking them in the eye, and saying you're sorry. What's bone-deep is figuring out that other people suffer, too, and developing some compassion for them. Oprah speaks of "the redemption of James Frey"—but redeemed from what, and by whom? Sobriety isn't the staged melodrama of sitting in a bar and staring down a drink to prove you've "won"—as Frey does upon leaving rehab. It's the ongoing attempt, knowing in advance you'll fall short, to order your life around honesty, integrity, faith.
So, in fact, is writing. It's every writer's sacred honor to "get it right," but perhaps the burden falls heaviest on the memoirist. As a memoirist, it seems to me, something has to have happened to you that you're burning to tell. You've undergone some kind of transformation that matters not because it says something about you, but because it says something about the world; because it touches on the mysteries of suffering and meaning. You have to have some kind of love for the world, with all its terrible suffering; you have to be willing to cut off your writing hand rather than betray by a word what it's taught you. The problem is that it doesn't seem to have taught James Frey much of anything, which is why A Million Little Pieces rings false.
There's one other difference between Frey and me. His book has sold three and a half million copies; mine has sold—well, let's just say fewer than that. I could be angry that a cynical hack job is a runaway bestseller, while a wrenching, factually accurate memoir that I sweated to get right, and sent out to the world with fear and trembling, praying I was worthy to call myself a writer, has garnered a more modest following.
But what's to be angry about? I can't believe how lucky I am to do work I'm passionate about. I have convictions I hope I'd be willing to go to the stake for. "I have read the New Testament," Frey says. He should read it again. He should read the passage where Jesus tells the paralytic to take up his mat and walk. Because maybe our mat—what keeps us stuck, sometimes our whole lives—is the illusion that, in order to be loved, we have to pretend to be bigger, better, braver than we really are.