The same week a New York Times reporter tackled the J.T. LeRoy scandal, new reports are questioning the work of James Frey, author of the widely publicized 2003 memoir A Million Little Pieces. Reviewing that book in April of that year, James Browning called Frey’s story harrowing, boring—and almost certainly embellished.
Everything Is Intoxicated
by James Browning
Published on April 9th, 2003
James Frey smokes a lot of crack. A lot of motherfucking crack. James falls face-first down a fire escape and wakes up much later without several teeth and with a hole in his cheek. A fucking hole in his cheek. James checks into rehab but won’t join Alcoholics Anonymous or do a 12-step program because they’re addictive and just like another drug. How the fuck can you quit drugs by taking another drug?
This is James Frey’s story and, sadly, this is how much of his harrowing yet boring memoir A Million Little Pieces reads. “My head hurts, my mouth hurts, my eyes hurt, my hands hurt. Things without names hurt,” Frey writes of his fall. He goes on to name these things, often unconvincingly. His suffering is both incredible (using so much “bittersweet peppermint gasoline”–scented crack and meth and speed and PCP that he vomits and blacks out seven days a week for years) and simply not credible (undergoing a root canal without anesthesia because patients at his rehab clinic aren’t allowed drugs of any kind). Nor are they allowed to talk to patients of the opposite sex, and the book’s best scene has James arranging to meet a woman in a field at 10 at night by stacking 10 plates on a tray, then unthinkingly sending her to the field by stacking three plates at his next meal. Her heart breaks when he doesn’t show, as does the reader’s in trying to believe the book—so much pain, and for this? Anything taken to the extreme becomes its opposite, and Pieces, preaching against AA and self-help books, becomes one of them. The plotting—a sign of trouble when a memoir brings this word to mind—is stilted and conventional. James’s closest friends in rehab happen to be a judge and a mobster, both of whom call and convince a sheriff James assaulted not to charge James with a felony.
Too bad there is no such place as rehab for books—a sanctuary where Pieces might go to sort itself out, perhaps to become the first great anti-self-help book. It could be given a room next to Infinite Jest, or sneak out to meet Prozac Nation in the woods. Actually, there is such a place. It’s called editing.