A Million Little Skeptics

As I sat in at my desk and cracked the cover of a brand-new textbook, I was mildly aware of someone entering my room. I glanced over, and upon seeing that it was a friend of mine from down the hall, returned to my studies. “Oohhh, I heard about that book,” said the friend excitedly, pointing a finger at the light blue-green cover of a book partially buried under some papers on my desk. “You know it’s not true, right?” I cringed.

For this was not the first time this had happened, nor was it even the first time today. The book she was referring to was James Frey’s personal memoir, A Million Little Pieces.

Published in 2003, the book is Frey’s personal account of the six weeks he spent in a Minnesota inpatient drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. The story begins with James regaining consciousness on an airplane by himself, soaked in blood and missing his front teeth.

Upon landing, he is taken by his family to a notoriously successful inpatient treatment center, where the duration of the book (mostly) takes place. Through his narrative, we see the self-loathing torment that causes many addicts to die as such.

The book, now an Oprah’s Book Club selection and national bestseller (selling more copies than any book in 2005 aside from the newest installment of Harry Potter), has recently come under scrutiny. On January 8th, a website called The Smoking Gun (www.thesmokinggun.com) posted a six page article on their website, entitled A Million Little Lies, with a smaller headline that reads “The Man Who Conned Oprah.”

The self-proclaimed “myth-busters” go on to explain that their investigation into the authenticity of Frey’s memoir proves that some of the details of the work may have been embellished or fictionalized. According to TSG, police records contradict Frey’s account of his own legal trouble.

The website also tracked down the parents of a deceased friend of Frey’s, whose death he feels partly responsible for. The parents vaguely suggest that their daughter’s relationship to Frey had been slightly embellished in the book.

The article goes on to discredit Frey, claiming that his story is fictionalized and that he owes his readers and fans some sort of explanation.

The piece is loosely based on fact; it points out only a few factual discrepancies, none of which are central to the story. The remainder of the article is filled with subjective analysis and malevolent finger-pointing.

How this story came to make national news is a mystery to me. The press that it has received and the unquestioning acceptance of the article’s accuracy by the general public are disheartening and disturbing.

Frey wrote the book some 20-odd years after the events took place; slight factual discrepancies do not discredit the work as a whole. Modern psychology has even suggested that memory is a veritable patchwork of truths and falsehoods. And as time passes, the exact details about events in our past often become fuzzy.

What really bothers me about the whole controversy is the utter unimportance of the factual authenticity of the book.

The Smoking Gun tells of the Oprah Winfrey episode in which teary-eyed women professed their love for the book, talking of its gripping, often stream-of-consciousness-style writing and inspirational messages.

The website underhandedly suggests that these women had somehow been duped…but how? Are the messages in the book any less inspirational because Frey was only facing a few months in jail as opposed to a few years? Are the sordid details about his high-school friendships enough to warrant an anti-Frey boycott? Hardly.

Yet people are still jumping on the slanderous bandwagon piloted by The Smoking Gun.

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Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has defied classification since its publication. Some bookstores place it with works of fiction, some with non-fiction, and still others in the journalism section.

Thompson himself, when asked about the truth of the story, has given a number of conflicting (and often comical) replies. Yet the inability to confirm whether or not Thompson actually ingested large amounts of LSD during his supposed search for the American dream has not caused us to discount this work as a literary masterpiece.

Why then are we so reluctant to accept A Million Little Pieces as a compelling piece of literature? Anyone who has had personally experienced or witnessed first-hand the crippling disease of addiction will not so easily write the memoir off.

The pain felt by Frey during his lowest moments drips off the pages. While I am not necessarily convinced that A Million Little Pieces deserves all fifteen of the weeks it has spent on the New York Times Bestseller list, it is undoubtedly a compelling story and a captivating read.

In short, I don’t care if Frey comes out and says that the entire book is fiction; the messages and thought-provoking conflicts contained in the text make the book worth reading.

Perhaps my feelings would be different if the story was told more traditionally, or if the book was more plot driven. But the fact is that Frey knows how to write. And the fact that many of the most important moments in the book take place inside the narrator’s head make the accusations of The Smoking Gun and others all the more irrelevant.

Literature is important because of the personal connection each reader feels with the work. A Million Little Pieces draws the reader in, and provides an arena for her to examine her own life.

Whether or not more information is disclosed about the factual accuracy of the book will not sway my opinion of it in the least. I implore you to ignore the popular sentiment.

Pick up a copy of A Million Little Pieces and read it not as an autobiography, but as a story about man’s struggle to find a reason to live in a world that often seems devoid of meaning.

I assure you that you will feel the same slack-jawed sense of disbelief that anyone could question the merit of such a moving piece of literature.