Culture At Large

Thoughts on the James Frey controversy

Andy Rau

The James Frey controversy has caught my eye of late. Frey penned A Million Little Pieces, a brutally honest tale of his descent into the hell of addiction. The bestselling book has been lauded by many for its value as a sort of candid and unorthodox self-help guide for those dealing with addictions of their own.

The controversy stems from revelations that Frey's harrowing tale might be less honest than it is brutal:

Police reports, court records, interviews with law enforcement personnel, and other sources have put the lie to many key sections of Frey's book. The 36-year-old author, these documents and interviews show, wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms, and status as an outlaw "wanted in three states."

In additon to these rap sheet creations, Frey also invented a role for himself in a deadly train accident that cost the lives of two female high school students....

Frey appears to have fictionalized his past to propel and sweeten the book's already melodramatic narrative and help convince readers of his malevolence.

Time (and the inevitable punditry) will tell if the accusations of falsehood are true or not. So why am I bringing this up here? A writer at AndrewSullivan's blog just linked to an excellent Slate piece on the Frey controversy, which offers some thoughts on what is truly troubling about Frey's made-up malevolence:

...because A Million Little Pieces—one of the best-selling books about drug addiction ever written—has been trumpeted as an unflinching, real-life look into the world of a drug addict, it has helped to shape people's notions about drug abuse. Ironically, the very abundance of its clichés has likely helped make it a runaway best seller: People, after all, like having their suspicions confirmed.

By itself, the need of some people to fictionalize their own badness might be chalked up as a strange but harmless human quirk. But when we fictionalize something as serious and widespread as addiction, we can do real harm by influencing the way that our entire culture understands those issues. In this case, many people may have based their ideas about addiction on false data... and that can't possibly be a good thing.

I mention this because the Christian community has had its share of "James Frey moments." I think immediately of Mike Warnke, the enormously popular Christian comedian and writer who achieved great fame in the 1980s Christian world with his sordid tales of a Satanic past. His accounts of Satanism and the occult in America profoundly shaped the way that Christians thought about the topic... and by the time his tales were exposed as exaggerations or outright falsehoods, the damage was done. Entire Christian cultural phenomena like the "Satanic panic" were rooted at least partially in something that wasn't true. Maybe Warnke and Frey made their stories up in the hopes that they would be helping people, or maybe they had baser motives... but in the end, they might end up doing more harm than good.

There is a lot of evil in our world and sometimes in our own lives. We need to remember that the way we represent those evils can influence the way others understand them. Well-intentioned exaggeration is still exaggeration, even when we mean it to help others.

Just a few of my thoughts as the Frey story unfolds.

Topics: Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Books