CAIRO: I wake to the drone of an airplane engine and the feeling of something warm dripping down my chin. I lift my hand to feel my face. My front four teeth are gone, I have a hole in my check, my nose is broken and my eyes are swollen nearly shut. I open them and I look around and I’m in the back of a plane and there’s no one near me. I look at my clothes and my clothes are covered with a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood. I reach for the call button and I find it and I push it and I wait and thirty seconds later an Attendant arrives.How can I help you?Where am I going?You don’t know?No.
So begins the opening lines of the bold, breath-catching literary masterpiece, A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey.
Filled with vivid, engrossing depictions, Frey’s self-proclaimed memoir of drug addiction is unlike anything one will read on the subject. In fact, his compelling story puts other drug-related memoirs on the back shelf.
According to Frey, A Million Little Pieces is about the author’s struggle with drug addiction. As in the opening lines of his novel, Frey is an alcoholic and a drug addict who finds himself on a plane, in a state possibly worse than death, without knowing how he got on the plane or where he is going.
In the same pulsating, devastatingly graphic style, he conveys the rest of his journey.
Frey is sentenced to a drug and alcohol treatment facility after being involved in a car accident that killed two girls. Having taken his addiction to deadly extremes, he is told by doctors that he will die if he has one more drink or does one more drug.
What follows is a tormenting journey of detoxification and withdrawal, captured with a vitality and directness that has been sorely missing from literature.
Inside the clinic, James is surrounded by patients as troubled as he is – including a judge, a mobster, a one-time world-champion boxer and a fragile former prostitute to whom he is not allowed to speak to.
Unlike the average junkie that victimizes himself, James refuses to consider himself a victim of anything but his own bad decisions, and insists on accepting sole accountability for the person he has been and the person he may become – which runs directly counter to his counselors recipes for recovery.
Frey’s account sold 3.5 million copies.
One of those enchanted readers happened to be Oprah Winfrey, who in an October 26, 2005 show entitled The Man Who Kept Oprah Awake At Night, hailed Frey s graphic and coarse book as like nothing you ve ever read before. Everybody at Harpo is reading it. When we were staying up late at night reading it, we d come in the next morning saying, What page are you on?
In emotional filmed testimonials, a damp-eyed Winfrey said, I m crying cause these are all my Harpo family so, and we all loved the book so much.
Thanks to Winfrey, the novel sat atop The New York Times nonfiction paperback bestseller list for 15 weeks. Next to the latest Harry Potter title, Nielsen BookScan reported, Frey s book sold more copies in the U.S. in 2005 – 1.77 million – than any other title, with the majority of that total coming after Winfrey s selection.
Unfortunately, Frey’s success was built on a lie. In one of the biggest controversies to hit the literary world, Frey’s novel was exposed as one big drug-induced fraud.
A six-week investigation by The Smoking Gun (TSG) website revealed that there may be a lot less to love about Frey s runaway hit, which was riddled with fabrications.
According to TSG, Police reports, court records, interviews with law enforcement personnel and other sources have provided evidence against many key sections of Frey s book.
Evidence against the 36-year-old author mounted. It appeared that he wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms and status as an outlaw wanted in three states.
In addition 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. In what may be his book s greatest flight from reality, Frey manipulated details of the incident, portraying himself as the tragedy s third victim, the physical and bodily evidence of which is described in the opening lines of his book.
In one of the most incriminating pieces of evidence against him, one of the victim’s parents reportedly told TSG that Frey had nothing to do with the accident. I figured he was taking license…he s a writer, you know, they don t tell everything that s factual and true, said the mother of one of the victims to TSG, as reported on their website.
Frey’s account of spending a three-month jail sentence following rehab for his role in the accident also turned out to be grossly exaggerated.
According to police records obtained by TSG, the closest Frey has ever come to a jail cell was a few hours he once spent in an Ohio police headquarters waiting for a friend to post a $733 cash bond.
With Frey’s exposed fabrications mounting, the author was forced to concede that many facts of his novel were altered.
Reappearing on Oprah in January 2006, who initially supported him against reports of fabrication, but later called him a liar on her show, Frey explained the reasons behind his fabrications.
“I think one of the coping mechanisms I developed was sort of this image of myself that was greater than what I actually was. In order to get through the experience of the addiction, I thought of myself as being tougher than I was and badder than I was – and it helped me cope. When I was writing the book . Instead of being as introspective as I should have been, I clung to that image, he said to Oprah.
Since his appearance on Oprah, his literary agent has dropped Frey and his current publisher, Riverhead Books, is reconsidering a recent two-book deal. Movie rights to his novel have also been halted.
While Frey’s credibility as a writer is now in shambles, his book is still selling like hot cakes. Although a big portion of sales are sparked by the scandal, Frey’s powerful and poetic account continues to make A Million Little Pieces a must-read.