Self-editing is overrated. Or is it?

Monday, January 09, 2006

Which one is the criminal?

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Let's say that you don't have a very good childhood. You grow up with a long history of violence, drug addiction, and a criminal record where you've been arrested 11 times by the time you're 19 years old. Things get worse from there, as you become involved in more crimes, drugs and very very bad stuff that has constantly under surveillance of local police. On your worst night, you go on a drug-induced crime spree, which results in the accidental death of 2 teenage girls. You go to rehab, slowly learn to change your ways. You write a book about your experiences and, against the odds, it gets published. The book becomes a huge success, Oprah features you on her book club - even after she swore she would never feature another living author again - and your appearance there, where you confess all your past sins on national television, skyrockets book sales. You are now a critically acclaimed author that has the number one book on the New York Times best seller list for 15 weeks, at last count selling 1.77 million copies of your book, more than any other book that year except Harry Potter.

It's the story of James Frey and his book A Million Little Pieces.

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Amazing story, right?

There's only one problem. It turns out that none of it may be true.

In a truly fascinating article, The Smoking Gun goes through the litany of charges and experiences, and finds that, at best, many parts of the story may be greatly exaggerated, and some of it seems just plain false. The jail time? Turns out there's no record of that. The police surveillance? The police barely mention him in the reports that are actually about someone else. The death of the two girls? Turns out he wasn't even there, and the mom of one of the girls said, "As far as I know, he 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."

This may turn out to be the understatement of the year. Frey, for his part, has lawyered up, and calls The Smoking Gun's allegations the "latest attempt to discredit me...So let the haters hate, let the doubters doubt, I stand by my book, and my life, and I won't dignify this bullshit with any sort of further response."

There's only one problem with calling The Smoking Gun a bunch of bullshit artists though, and that is that all they do all day long is sift through old court records, and post what they find. This is the basis of their entire enterprise. Now, most of the time, it's just the mugshot of some actor on "Lost" for their latest DUI arrest, but in this case, they started out looking for Frey's mugshot to simply corroborate his stories, but found a much deeper story - namely, that Frey just does not appear to be the bad guy that he says he is.

The Smoking Gun writes a thoroughly researched article, with a lot of court documents to prove it. Frey, for his part, has said that he will not allow anyone to see his evidence that proves his story is true, claiming "Once I start providing records for people it never ends for me...I feel like I provided the records to the people who were appropriate, who needed to see them." He added that he turned down The New York Times when the newspaper sought to review the material, though he showed his rehab records to Winfrey staff members.

In fact, according to a February 2003 New York Observer story by Joe Hagan, Frey originally tried to sell the book as a fictional work, but his publisher "declined to publish it as such." A retooled manuscript, presumably with all the fake stuff excised, was published in April 2003 amid a major publicity campaign.

But, does it really matter if these things are true or not? People love the book, and pull inspiration from the stories into their own lives. So what if he made parts of it up?

Well, we're about to find out. The book was absolutely sold as a book of non-fiction and Frey has repeatedly asserted in press interviews that the book is "all true" and he told Winfrey, "I think I wrote about the events in the book truly and honestly and accurately."

If you ask me, it looks like Oprah is going be back to just reading dead authors again, and soon.


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