For some poor souls, those substances that lubricate conversation, ease pain, or invoke euphoria can become demanding mistresses that destroy lives. When the problem gets out of control, Alcoholics Anonymous and various other twelve-step programs are the most popular and well-known methods addicts use to conquer their demons.
James Frey argues against the twelve-step method of recovery in his melodramatic tale of overcoming addiction to booze, crack, and assorted other pharmaceuticals, A Million Little Pieces. Frey's memoir, which chronicles his six weeks in rehab, was a bestseller even before America's spiritual leader Oprah Winfrey picked it for her book club in September 2005. Although it was first published in 2003, A Million Little Pieces was the second bestselling book of last year and continues on the New York Times best seller list at this writing.
sustained success and increased profile of the memoir led investigative journalism outlet The Smoking Gun to look into the book's outlandish details in late 2005. Frey claims he was wanted in three states, served time in prison, and left a priest in Paris for dead. His litany, "I am an Alcoholic and I am a drug Addict and I am a Criminal," is repeated over a half-dozen times. But it turns out that he greatly embellished his most-wanted status. A minor real-life incident involving an open Pabst Blue Ribbon can in his car is turned into an arrest for "Possession, Possession with Intent to Distribute, three DUIs, a bunch of Vandalism and Destruction of Property charges, Assault, Assault with a Deadly Weapon, Assaulting an Officer of the Law, Public Drunkenness, and Disturbing the Peace."
That anyone needed The Smoking Gun to tell them the book had problems-other than annoying random capitalization and wholesale rejection of meaningful punctuation-is a sad statement on people's gullibility. The very first page has Frey waking up on a commercial flight with an open facial wound and clothing covered with "a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood." Anyone who has ever traveled by air should question whether such a passenger would be permitted past the ticket counter, much less security. And if they bought that, Frey's claim that he underwent a double root canal without anesthesia should have gotten them. It's not because the pain is unendurable so much as the number of dentists willing to have their hands in the mouth of an unmedicated madman is probably quite low.
Memoirs are supposed to be true, and Frey claims repeatedly that everything he shares is brutally factual. Indeed, while contemplating suicide, he writes his obituary with shocking details about record-setting blood-alcohol levels, narcotics rap sheets, and defecating blood daily. The obituary is important because it doesn't hide the harsh details of his life, he writes. "It tells the truth, and as awful as it can be, the truth is what matters. It is what I should be remembered by, if I am remembered at all. Remember the truth. It is all that matters."
Truth, it turned out, was rather subjective. Winfrey brought him back on the show to announce she was shocked and disappointed by his rampant lying. The publicity, while certainly humiliating, increased the sales even more.
Frey's opposition to Alcoholics Anonymous is still interesting, even after it becomes obvious his addiction was more garden variety than criminal. Rather than seeing his affliction as a disease that victimizes individuals who are genetically predisposed to overindulge, he believes that addiction is the product of poor decision-making. Frey writes,
An individual wants something, whatever that something is, and makes a decision to get it. Once they have it, they make a decision to take it. If they take it too often, that process of decision-making gets out of control, and if it gets too far out of control, it becomes an addiction. At that point the decision is a difficult one to make, but it is still a decision.
At a time when victim status is revered everywhere from college campuses to the halls of Congress and the most repulsive sins are reclassified as virtues, a book making a persuasive case for personal responsibility is welcome. It's a shame his message is undercut by his pervasive dishonesty.
But the other main reason why Frey opposes Alcoholics Anonymous is juvenile: He hates God. "I am shaking my fist at the Sky and calling God a piece of **** Mother******, I am calling God a *****," he says. The tough man cussing carries through 430 vomit-caked pages. Later he decides he doesn't need to be so angry at God. "I will not fight God anymore. I will not fight anything Higher. Fighting is an acknowledgement of existence. I no longer need to fight or acknowledge what I know is not there."
He mocks his fellow patients at the Minnesota rehab clinic for testifying that God helps them in their struggles. They have replaced one addiction for another, he says. The twelve steps are based on a belief in a higher power, which is a notion so nebulous and fragile that it seems impossible anyone could develop the passion to fight it. But fight he does. He dumps the Bible the clinic gave him out of his window. When someone brings the rain-soaked Scriptures back to his room, he says he wishes he could flush it down the toilet. "I have read the New Testament. I will not waste my time on it again."
His brother brings him the Tao Te Ching, a book of platitudinous philosophical truisms-"If you want to get rid of something, you must first allow it to flourish … If you want to know the World, look inside your heart"-which he devours with glee.
He likes the Tao, as opposed to Christianity, because the sayings "do not tell me to do anything or be anything or believe in any thing or become anything. They don't judge me or try to convince me. There is no righteousness or pretension. They don't fight me or insult me or tell me what I do wrong. There is no Authority and there are no Rules."
It is not surprising that someone like Frey would hate the Law of God, pronouncing judgment upon him for his sins. We are all dirty liars. When we tell stories, we're the hero or the wronged victim; we repeat those compliments others give us but bury insightful statements that reveal our deepest insecurities.
"I've read the Bible. It didn't ring true to me," Frey writes. Because it is his own tome that fails to ring true, perhaps he should give the Scriptures another try. Perhaps what didn't ring true for him was the idea that God would take his sins, his addictions, his lies and distortions and remove them as far away as East is from West. But it is true. Frey has a long way to go in his battle against God, but the forgiveness, which we receive through Christ Jesus, is for him and all of the rest of us liars, gluttons, and juvenile God-haters.