Friday, January 27, 2006

When truth is fiction: Frey’s little lies

When Truth is Fiction: Frey’s Little Lies
by Bawdy Babe and Malicious Strumpet

Oprah was angry. James Frey was uncomfortable. Nan Talese (the publisher) was indifferent. And TV was, once again, riveting.

For those of you who were visiting another planet and do not know about Frey’s run away best seller, A Million Little Pieces, here are the details. The book is an Oprah Book Club selection. In the book, which is in the memoir, Frey tells of his drug addiction and the road to sobriety. The book has gripped this nation by its shocking and compelling content. It is suppose to be an excellent read. Unfortunately, it is also a bunch of lies.

It was the sort of sensational story that would have been perfect for O in the early days of her show. “Memoir Writers Who Build Careers on Mendacity!” (mendacity: deception) But since her show took a different route in the early 90’s, Oprah has been all about truth and information. Sensation, instead of being the cornerstone of any show she does, is now merely a by-product of searching out the truth on relevant issues.

Oprah’s live show yesterday was devoted to Frey and finding out what the truth was behind his book. It wasn’t pretty. Oprah put Frey in the hot seat and the man fried. Her anger was palpable. “It’s difficult for me to talk to you, because I really feel duped,” she told him. As she chipped away at the truth, there were audible gasps from the audience.

Oprah looked pained and clinched her fists. At times, she was visibly trying to collect herself and/or refrain from a verbal assault, Frey looked near tears, and we as an audience members gave a shout for joy. Rarely has television been this captivating.

As Frey stuttered and “I mean”-ed his way through the hour, it became obvious that he had been caught in a lie and wasn’t particularly interested in getting out. He only told the truth when Oprah applied pressure and instead seemed to prefer to keep as much of the lie in tact as possible.

Take, for example, the point where they talked about a main character’s death:
Oprah: Was your description of how she died true?
James: She committed suicide, yes.
Oprah: She hung herself?
James: I mean, that was one of the details I altered about her.

Despite his willingness to go on Oprah, Frey continued to be cagey about what actually happened. He did not answer directly; he did not claim his mistakes. “I think I made a lot of mistakes in writing the book and promoting the book,” Frey said. “Do you think you lied or do you think you made a mistake?” Winfrey shot back. “I think probably both,” Frey said. He came off as extraordinarily uncomfortable (and let’s admit it, if Oprah was pissed at us, we’d be uncomfortable, too!) and unsure of what exactly he should say.

In the end, it was Oprah’s opening and closing statements that were valuable. She began by apologizing, stating “I made a mistake, and I left the impression that the truth does not matter.” And then at the end of the hour, she said to Frey, “I appreciate you being here because I believe the truth can set you free. I realize this has been a difficult time for you... maybe this is the beginning of another kind of truth for you.”

Nonetheless, there are questions that remain for all viewers, and all readers. What is truth? What is memoir? What responsibility does a publisher have in terms of fact-checking a book that claims to be true? And no one seems to have a final answer for any of them.

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10 comment(s):

Anonymous Ann said...

Bawdy Babe and Malicious Strumpet thanks so much for posting this. I missed the show and appreciate the article.

1/27/2006 02:51:00 PM  

Blogger Malicious Strumpet said...

Thanks for your comment, Ann. It was such fun to work with Bawdy on this!

I'm still trying to understand what Frey thought he was doing. The guy from The Smoking Gun, who was on Anderson Cooper the night of this Oprah show, said that he thinks Frey is a compulsive liar. Another guest, an addiction expert, who was on Cooper suggested that this much scrutiny and pressure might tip Frey back into his addictions.

He also suggested that if Frey had been lying this long about the 'memoir' then one must question what else he may have been lying about. The insinuation was that Frey might not be sober, but that was never said clearly. Instead the statement was something about lying being a "dangerous" behaviour for a recovering addict.

I'm just completely fascinated by the whole thing. One short statement on the cover could have taken away the whole problem: "based on a true story".

1/28/2006 08:00:00 PM  

Blogger shlinki said...

We haven't seen the full show in Australia yet, just excerpts on the news. I'm fascinated by the whole thing too, so I read the full transcript of the show on the oprah website ( One quote that really jumped off the page was from Richard Cohen (from the Washington Post). He said,

'I would say to the publishing industry, you guys have got to cut this out. You're not little shops anymore with two or three people working with quills... Somebody could have done what The Smoking Gun did.'

Having inside experience in the industry, I don't understand why the publishers didn't take more of an interest in fact-checking. Australia has a long list of literary hoxes in its past, the most recent involving works by Norma Khoury and Helen Demidenko/Darville. In both thee cases, the same is true - in retrospect, it seems so simple. Why didn't the publisher check the facts?

James Frey's publisher basically said that she was given a manuscript, she read it and liked it, she gave it to her associates to read, they liked it, therefore they edited and published it. She said if the author told her events were fact, that was good enough for her. This doesn't make any sense at all to me. You'd think that publishing houses would do everything in their power to protect their own integrity and reputations. Sadly, it seems that if the dollar signs are right, integrity can be bought back with a prime-time apology.

1/28/2006 09:50:00 PM  

Blogger ColleenInGA said...

Damn! I missed it, but IT'S ABOUT TIME SHE SAID SOMETHING! When she came on Larry King, I was so I want to see the show and watch him squirm.


1/28/2006 10:42:00 PM  

Blogger Bawdy Babe said...

I don't think we have heard the last of Frey. I believe more lies will continue to be revealed. From all I have heard, I doubt Lilly ever existed.

What I don't understand is how Frey thought he would get away w/ what he did. How deluded was this man to think he would not get caught in one of his many lies?

1/29/2006 04:39:00 AM  

Blogger Malicious Strumpet said...

Bawdy - that's the thing about compulsive liars, though. They never think about being caught. I'm not trying to diagnose him, I just think it's an interesting point. Also, an addict is someone who thinks they can get away with harmful behavior (or doesn't worry about that, because they want what they're addicted to more than anything else). Maybe he's addicted to the spotlight.

shlinki - my hope is that publishing companies will see the light and hire fact checkers (and what a stinking AWESOME job that would be!!). I was HORRIFIED by the publisher's statements on the show. She was so nonchalant about the whole thing. I was much angrier with her by the end of the show than with Frey.

1/29/2006 10:48:00 AM  

Blogger Marlene D. Malone said...

Damn I missed the show!

But here's my thing: won't this incident push people who have not read the book (like me) to buy it for curiosity's sake?

I would like to see what all the fuss is about.

Wow, I need to quit working so much...

1/29/2006 11:55:00 AM  

Blogger Vicious Trollop said...

MS and BB I really enjoyed this article.

You know, I've been thinking, maybe the publishers even asked JF to "embellish" the story to make it more interesting. I'm sure they would do it to sell more books...

1/29/2006 12:51:00 PM  

Anonymous Serendipity said...

I admit I'd seen this book all over the place, didn't buy it as the cover creeps me out. I know, I'm deep when things like cover influence whether I buy the book or not!

1/30/2006 09:52:00 AM  

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was a fantastic moment in television. Oprah served Frey up on a platter, chewed him up and spit him right back out.

It was fabulous and he deserved it.

I don't think Lilly existed either.

2/02/2006 01:58:00 PM