After Oprah chose James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces for her insanely popular book club back in 2005, Smoking Gun leaked that the memoir was, in fact, fiction. Oprah at first defended Frey on Larry King Live saying that although his book may not be truthful, it still resonates with many people and thus was a worthwhile book club choice. Early in 2006, no doubt feeling the pressure from media and critics, Oprah had Frey on her show to confront him about the misnomer saying she felt “duped.” Surprise! Frey’s life was less than awesome after being called out by the big O. He was sued for loss of time, damages, and a host of other accusations likening the experience to a “public stoning” and a “personal car crash.” James Frey was on Oprah this week to talk about it once again, what really happened, and what caused him to blur the line between fiction and memoir.
That got me thinking about what it means to write a memoir: what is the nature of memory and how do we distinguish collective memory from individual perspective. Retelling a story from personal perspective and retelling a story that never happened are two completely different things. Apparently, Frey fudged on whole events while still defending his book’s memoir status stating numerous times that everything was fact-checked and true, that he only changed names to respect anonymity and his AA oath. The argument is whether the retelling of his story is accurate or not, but history is usually not subject to emotions or human fallibility like memory that is largely affected by the kaleidoscope of human attributes—a perpetual sliding scale of what “really” happened.
Various literary glossaries describe memoir as observation, personal experience, the writer’s memory of events, creative nonfiction, and a narrative composed from personal experience. Memoir “tries to capture certain highlights or meaningful moments in one’s past, often including a contemplation of the meaning of that event at the time of the writing of the memoir. The memoir may be more emotional and concerned with capturing particular scenes, or a series of events, rather than documenting every fact of a person’s life.” It has “a fictional quality” with a “more personal reconstruction of the events and their impact.” (More on Memoir)
In Frey’s defense, he simply made a mistake, a gigantic Oprah-sized one. His desire to be a published author and to schmooze with some of the world’s best was too much for his honesty to handle. He folded under the pressure of his ego and called his book a memoir against his better judgment. Also feeling bruised by her ego, Oprah confessed that she gave him a lashing and apologized for her “lack of compassion.”
A Million Little Pieces is a solid read and whether he had the hole in his cheek or had a tooth pulled without drugs really doesn’t bother me. I, though, am not a recovering addict who felt the book changed my life because of its gritty realism and honest portrayal of addiction. I am just a general reader who takes from almost everything I read little pieces of understanding from our shared but varied existence. Regardless, this did nothing but good things for Frey. If anything, the media machine propelled his career to new places and he said that “professionally it was a great thing” because as a writer he’s always “wanted to defy standards.”