by James Frey
15 June 2006 book review by Collie Collier

Credits: For my book club, without whom I would not have read this peculiarly fascinating book.

Note: there are quotes from the book in this review, which contain foul language. Please consider yourself warned.

This is the gripping story of Frey's painful but ultimately triumphant battle with alcohol and drug addiction. The title derives from Frey's reflections on a comment made by the drug treatment center's doctor, who had never previously seen such pervasive and consistent damage to the body of a 23 year old. He bluntly informed Frey if he ever started using drugs and alcohol again, in a matter of days Frey could expect to die, as his body could no longer stand up to the prolonged pattern of abuse it had been subjected to. As Frey put it, he would shatter into a million little pieces.

There are some stories you read where you can empathize strongly with the protagonist, due to shared experiences or beliefs. Other stories, however, describe a point of view so different, so alien, they become somewhat difficult to read. This book was such a story for me: I've never had such a destructive addiction, and to my knowledge I know no one who has. I've never been any kind of social butterfly, nor am I much for "wild" parties. I've never had any urge to experiment with drugs — I don't even drink, since I don't like the taste of alcohol. I guess you could call me a poster child for squaresville.

Imagine, then, how very different a perspective this book presents. The story begins with Frey's awakening on an airplane — with no memory of how he got there, nor even any idea of where the plane is headed. The author graphically describes his state: filthy, his nose broken and bloody, his ragged clothes covered in vomitus, missing his 4 front teeth, a hole piercing his cheek… short of my being attacked, I cannot imagine ever experiencing anything like this. It is a testament, I guess, to the author's sincerity and writing skill that he manages to intrigue as well as disgust the "norms" in his audience sufficiently that they continue reading.

In an almost painfully dispassionate style, Frey relates suffering through withdrawal symptoms, receiving dental care without anesthesia (including a filling and two root canals) such that he had to be restrained for part of the procedures, and his thoughts during these processes. He understands quite well the feelings of horror, revulsion, and pity the addict's plight engenders, but he manages to convey clearly, without excessive emotionality or anger, how little he needs that. According to him, pity is useless to him and he hates himself enough for all of us. His words contain a certain bleak beauty:

[H]e lost the most important thing a human being can lose, which was his dignity. I know a bit about the loss of dignity. I know that when you take away a man's dignity there is a hole, a deep black hole filled with despair, humiliation and self-hatred, filled with emptiness, shame and disgrace, filled with loss and isolation and Hell. It's a deep, dark, horrible fucking hole, and that hole is where people like me live our sad-ass, fucked-up, dignity-free, inhuman lives, and where we die, alone, miserable, wasted and forgotten.

Frey's story is fascinating not just for its unrelenting description of what addiction does to you. He also explains several things which have long puzzled me about addiction, such as why they do it, and why they don't just stop. As someone who was 23 at the time of the story, who'd been using drugs and alcohol since the age of 13 or 14, and who has now been clean for 13 years, Frey is extraordinarily unapologetic or whiney. If anything, he is ruthlessly harsh in ascribing all blame for the addiction to himself and his poor life choices.

The author's writing did demonstrate an unpleasant amount of automatic enactment of entitlement in his younger self, which I suppose shouldn't be surprising from an angry and rebellious upper middle class young white male. His easy access to drugs and alcohol, his unquestioned ability to travel back and forth from Europe on someone else's dime, his apparent assumption his parents will take care of him until he kills himself (even as he is rude to them and rages internally about them) — all these unquestioned, automatic privileges did not endear him to me. His further assumptions of his own correctness even when making disastrous life choices gave him a somewhat creepily arrogant feel — especially his decisions regarding addiction.

Admittedly, Frey's views on addiction are somewhat unusual, but in the process of telling his story he also informs us concerning then-current medical beliefs. For example, doctors now believe there is a possible genetic predisposition to addictive behaviors. However, even though Frey's maternal grandfather had a drinking problem towards the end of his life, Frey is uninterested in blaming the bad choices he made on anyone but himself. If anything he is so insistent in arrogating all the fault to himself that he finds it a bit difficult to even contemplate a time when he does not thoroughly despise himself:

I would like to be soft and warm. I would be terrified to be that way. I could be hurt if I were soft and warm. I could be hurt by something other than myself. It is harder to be soft than it is to be hard. I could be hurt by something other than myself.

Frey is not trying to deceive himself or others in this insistence on taking all the blame. If anything, he is passionately pro-Truth as he sees it, and equally he is aggressively against having religion of any sort pushed on him. He adamantly fights hypocrisy, lies, and thoughtlessness in himself and others, both during his treatment time and, I presume, afterwards. For example, he angrily derides one of the speakers he sees at the treatment facility (a rock star) for the man's glamorization of addiction. Frey's stated dedication to truth is such that he refuses to see addiction and its results in anything but the most brutal terms:

The life of the Addict is always the same. There is no excitement, no glamour, no fun. There are no good times, there is no joy, there is no happiness. There is no future and no escape. There is only an obsession. An all-encompassing, fully enveloping, completely overwhelming obsession. To make light of it, brag about it, or revel in the mock glory of it is not in any way, shape or form related to its truth, and that is all that matters, the truth. That this man is standing in front of me and everyone else in this room lying to us is heresy. The truth is all that matters. This is fucking heresy.

Frey also steadfastly refuses to "surrender to God or a Higher Power," which is one of the required steps in the classic Twelve Step recovery program. Despite everyone around him telling him it is impossible and has never been done, he clings to his atheism during treatment, finding his personal "loss of ego" in the Tao Te Ching rather than any established religion.

Is this unmitigated arrogance on Frey's part? I cannot say. However, he did succeed where everyone told him it was impossible — and to me that requires real strength and courage. I'm not really sure why this insistence on "surrendering" to god is considered such an integral part of the program anyway. Isn't this nothing more than a socially accepted form of giving up on yourself and expecting someone else to take care of you? Do atheists not get to recover unless they hypocritically pay lip service to a deity they don't believe in, so they can get the benefits of the Program's support system? Is there some other reason which I just can't find on-line yet? As a consequence of this puzzling insistence on god-or-nothing, I very much understand Frey's point in refusing to trade one obsession for another:

They were all Alcoholic disasters, they all found God, they all started dancing the Twelve Step, they all got better. As with most testimonials like this that I've read or heard or been forced to endure, something about them strikes me as weak, hollow and empty. Though the people in them are no longer drinking and doing drugs, they're still living with the obsession. Though they have achieved sobriety, their lives are based on the avoidance, discussion and vilification of the chemicals they once needed and loved. Thought they function as human beings, they function because of their Meetings and their Dogma and their God. Take away their Meetings and their Dogma and they have nothing. Take them away and they are back where they started. They have an addiction.

In some ways I can strongly empathize with this attitude. I'm not religious myself, but I've seen that sort of false cheeriness and artificial excitement against a common perceived "foe" often used to create and maintain some weak group's cohesion. It's not an exclusively religious tactic either. What marks it is precisely what the author notes — it is a high, an addiction to feeling like they belong, a strength and importance loaned by the group — which ultimately cannot truly grant either strength or importance to an individual:

When he talks of God and of his trust in his mighty male God, his eyes glaze over. It is a glaze I know and have seen many times before, usually when someone is fucked out of their skull on strong, hard drugs. His God has become his drug and he is high, high as a Motherfucking kite, and he rants and raves, paces back and forth, God this and God that, blah blah blah….

I suspect that had he not found the Twelve Steps, he would have found the Jehovah's Witnesses or the Pentecostal Christians or the Hassidim or the UFO Redemption Group. I suspect that his membership in AA doesn't have anything to do with brew and grass or any sort of addiction to them, but to a desperate need to belong to something.

Even though I can understand Frey's derision here, there are several parts of the book I still find perplexing. For example, from what I've been able to gather during the time spent reflecting on this book, the important part of the "surrender to God" is more to realize you cannot do it all yourself, than to make christians of everyone. However, Frey unfortunately does not clearly explain in the story why this step is considered so important, and I find myself wondering if even he knows.

Did Frey ever actually realize he could not do it alone? I don't know. He certainly seemed rather full of himself in the book. From what one of the book club members mentioned to me about a TV interview she saw with him, there's a hint of that in his behavior as well. And yet, he made it to "clean" and is there still — so surely he must have done something right? I hope so. It'd be a real shame if he was fudging reality.

As the above quotes show, the author has written in a very stream of consciousness manner, eschewing quotation marks or identification as to who is saying what. He also seems to almost randomly capitalize the first letter of some words. This makes for slow, sometimes confusing reading — it's not a book you can rush through, even if you're so horrified you want to. After a while it becomes more absorbing than horrifying, but it's still occasionally perplexing.

Also, it would be foolish of Frey to include deliberate falsehoods, so I presume he's correct in stating addicts as a group generally score far above average on intelligence tests. It begs the question, though — why?! Yes, I know smarts doesn't automatically equate to a wonderful life, but surely the horrific results of addiction are thoroughly and empirically noted often enough that they can be believed. I would guess rebellion and anger must indeed be major motivating forces in creating self-destructive behavior patterns in these otherwise intelligent people.

In the end it appears Frey does effectively go through the twelve steps, in meaning if not in specific word. Despite everyone around him telling him it was impossible, despite the odds being stacked against him, his fierce, unflinching dedication to Truth is such that he is compelled to refuse the fantasy of some Higher Power. Instead he expressively finds his higher Truth in the Tao Te Ching,

There is no good or evil, no Sinner or Saint. There simply is what is and that is it. You can use that to be and that is enough. Don't talk about it or question it. Just let it be. Just be. …it still rings true. That is all that matters. The truth….

[The verses] say in thinking keep to simple, in conflict be fair. They say don't compare or compete simply be yourself. Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.

This does not mean Frey eschews friendship, of course. The remarkable people he meets at the treatment center are as important to his recovery, I believe, as his own dogged determination. For example, although he is wanted in three states for skipping bail on a variety of crimes, it is his friends who help him out. A driver working for the treatment center vouches for Frey's inherent worth to the higher-ups at the center, a psychiatrist there gives him second and third chances, a federal judge puts in a good word for him and a lawyer works hard to help him reduce a projected three years in federal prison to only a handful of fines and a 3 month stay in a local jail, a Mafia leader never admits to making sure some evidence disappears…

Indeed, Frey's friends who are also going through treatment are remarkably remarkable. Perhaps it is because Frey somewhat emphasizes the more unusual ones, but I found myself raising an eyebrow at the impressive list of friends he finds there: a judge in the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, the former featherweight boxing champion of the world, and the West Coast's head mafioso. Life is weird enough that it well might be true, but in some ways it felt almost like the pulp fiction about John Carter of Mars, where our hero just happens to find and befriend the leaders of almost every new alien culture he meets!

For me one of the saddest parts in the book was the listing of these individuals which noted where they are today. Out of 20 individuals mentioned who were undergoing treatment, we discover only four stayed clean — and of those four, two later die due to other life complications. And yet there is hope to be found even there. We are informed the cure rate for the treatment center is the best in the world at a mere 15% — but when we check Frey's friends' success rate, it's about 20%. It's curious to note all the strongest-willed individuals apparently congregated around Frey while there.

As Frey himself contemplatively notes late in the book, a second of freedom is worth more than a lifetime of bondage. This, he states, is why he steadfastly refuses to exchange his addictive bondage to drugs and alcohol for a bondage to religion. He is adamant, believing it better to die trying to escape addiction himself than to live a mental cripple needing the crutch of organized religion to survive. At one point he irritatedly derides the insistence of the Twelve Step program regarding surrendering to a deity as empty-mindedness:

The video is about a famous Football Player who had a drinking problem and quit drinking using the Twelve Steps and is now a State Supreme Court Justice and is very happy. As he speaks, he is sitting in his very official Office and he's wearing his very impressive robe. There are pictures of him in his football uniform hanging behind him and everything is perfect and everything is inspirational. It's a lot like an After-School Special and even though I'm going to try to keep an open mind while I'm here I think the thing is fucking stupid and I wonder if keeping an open mind at this place is the same thing as having an empty mind. Open mind, empty mind.

It is a fierce, lonely, proud independence Frey seeks, and for the first time while reading the book I could suddenly completely empathize. I choose those words deliberately, for I believe you must be forever fierce in defending your mental independence, especially in a society so thoroughly dedicated to creating passive, unquestioning consumers. It is lonely because most will not be interested in this struggle — will actively deride it, in fact, and will urge you to stop being such a bother, so you can join them in their comfortable and complacent existence. And finally, even your pride must be indulged in cautiously. It will be a pride from within, because no one else will grant it to you — and it must come from the strength to realize the gain of another is not your loss.

It sounds like Frey is successful on all three counts. He has my wary respect, and my best wishes on his staying clean for the rest of his life.

Later edit (01.26.06):

And of course, it's now come out just how much of the book was fictional — see The Smoking Gun's The Man Who Conned Oprah for a fascinating and disturbing article on the fallacies Frey wrote in about both his arrest record, and the death of the girl he knew in high school. Poor Oprah; how embarrassing for her. More importantly, poor everyone who believed if James Frey could successfully buck the AA system and win, then so could they.

How could the man who claimed such a fierce and unwavering dedication to Truth turn out to be such an incredible fibber? How many people were directly harmed by Frey's self-indulgent fantasy? More importantly, how could he do that to them? He had what I believe to be a basically good message: fighting free of addiction is a worthy goal. Unfortunately I think it's getting lost in the hype, both from him and his detractors.

In the end, I feel he's revealed himself as just the type of hypocrite he most despises. In his own words: "That this man is… lying to us is heresy. The truth is all that matters. This is fucking heresy." In the end, this is precisely the "fucking heresy" Frey committed: he tried to pass off his self-aggrandizing lies to us as Truth.

This raises an interesting question as well: why did he do it? The world — even the web alone — is full of curious, nosy, interested folks with the time on their hands to do the research. Did Frey somehow believe he would be miraculously above this? Was he telling the truth when he said his editor insisted he not market his story as fiction? Did he really think people would continue to trust him once he'd been revealed as deliberately lying in his book?

Outright fabrications (such as his account of his arrest record) may grant short-term gain, but do its perpetrators truly believe the long-term loss of credibility and respect is worth it? In a sense I now feel somewhat sorry for Frey as well. He's a bit of a laughingstock for some, a name to revile for others. I can't imagine that's what he really wanted, but what did he think would happen? What did he really want?

Frey at least has had the grace to admit to his deceit. Depressingly, I know there are other authors who steadfastly maintain their correctness and truthfulness, even when the evidence clearly shows their intentional destruction of original manuscripts, or their deliberate misquoting of original texts, in order to suit their theory of choice — the pathetically self-deceptive Michael Bellisiles comes to mind.

It bewilders me. We live in a wondrous and beautiful world, after all. Are we so jaded, so deadened to beauty, that we need the palliative of transparently exciting lies (either self-created, or delivered by others) in order to make life bearable? And if so… why?

I guess ultimately the book does have something to teach us, though. As Frey himself notes, and as I intend to keep firmly in mind:

[E]ven though I'm going to try to keep an open mind while I'm here… I wonder if keeping an open mind… is the same thing as having an empty mind. Open mind, empty mind.

In one respect I'm relieved: I did recognize something was too good to be true. I remember finding the story vaguely unsatisfying in the same way I find pulp fiction unsatisfyingly easy and contrived. In other respects I'm still mentally scolding myself for not being more skeptical about this rather fantastical story.

Unconditional acceptance is a dangerous gift to grant to anyone, let alone a distant author interested in making a quick buck. It would be nice to be able to trust unconditionally, but this isn't a good world in which to make ourselves quite so defenseless. On the other hand, reflexively bleak cynicism isn't any better — it's yet another thoughtless, learned response.

The happy medium between disappointed bitterness and blind optimism isn't easy to delineate for me. I find I have to constantly re-negotiate where I personally stand and how I interpret the world around me, as I move through life. Then again, I guess it's a good sign that this still concerns me, despite the mental struggling it engenders. I'd like to find a simpler, truer way to live that allows me to maintain my intellectual self-respect, but I've not discovered it yet. At least the journey towards Truth is always absorbing, even if it's equal parts confusing and challenging.

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