Posted on Jan 31, 2005. See more in In My Words

An Open letter to Oprah about James Frey…

Who the ____ do you think you are? That’s what I want to write. That’s what I think, every time I picture you one on one with James Frey, interjecting as he tries to speak, “Lying James, the word is lying.”

What I saw meted out on your show, was cruel and unusual punishment. We’re supposed to be against that in this country. You are supposed to be against that kind of injustice.

Let me say, up front – I admire you. I think you are bright, insightful and highly creative. You have long been a voice for the voiceless. When you waded into New Orleans, shone a light in that dark, dank, Superdome and exposed what was happening there, I thought “Good for you.”

And let’s hear it for more books, selling more people reading since you began your Book Club. It was unfortunate, that interview with Jonathan Franzen (after you selected his book The Corrections) when he said he didn’t need your seal of approval or want to be associated with lowbrow reading groups.

He made you doubt yourself and so you stopped recommending books. But people pleaded with you (booksellers pleaded with you!) to begin again. When you consented, you played it safe, picked “Classics” for awhile. Smart move. Dead authors don’t give interviews.

And then — at long last — you picked a searing memoir of addiction and recovery, A Million Little Pieces. You chose it because you thought James Frey’s story might give hope to those struggling with addiction, and give pause to others. All that vomit, smashing of teeth and suicidal despair was horrific. (Which is why, Smoking Gun blog revelations or not, I think the book merits a place on reading lists for young people.)

Give yourself (and James Frey) credit.

You chose a page-turner. Everyone was reading it. Re-entering the U.S., I even saw a customs official in Atlanta trying to read while doing her job. She’d glance up at the passing crowds to see if we were headed in the right direction and then back she’d go, nose in the page. I smiled. I remembered.

This is not to say I didn’t have doubts. The story was a bit too predictable: James too Ramboesque, Leonard, the mafia guy, right out of The Sopranos. And what are the chances that your rehab roommate is a judge, still reputable enough to get your eight years of hard time reduced to three months? One in a million.

A Million Little Pieces… a memoir or autobiography?

How does memoir differ from autobiography or journalism? To be sure, that’s an issue that needs discussing. You might have made a significant contribution to that debate by inviting not just journalists and one publisher, but authors of memoir, autobiography, fiction, and even poetry to debate the parameters of Creative Non-Fiction.

Mary Karr should have been on that panel. She wrote an op/ed piece in the New York Times taking Frey to task. (“His So-Called Life”) Her book, The Liar’s Club, is often cited as the gold standard of memoir. (By coincidence, I’ve just reviewed that book for my website (see good books.)

In her op/ed piece Karr mentions that the publishers wanted her to write a more poignant ending to the memoir. But she couldn’t do it, she writes, because she didn’t remember it that way.

My point here is not that you should let James Frey off the hook, or that there aren’t standards of truth that we need to value. What I’m saying is that you could have discussed this in a civil and informative way that refrained from throwing Frey under the bus.

Instead, you went for brutal intervention, interrupting Frey again and again, demanding he confess his sins.

But real interventions happen among people who love the “sinner” and who promise to keep on loving. There is no audience that boos or cheers. Lord — I thought we were back in the Roman forum, rooting for the triumphant gladiator, lusting for splattered blood. I was appalled.

And I’m not alone. Virginia Heffernan said ” ‘hitting bottom was nothing compared to the chastening — the emasculation, really — that (Frey) received on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”…[Oprah] turned in an uncanny performance, modulating her aggression with such finesse that she seemed to be the penitent one, and not the one with the whip hand.” (NYTimes 1/27)

Time for you to confess. This show was not really about “how much value contemporary culture places on the very idea of truth,” as you quoted Michiko Kakutani saying (NYTimes). There was something else at stake, which was clear when Nan Talese spoke of how sad this was for James and for her and you retorted angrily, “It’s not sad, it’s embarrassing and disappointing.”

For whom? The answer to that question is that you were embarrassed and dissappointed — a clear revelation that this was about you, about your bruised ego.

We now know that James Frey didn’t really serve hard time. That Lily committed suicide not by hanging but by slitting her wrists. That Frey might have had Novocain administered during his root canals and that the young girl who died at a train crossing may or may not have been his close friend.

In between was a book people couldn’t put down. Not just because it was sold as a “true story,” but because it was a story that showed how self-destructive and life-extinguishing addiction can be.

You could have affirmed at least that, left him with a shred of dignity and some confidence that he knew how to write instead of meting out lashes until he was groveling, almost whimpering, “I’ll be a better person for this.”

If James Frey is even half as vulnerable as he portrays himself in A Million Little Pieces, you may bear some responsibility for what happens to the rest of his life.

Now I’m the disappointed one.

©— Colette Volkema DeNooyer 1/2006