The 12-Step Lying Program

Sometime around my middle school years, I began noticing that my mom was a voracious reader.  Every night, she sat in bed reading books recommended by my grandmother and those featured in her book group club.  To my astonishment, she told me that she completed about three books per month – I could only imagine how many pages she flew through every night.  Eventually, I was overwhelmed by curiosity and asked her if I could read one of her latest novels.  She handed me James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces.

The book was introduced to me as a memoir.  Frey was a 23-year old alcoholic and drug abuser who chronicled his journey through a rehabilitation center wrought with psychological struggles, physical pain and general confusion.  While in treatment, Frey wrote that he was forced to undergo a series of throbbing root canals without anesthesia, leaving him lying in bed with seething pain for endless periods of time.  Raw, harsh and gripping, the book fascinated me.  In fact, it left me with a million little questions after finishing…

However, I soon learned that Frey’s dark memoir had cracks.  After initial investigative leaks, Frey admitted to lying about the amount of time he spent in jail, details about the death of his girlfriend, his forays outside of the rehabilitation center and the lack of Novocaine during his root canals.  One of the most transfixing images of the book for me as a young teenager was Frey desperately grasping two tennis balls as he was undergoing root canal.  His pain was apparently too severe.  Unfortunately, he later admitted that he had “may or may not” taken anesthesia for his procedures.


In 2006, Oprah chose James Frey’s memoir as an Oprah’s Book Club selection. Three months later, she confronted him about the truth on her show.

Back then, I felt betrayed as a reader.  Now, I also feel pity for his readers, especially those who were substance abusers seeking a truthful recovery story.  I admire him, yet simultaneously feel pity for him.  Frey was a lonely and helpless drug addict who remarkably lifted himself towards recovery, but unfortunately lost the trust of many readers by bending certain truths.  In my mind, he will always be an incredibly gifted writer, but his most popular book is now considered a semi-fictional novel, not a memoir.


3 thoughts on “The 12-Step Lying Program

  1. It is a shame that this story couldn’t have been the full truth. Just like Daisey’s lies, they make us question anything they say. Certainly there must be parts of Frey’s writings that are true. These truths hold the power to touch the lives of substance abusers and other people struggling in parts of their lives. Unfortunately, his lies or exaggerations make us question everything. But does this make his book any less powerful? I didn’t have the chance to read A Million Little Pieces but I do understand that it is moving and eye-opening. I wonder if he had simply stated from the beginning that this book was an exaggeration, not a memoir, it would have been so successful.

  2. Interesting how this may have shaped your perspective on Daisey, or the Josh Fox push back from the ANGA. Is he the worst offender of those? I take it he is at least actually a recovering addict?

  3. Randomness, and maybe interesting given Xin’s post. I knew of Frey. Never saw an image until now. I thought he was Black.

    Why? Is that a racist moment on my part? Don’t worry, you can say so. WE can all be racist in the moment and not be fundamentally racist.

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