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The misery memoir that duped the world: why was literary liar James Frey so easily forgiven?  

James Frey appearing on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2006
James Frey appearing on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2006 Credit: ap

That’s a lie. It’s not an idea, James. That’s a lie." The 36-year old author squirmed uncomfortably. Only a matter of months ago, the woman sitting opposite him – Oprah Winfrey, America’s most powerful and influential television host – had endorsed his memoir A Million Little Pieces in her September 2005 Book Club.

The book was praised as "like nothing you’ve ever read before… when we were staying up late at night reading it, we'd come in the next morning saying, 'What page are you on?’" Winfrey's endorsement ensured that its sales lifted from the mere thousands into the millions. 

Oprah was not alone. Since its publication, James Frey’s memoir of addiction and redemption had received the most lavish of praise. The writer Pat Conroy had called it nothing less than "the War and Peace of addiction", and Frey seemed set for literary stardom. Not bad for a man who would later announce that "I’ve never had any interest at all in being a journalist or writing some sort of historically accurate autobiography". 

In 2005, his book sold more copies in the US than any other, bar Harry Potter. And then facts replaced fiction, and the whole edifice came crashing down around him. 

Yet Frey's public disgrace made little difference to his career. His further books were bestsellers, and he became a successful businessman and multimedia literary mogul. Now, with a film of A Million Little Pieces about to open, directed by artist-turned-filmmaker Sam Taylor-Johnson, Frey is as successful and high-profile as he has ever been.

Which begs the question: did he deserve his second chance, or has the cinematic establishment been conned as successfully as the literary one was? 

James Christopher Frey was born in Cleveland, Ohio on 12 September 1969. Although he was the son of a well-to-do upper-middle-class family, the young Frey craved both adventure and attention. He would later describe himself as "the child you pray you never have to raise", claiming that he had been arrested 11 times by the age of 19.

An unpopular boy, whose peers hated him "with a f_____g vengeance’" he soon became known as ‘the worst kid’ in the upmarket suburb of St Joseph, Michigan, where he had moved when he was 12. He seemed to have taken Sean Connery’s advice in The Untouchables to heart: "They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue." 

So it began; by the time Frey arrived at college, he was taking so many drugs that he was blacking out near-continuously, bleeding heavily from his nose and losing control of his bodily functions. 

After he became addicted to a hellish combination of crystal meth, freebase cocaine, glue and nitrous oxide, and served time in jail, he fled to Paris, a wanted man, in order to find himself and his calling as a writer, a period later semi-fictionalised in his 2018 "autofiction" novel Katerina.

James Frey in 2008 Credit: ap

Here, he assaulted a priest who made a sexual lunge at him in a confessional box, violently kicking him in the testicles 15 times. Auspiciously, he wrote of himself that "Lying became part of my life. I lied if I needed to lie to get something or get out of something." 

On and on his odyssey of debauchery and self-abasement went, all of which would be recorded in A Million Little Lies. He associated with the most flamboyant and tragic of characters, including a Mafia kingpin incongruously named Leonard and a crack-addicted prostitute called Lilly, who he met while he was undergoing an expensive rehab programme.

Eventually, his crimes and misdemeanours caught up with him, and he was sentenced to jail. Yet a combination of character references and good fortune meant that he was sentenced to a three-to-six month stint in county jail, rather than the eight-year stretch that he had anticipated. And then Lilly’s suicide, the day before he left prison, threatened to send him back to his previous ways. 

Frey had hit bottom. He wrote that "I didn't have a job or the type of CV, jail rehab jail jail jail, that would get me a job." The only thing that he had was a talent for recording all the sordid, unbelievable events that had occurred to and around him. He began to write, and A Million Little Pieces was the result. Frey’s story seemed to be a true American saga; he had visited hell, and returned, stronger and more confident, to tell the tale. As his book stated, repeatedly, "I am an Alcoholic and I am a drug Addict and I am a Criminal." 

Aaron as James Frey in A Million Little Pieces Credit: Courtesy of Entertainment One

Unfortunately, as Oprah would learn to her embarrassment, James Frey was also A Liar, or, more charitably, a gifted storyteller with an extremely vivid imagination. A second memoir, My Friend Leonard, was published in the summer of 2005, exploring his breakdown after Lilly’s suicide and relationship with the mobster Leonard in a similar stream-of-consciousness style; the New York Times described it as "slightly less illiterate than A Million Little Pieces", which passed for praise. He seemed set for continued success. 

At the beginning of 2006, the Smoking Gun website published a coruscating takedown of all of his wild claims. It began with the smirking words "Oprah Winfrey’s been had", and, over thousands of words, painted an unflattering portrait of Frey as not just a fantasist but someone given to inserting himself into others’ lives, including his false claim to have been involved in a train accident that cost the lives of two female schoolmates of his.

It forensically exposed his boasts of crime as fraudulent, noting that, far from his being a habitué of America’s jails, the closest he came to imprisonment was a few hours in an Ohio police headquarters, waiting for a friend to post a bail bond for some minor offences. The greatest humiliation for a man whose tattoo FTBITTTD stood for "F___ The Bulls___ It’s Time To Throw Down" was that the arresting officer described this one-man crime wave as "polite and cooperative".

The original cover of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces Credit: abebooks

On and on it went. By the end of the exposé, the overall impression of Frey was of a mild-mannered and generally law-abiding man who seemed to have gone publically and lucratively insane. It made a mockery of reviewers’ and publicists’ claims of his "fearless honesty", and led to a series of embarrassing retractions, including Frey and his publisher Random House being forced to offer any dissatisfied readers a refund.

The book was now sold with a preface acknowledging its largely fictional contents. Frey was dropped by his literary agent and Random House, and received the dubious accolade of being satirised in an episode of South Park called A Million Little Fiber

Frey had embarrassed the publishing world, and most of them tried to distance themselves from him with alacrity. His editor Sean McDonald, winner of the 2005 Publishers Weekly Young Turk of Publishing Award, had initially claimed that "I made sure that everything actually happened…certainly when we were editing the book, we would talk about what was true and what was not".

When it was obvious that this was no longer sustainable, McDonald threw his author under the proverbial bus in a statement he made at the beginning of 2006, in which he said "Throughout the editing process, I raised questions with James about the veracity of events he recounted in the book and in each instance he assured me that his account was accurate and true. The only things in A Million Little Pieces' that I understood were altered were the names and identifying characteristics of some of the people in the book to protect their real identities." 

McDonald, who claimed that he discovered Frey’s deceptions "the same way and at the same time as everybody else", has gone on to a distinguished career, currently working as Executive Editor at Farrar, Strass and Giroux; his swift disavowal of a man who described him as "a friend who’s giving me good advice, as opposed to a boss who’s giving me an order" did him no harm. 

Under normal conditions, that would have been the end for Frey. Yet the literary world is predicated on good stories, and this was one of the very best in decades; he had become a household name twice over, after all. His publisher Nan Talese, who had been with him when Oprah withdrew her endorsement of the book, attacked her in July 2007 as "mean and self-serving", mocked her ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude and criticised her "fiercely bad manners", before taking aim at Oprah’s sainted show, calling it reminiscent of a "Roman circus". 

James Frey's 1988 mugshot Credit: youtube

Whether intentionally or not, this reawakened interest in Frey. Suddenly there was a sense that, perhaps, he had been, in Talese’s evocative word, "ambushed" by Oprah. The following year, the doyenne of television telephoned Frey and announced "I feel I owe you an apology", apparently as the result of her meditating on his actions, and invited him back on the show. Frey, then grieving at the death of his 11-day old son Leo, declined, citing a need to get beyond the "surreal and difficult and at times uncomfortable and at times terrible" previous three years. 

He had by then been received back into the literary establishment. Later in 2007, he had signed a lucrative three-book deal with HarperCollins, and his first work of official fiction, Bright Shiny Morning, appeared in 2008, to mixed reviews. The New York Times called Frey "a furiously good storyteller", but the unimpressed Los Angeles Times sniffed that it was "an execrable novel, a literary train wreck without even the good grace to be entertaining". It was another bestseller.

He gave a semi-penitent interview to Vanity Fair that year, in which he acknowledged "I was a pariah…I was under no illusion that I was anything but that", but, vowing never to talk to the press again, moaned that "I don’t care, if somebody calls [A Million Little Pieces] a memoir, or a novel, or a fictionalized memoir, or what. I could care less what they call it. The thing on the side of the book means nothing. Who knows what it is. It’s just a book. It’s just a story. It’s just a book that was written with the intention to break a lot of rules in writing. I’ve broken a lot of rules in a lot of ways. So be it." 

Thereafter, the rule-breaking Frey has mainly involved himself in his Endgame and Lorien Legacies series of young adult books, written as a collective under the pen-name Pittacus Lore. The first of these, I Am Number Four, was released in 2011, to critical indifference and middling box office returns. His most recent novel, Katerina, was a return to the autobiographical concerns and breathless style of A Million Little Pieces, and was savaged by the critics. The Observer (full disclosure: I was their critic) marvelled that "the dreadful Katerina represents a new and, in its own perverse way, impressive attempt at career suicide".

The only award of note it won was the Bad Sex in Literature prize. Frey, showing a hitherto unsuspected sense of humour, described himself as ‘deeply humble and honoured’ to win the accolade. 

Yet the film of A Million Little Pieces promises to restore interest in the strange and murky beginnings of Frey’s life and career. It stars Taylor-Johnson’s husband Aaron as Frey, and concentrates the narrative on his time in the rehab clinic. Although early reviews have been largely dismissive, it makes the interesting choice to present Frey’s saga as absolute. The uninitiated will find no hint that the memoir on which it is based has been debunked as largely fictional, nor that its larger-than-life characters owe more to its writer’s imagination than any real inhabitants of drug addiction clinics. 

Perhaps, nearly a decade and a half on from the initial controversy, people are either inclined to be more forgiving, or the world has moved on. In an era of fake news, it is hard to remain shocked at Frey’s misdemeanours. As literary witch-hunts go, the Million Little Pieces farrago is nothing compared to the publication of The Satanic Verses two decades before, which led to a fatwah on its author Salman Rushdie, mass protests, and many deaths. Likewise, in terms of fabrication, the contemporaneous JT Leroy/Laura Albert unmasking took place on a far grander and, for Albert, more personally humiliating scale. 

Today, Frey is a multi-millionaire, a celebrity and may yet write a fascinating and truthful memoir offering his own perspective on the controversy. Still, he must know that, when his obituary is eventually written, every headline will contain some variant on the phrase "A Million Little Lies".