Thursday, February 23, 2006

Free speech, or Frey speech?

The BPDM ran an op-ed by their man in Paris, Comte St. Louis Esprit de L'Escalier, about James Frey and his sinoidal love affair with Oprah. Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, went from being a recovered drug addict and alcoholic to being a gleaming Oprah-Book-Club star, and guest on Winfrey's show, to being exposed for seriously fabrications in his work, and then, as I gather from this BPMD piece, chastised and disowned by Oprah. De L'Escalier is none too impressed with Oprah's reaction:

Who in the blue blazes do you, Oprah Winfrey, think you’re kidding? I mean you’re a “creation” your self--a fiction, if you will. You look nothing like you used to look, and what you do look like is made from organic chemicals and other cosmetic secrets, some known only to your doctor or surgeon, I’m sure. Your performance, sitting their like Salome waiting for the head of John the Baptist to be delivered to you, was a bit too orchestrated as you “castrated” and demeaned a grown man, Mr. James Frey. Mr Frey has done a much better job of getting his act together than some of the addiction freaks you’ve had on your show, who keep their dope and booze on the flow in Hollywood, but they act like perfect, sensitive angels when they sit next to the great and powerful Oprah.

Since I am even less "in the know" about media and pop-stardom affairs than when I was in the USA, I had to do some research. Initially I assumed Winfrey had distanced from Frey because he turned out not to be so clean after all. But then I immediately came upon The Smoking Gun's (TSG's) expose-inquiry of Frey's narrative, "A Million Little Lies". The facts brought forth by TSG in contradiction to the claims made by Frey were not only numerous and explicit, but also damning for Frey's credibility. I am aware L'Escalier is not defending Frey's literal, factual credibility; rather he is defending Frey as an ethical hero, whose moral victories over drugs and alcohol outweigh his humanely inspiring, albeit technically fraudulent, memoir. He argues:

Mr. Frey’s work fattens the souls of many who need to read and hear what it means to come out of a fiction--the fiction of addiction. ... Take any memoir by any of your starlet or star friends and you’ll find that here and there the “truth be damned” for a better story, a more inspiring story that came from how someone’s heart felt rather than an exact, at that moment, recollection.

The comte buttresses this line of thought with a quote from Eugene O'Neill's play, The Iceman Cometh:

"To hell with truth! As the history of the world proves, truth has no bearing on anything. The lie of the pipe dream is what gives life to the whole mad misbegotten lot of us.” (Delivered by the character, Larry Slade.)

Since I greatly respect L'Escalier's perspective in general, I am pained to admit I find him quite off-base in this case. While Frey's "success" in shaking addiction should not be ignored or denied, he certainly deserves to be put in his place (which here amounts to being put out of the unblinking spotlight) as a basic fabricator. I understand quite well the therapeutic value of embellishing his struggle for the sake of creating hope; but I am even more gravely aware of the risks involved in whitewashing how difficult hardcore addiction is. I understand that for many drug users, alcoholics, and general stuck-in-a-ruts, Frey is a walking placebo of hope and optimism. "If he can do it, so can I!" they certainly say upon reading A Million Little Pieces. But did he really do it? From what I know, yes, he did overcome drug addiction and the like; but the more important question is, Did he really overcome the life he claims to have led? Because, if he did not, then all those white-knuckled fists full of hope -- "I can do it too!" -- are gripping an illusion, a lie. The truth is, as indicated by the measly 17% recovery rate of Hazelton rehab center, where Frey was treated, people in Frey's hardcore addiction straits actually don't end up so spiffy and dapper as frey now is. The shine on his rehabilitated face, a shine which spreads to others like a ray of hope, is based on the saga of illusory optimism into which Frey has written himself. Sadly, this lie of optimism becomes for them the very "drug" L'Escalier says Frey's book neutralizes.

Isn’t that the whole point of the book: getting one’s self out of the fake world of addiction, out from a pernicious, imaginary world?

For the true nature of the drug Frey peddles is the myth of self-fulfillment. Though I have not read the book, I feel entitled not only to ask the question, "What, ultimately, do we get from Frey's book?" but also to give the answer, "We get Frey the Self-Made Man." We get a gritty modern version of Horatio Alger, which amidst its fevered accounts of sex, drugs and, yes, rock and roll, whispers the fatal meme that your salvation ultimately depends on yourself. This may seem absurd to say, but consider the narrative "ultimacy" of the book. Chapter after chapter exposes us to people who either oppress and harm Frey, but whom he overcomes, or people who help him transiently, but then ultimately die or disappear. (Even his parents are barely sketched in the story, and consistently described as being "ignorant" of his nightmare of addiction.) In the end, Frey, and Frey alone, is the last man standing. And the final high of this drug of Self-Improvement is Frey's total Nietzschean ecstasy of recreating himself in his own image as a phoenix whose wings, it turns out, were never actually burned so bad. Far from aligning himself with the "weak" and the addicted (for indeed, Frey considers addiction a weakness, not a disease), Frey the fabricator, the peddler of celluloid hope, actually aligns himself with the strong, the survivors, the ones who "get ahead" by any means necessary -- even by lying your way onto the Oprah show.

There is a final reason I must part ways with L'Escalier on the Frey-Oprah affair, and it is the simple issue of truth. Regardless how inspiring Frey's work is, that virtue cannot be commingled with the sheer vice of deception, and continued knowing deception, in which Frey indulges. It's one thing for Frank McCourt, whom L'Escalier alludes to as a similarly culpable "embellisher" yet exculpably inspiring memoirist, to say he didn't eat a thing for three days, when it was actually only 36 hours; in either case, the truth is that McCourt had a poor and miserable childhood. It's quite something else, as we see in Frey's case, for an author to fabricate an entire criminal past as an integral part of his story. This is tantamount to discovering McCourt actually was the son of a wealthy Irish industrialist, and then simply embellished an unpleasant evening when he couldn't satisfy his appetite. It would be well within my sympathy is Frey had exaggerated this or that fact for the sake of conveying "just how bad it really was," but his use of numerous, blatant and pivotal lies -- even after publishing the book and being interviewed at some length about the truth -- is simply inexcusable. Had he admitted up front A Million Little Pieces is an addiction fable, he would not only have saved himself all this ignominy, but also given himself free reign to guide conscious readers into the mythic, superstructures of addiction, dignity and hope. As it stands, however, A Million Little Pieces is to memoir what The Da Vinci Code is to history. Then again, maybe Frey goes by the old media maxim: Any publicity is good publicity.

Frey's achievement -- and I can only call it that, since "the Frey incident" is so much larger than a simple book's career -- brings to light the fact that our culture has a deeply paradoxical stance towards truth. On the one hand, we are largely incapable of -- allergic to -- facing the deepest truths about our existence, such as the Trinitarian nature of reality, the inviolable dignity of each human person, the paltriness of money versus the enduring value of beauty and modesty, etc. On the other hand, we are "sick of all the lies", and hunger deeply for the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Frey, unfortunately, is savvy enough to feed on this two-mouthed hunger. By writing a memoir so gritty and disturbing that we instinctively feel it just has to be true, as well as by giving a "real life hero", Frey has fed us with truth... only to tell us grudgingly it is really just a wax apple. Adam and eve fell by eating (proverbial) apple of the knowledge of good and evil; we fall in our own day by willing to eat the apple of truth along with the worm of deceit within it.

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