The problem isn’t that James Frey is a liar. The problem is that we so badly want his story to be true. A Million Little Pieces is a brutal story. This is how it starts:



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A Million Little Lies
a book review by Diane Goettel

A Million Little Pieces
by James Frey

Anchor Books, 2003
I wake up to the drone of an airplane engine and the feeling of something warm dripping down my chin. I lift my hand to feel my face. My front four teeth are gone, I have a hole in my cheek, my nose is broken and my eyes are swollen shut, I open them and look around me and I’m in the back of a plane and there’s no one near me. I look at my clothes and my clothes are covered with a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit, and blood. I reach for the call button and I find it and I wait and thirty seconds later an Attendant arrives.


When James lands, his parents pick him up and take him to a rehabilitation facility where he proceeds to detox, have his teeth fixed - a brutal procedure that, based on detox and rehab rules, must be done without anesthesia or pain killers - and resist therapy. When he is alone, James spends a great deal of time in the bath room scalding himself in the shower, throwing up bile and chunks of his stomach, and trying desperately to look into his own eyes.

A Million Little Pieces Million Little Pieces exists because James survives. It is a beautiful story. The writing is spare, honest, and terrifying. In these ways, the book is a complete success. After publication, however, it became apparent that portions of the books were embellished. In fact, a great deal of the book was based more on an able imagination than on actual events. The real problem, however, is not the content of the book, but the original packaging and marketing. Anchor Books labeled A Million Little Pieces as memoir. Frey held fast that everything that he wrote was true, and that he only changed names in order to protect identities.

Frey did what all good writers do; he used his understanding of a subject to write a powerful book. Real life does not always supply us with a correct narrative arc. It is for this reason that memoirists often pad or embroider the truth. Novelists, on the other hand, are adept at thieving details from real life to inform their writing. In the end, it doesn’t matter if you are writing a memoir or a novel, whether you are a thief or a liar. What matters is that the content of your book speaks truthfully about the human condition. In his lit crit classic On Moral Fiction, John Gardener writes, “Art rediscovers, generation by generation, what is necessary to humanness.” Through the processes of detox and rehabilitation, James Frey rediscovers what it is to be alive, sober, and human.  A Million Little Pieces chronicles his reintroduction into the world of the living and, in so doing, he thoroughly discovers what is necessary to humanness.