James Frey went on Oprah today, and in a rare live broadcast, she essentially tortured and humiliated him in front of millions of people for the crime of lying. I felt sorry for him because the ordeal seemed as painful for him as the two unanesthetized route canals he endured WOULD have been, had he actually endured them. He looked as pitiful as a whipped puppy for most of the show, but Oprah wasn't feeling any sympathy today, not should she have. She opened with this: "I've been broadcasting for [ungodly number of years] and I've never been in this position before." A bit of video lays out the "story so far" and catches everyone up on the saga up to and including her call to Larry King where she essentially let James off the hook. I wrote this Inanity on January 12th:
"...Frey was on Larry King last night, and while he was on the air, Oprah called into the show and made her proclamation: James Frey and his book are still all right in her book. And because Oprah is probably the most influential person in the country when it comes to popular culture, that, I think, will do it. Frey's golden again."In the 2 weeks since she called in to Larry King to say she "believed in the essential truths of the book", the columnists and cultural critics really laid into her. People called her "deluded". Others insinuated that her decision to back Frey had been a calculating business decision as opposed to her authentic opinion. Oprah said that people had gotten the impression that "the truth doesn't matter to me." When they cut back to Oprah, live in Chicago, she was standing center-stage looking into the camera. She said, "I regret that phone call." After a brief commercial interlude, she returned with glutton-for-punishment James Frey sitting next to her. The grilling began. "I feel duped," she told him.
It only got worse. I don't think I've seen anything like it anywhere. Oprah asked Frey about the girl who'd supposedly hanged herself at the end of the book (which was, apparently, a very moving moment to those who have read and enjoyed it), and he said that she did exist, had committed suicide, but that she had not hanged herself, but had slit her wrists. Self-righteous gasps went up in the audience. She asked him, if the difference in the mode of suicide isn't particularly important, why lie about it? I forget his answer, which was just more awkward backtracking, but Stephen King I think had it right.
King was on Bill Maher's new webshow for Amazon called "The Fishbowl", and Maher asked him about James Frey. King, a former drug addict and alcoholic, said, and I'll paraphrase (the webcast doesn't allow you to skip ahead otherwise I'd quote him directly), "When I found out that Frey hadn't gone through with the program, with AA, I said, 'Ah!' It made sense. Addicts lie all the time. You ask them what time it is and they'll lie about that just to keep up practice." It seems like Steve's right on the money here. One of the points of Frey's book is that he didn't 'DO' the "program" - he dropped out of it and came up with his own "method" of coping, which was to "hold on". You can do it, too, is the message. From what very little I know about addiction and the treatment of addiction, those who don't give themselves over completely to rehab, to AA, to whatever treatment regimen, never actually become "recovering addicts". So if Frey abandoned treatment and treated his addiction in his own, cold-turkey, tough-guy way, than, in some respects, he's still an unrecovered addict. He's still lying, and even though when confronted he admitted to "alterations", to "embellishments", and even "fabrications", it wasn't until the end of the show that he conceded he'd "lied".
Nan Talese, the renowned publisher who bought and published A Million Little Pieces (and who was, likely, a major beneficiary of the riches that came with being an Oprah Book Club selection), was also on the show and in the hot seat along with her author. Oprah mentioned the double root canal with no anesthetic scene in AMLP that Frey claimed he'd soldiered through as a "red flag" about the book's overall veracity. In response, Nan told Oprah the she herself had had a Novocaine-free root canal years back (by a bad dentist, she said), so she hadn't questioned Frey's account of his root canal. (Frey, by the way, when asked specifically by Oprah about the root canal scene, he said, after much hemming and hawing, "To the best of my memory, that scene is accurate." More haughty gasps from the audience). Talese got more into the differences between "memoir" and "autobiography" and was understandably hesitant to call Frey out as an out-and-out liar because they are, in effect, in the same boat: both have gotten rich off duping Oprah and her audience. And though I agree that memoirs can't truly be held to thevery same standard as most journalistic non-fiction, (memory being as fluid and self-serving as it is), I think that memoirists should be held to a standard where the author is required to tell the truth to the best of their ability. I know this puts us in murky waters and forces questions like, What is objective truth? In a memoir, can anything be altered and the work still be considered true? If so, what can be changed? A couple of panelists (a professor and a columnist I was unfamiliar with) had two good suggestions. A) Publishing houses should each hire one or many fact-checkers, whose sole job would be to pore over non-fiction manuscripts with an eye for unintentional discrepancies and for willful, outright fabrications. And B) for authors to include disclaimers in the front of memoirs that would include a brief discription of the process the author went through to arrive at the finished product. For instance, if a writer sat down and wrote his or her memoir straight from memory without consulting any documents, or interviewing family members and old friends, then they'd write that in their "Description of Process". That way reader and writer could enter into an honest compact before the story begins so no one gets conned. Though I doubt very much that memoirists are going to slack off with the facts once the disclaimer thing becomes the norm. In non-fiction, rightly or wrongly, consumers like true stories, the truer the better, so if they read the author can't vouch for the truthfulness of the entire work, sales are going to suffer, and the publisher makes less money and will be less likely to buy an author's manuscript. If the author can legitimately back up their story with relevant documents (as Frey claimed to be able to do in the days after being selected as an Oprah book), then your memoir will be all the more powerful for being true, and all the more palatable to the general public. These seem like great remedies and I think the publishing industry should enact these changes sooner than later.
Finally, here's why I thought this show was more than just great theater, but was also, in the end, important. Frank Rich, well-known left-wing columnist for the New York Times, was on the show as well because of a column he wrote comparing the attempt to downplay the outright lies of A Million Little Pieces to the lies the Bush administration told to get us into Iraq and to sell Alito. Though this might seem a little like Rich's way of horning in on the culture story of the day to bring people's attention back to his political beat, there's something to this. If we as a culture become inured to the idea of being lied to (from the little lies Clinton told to the enormous whoppers Bush tells on a daily basis), if we come to believe that truth is this amorphous thing and there's no such thing as a "fact", and if we no longer believe that those who do lie to us should be held to some account, than our society isn't doing so well. Frey talked on Larry King about the "essential truths" of his book, but when we gloss over the idea of quantifiable facts and how "true" they really need to be for us to believe them, then we are on the wrong path towards that elusive truth we're all after. That's why I think it was so great for Oprah to make a brave about-face and come out against Frey's lying, and say there actually IS a line between fact and fiction which is, oftentimes, an objective, visible line. Because her next book is Elie Wiesel's classic Holocaust memoir Night, the demarcation of that line becomes vital. If readers no longer feel certain memoirs are true, and if memoir fades as a viable mode of non-fiction storytelling, books like Night may one day cease to have the power to educate and guide us, and, like the professor on the show said, in an age when heads of state (like Iran) publicly deny the Holocaust even happened, we have to find ways to demonstrate a pervasive reverence for Truth, or at least reverence for the meaningful pursuit of it.
Whew. Talk about self-righteous. Anyway, like I said, it was some good TV, and yes, BOC, I was watching Oprah again. That is how I roll. (Also, for another blogger-iffic reaction to today's show (and to show I'm not off my rocker here), click on this very short column, and here for some well-deserved scorn for Nan Talese and the fact that though Frey shopped Pieces as a novel, Nan only wanted it as a memoir because they sell better. She definitely wormed her way out of the hot seat this time.)