a million little pieces by james frey

ruling: read it with a working imagination; don’t expect an account of real events.

Jackie, as my “Secret Santa,” had to remind me at least fifteen times that my book would be A Million Little Pieces because I couldn’t remember. When she had originally asked me if I had ever read it, I told her I had no idea what it was as I’d never heard of it before. It wasn’t until I was just randomly thinking about how I should really get on reading the book did I realize that not only had I obviously heard of Frey’s controversial novel (memoir?), but I actually knew quite a bit about it thanks to several articles and previous readings from the last few years. In my freshman year of high school, Ms. Price had given us “A Million Little Lies” to read and respond to, and I remember thinking how this book had lost not only its credibility, but a great amount of its entertainment value. And although I tried to brush the truth I knew aside as I read this book, I couldn’t help but feel that some of it was complete bullshit.

It wasn’t until the seventieth page until Frey’s escapades began to get really irritating. For those familiar with the book and the controversy that surrounded his novel, this scene has bothered a lot of other readers as well. Frey’s story is supposed to be one of perseverance and naked survival, and it is supposed to mean a great deal because he had hit much, much more than rock bottom, and then some, and he still managed to live. But when it is revealed that the triumphant parts of the story are only exaggerated to the point of complete fabrication, then it makes me start to question if these stories of survival can only exist in fairytale novels.

In general, I find it annoying when people make up new “facts” about themselves so that outside people can see them differently, whether so they seem smarter or stronger or just overall better. In Frey’s case, his story about going to the dentist must have been used to convey a fictitious image of his inherent strength. To the unknowing reader, Frey convinces him that he actually mustered up the strength to go to the dentist despite his grotesque appearance, where there are clear “holes” in his face, and an entire spectrum of colors beyond black and blue to adorn his bruises. The scene only gets more ridiculous from here. Frey is sitting with the dentist, ready to undergo this immensely painful surgery without anesthesia of any kind. He is forbidden to have anything to numb his pain simply because all patients of the Clinic are prohibited. I guess Frey tries to suggest it’s foolish to risk having Clinic patients on drugs again, but this is really outrageous – even Novcaine isn’t addictive whatsoever, and most anesthetics have no addictive nature at all (and I’m saying most here because I don’t want to generalize, but come on. None of them!). Besides, even if they were addictive, that doesn’t mean you have to give your dental patient an entire bag full of them once the surgery is completed. Likewise, Frey isn’t allowed to have any painkillers once the operation is done, so he must live with the swollenness and the general pain for as long as he needs to.

During the surgery, the dentist finds that Frey has some cavities that need to be filled, so he decides to add them on his laundry list of dental cleanup (though why the dentist could not see cavities of all things during the extensive prep session the doctor and patient had a week before is beyond me). He then proceeds to cap some of Frey’s teeth by taking a sandblaster to his mouth. At least before the finale of a root canal without drugs, Frey is strapped down to his chair so he doesn’t flinch and mess up the procedure. At the end of all of this, Frey starts to vomit much more violently than he ever has (and keep in mind that he has been doing crack, smoking crack, basically doing everything imaginable for more than a decade), but he gets up and walks out of the room against all the dentist’s warnings and heeds to seek immediate medical attention. Bravo, Frey. Too bad everything I had just read was really complete and utter crap, and none of this had ever even remotely happened.

After this scene, some of the other scenes described had registered in a similar way. A lot of excerpts from the book were probably written to exemplify how much of a tough guy Frey is, and I don’t want to list them all individually (save for the first one I mentioned because everytime I think about it, I find it absolutely ridiculous), so I’ll just condense them all into this next response.

For one thing, I really don’t know about the animosity and eventual confrontation between Roy and Frey. I can totally understand Frey having some enemies in the Clinic, so maybe Roy would go so far as to sabotage the work that Frey had been doing. But when Frey allegedly assaults another patient, as confirmed in the book, I find it incredibly hard to believe that he isn’t immediately thrown out of the Clinic. In fact, as you continue to read, you find out that that is not Frey’s first and only strike, but he actually accumulates many, many violations of the rules, and yet, he is somehow allowed to stay. It’s understandable why the Clinic would have a rule of not physically hurting other patients because – well, that’s incredibly dangerous. So when someone actually does hurt someone else, why is he given a second chance? Moreover, his second chance is so easy. He has zero punishment whatsoever. It’s basically someone coming to him saying “I don’t like what you did back there, and you should be thrown out, but you’re going to stay anyway. Now go back to your normal routine.” What is that?? Not only is that unimaginative and poor writing on Frey’s behalf, but how is that supposed to be believable in any world, fictitious or real? Frey claims to have punched and strangled someone. What is going to stop him from doing it again (coincidentally, it doesn’t stop him, and he continues to behave as he did with Roy. That was good rehabilitation).

Furthermore, having a relationship while in the facilities is a little more than off. It’s repeated over and over that the number one rule is to not say anymore than “hello” to someone of the opposite sex. I mean, Frey makes a really big deal out of letting readers know that this was strictly banned. But the couple of James and Lilly are seen throughout the entire book by loads of people doing much more than saying hello. They regularly stare at one another, conveniently “bump into” each other, and share a few words in the common areas basically every day. Also, the two are repeatedly warned by their friends that other people are speculating their sneaking out every night. In fact, many administrators call Frey into their offices to privately tell him that he needs to stop seeing Lilly. It really makes zero sense to me about why the administrators would give Frey so many warnings instead of just kicking him out. Also, a lot of them tell him over and over how they don’t like him, so what is it that is stopping them from just kicking him out? Most of the administrators have openly admitted to him that they think his defiance of the rules is insulting and that his potential recovery is virtually hopeless. It’s not hope or love that guides his supervisors into holding on to Frey. From my point of view, it looks like some of them (Lincoln, particularly) would actually be looking and digging for a reason to throw him out. And here he is, sitting with a pile full of them, and he just tells him to don’t do it again. Although I admire Frey for being a nonconformist and an individual who believes in finding another way other than Twelve Steps to make a better life, I don’t think he needs to make a mockery of what has helped a million other people. The statistics are a million to one – the number of people that will survive with Frey’s technique. So while he can definitely feel free to inform others about another way, there is no reason to disparage what has visibly worked for a million others. By convincing new readers that the supposedly best clinic in the world (I believe this to actually be true, since there’s real evidence in the book) actually allows people like Frey continually break the biggest rules and carry on untouched is really offensive to the clinic, making it look as a big joke, because if I didn’t know any better, I’d think the entire staff and the clinic itself, and its foundation, is all a load of crap.

The biggest part of the book, and the redeeming factor that might make it all ok, that I don’t think is crap, is Frey’s inner demons. For some reason, all of his words about the loneliness and sickness and anger and depression and regret and disappointment are all more than believable to me. They are, for once, sincere. I really believe that he is being genuine when he confesses to his parents – when he tells him that they enrage him uncontrollably when they are near, that he feels uncontainable rage knowing that he hates those that love him so much, that they just make him want to do more drugs. I believe that there is the Fury inside of him – that it hurts him so much that he knows all he can do to live is to ignore it or to kill it, and he can kill it by drinking more, smoking more, drinking harder, hitting harder, and he doesn’t believe that he is strong enough to ignore it. And I sympathize and feel bad for him, to the point that I want him to get better because despite what someone has done in his life and what this person has done to deserve it, he should not have to live with this unbearable pain where he feels so alone and so terrible that the only way to escape is to die. I believe that Frey has felt that his only other option was to die slowly or to die now, and that dying now would be the infinitely better option because it meant not having to live the disgusting life he led before, and he could end the pain of those that loved him, too.

The best parts of the book are when Frey is describing this raw pain. Even if he made it up, it is so beautifully written that the reader is able to start to understand. I doubt any reader will ever fully understand, or even half understand, what Frey and others like him with similar situations have underwent and endured, or maybe not endured, but it is a feat for Frey that I, as a reader, can start to. I actually hurt when I read what he has been through and described. It hurts that he has such loving parents that he cannot love back. It hurts me that they try to help him, over and over again, by saving him from his blackouts, by putting him on a plane to the clinic, by paying for his entire visit at the clinic, by even enrolling in the Family Program to help understand his problems – and all he can do is continue to hurt them by pushing them away. Normally at this point, when I read stories like these, I would be incensed that he made up so many other things, and I would laugh that he is trying to get the sympathy and pity of his readers by writing this. But I don’t feel this way because I don’t think that’s what Frey was trying to do at all. He never wanted his readers to feel sympathy or pity for him, but he merely wanted to just write it down and maybe hope that his readers would see what it was like, all reactions aside. These chapters in the book were simply of a man trying to recount the pain he has suffered for a huge fraction of his life. I commend Frey for being open and naked in these parts of the memoir, and not only are they honest and true, but they’re actually really well written.

I don’t think that Frey could have described the evils that once lived inside of him, and perhaps occasionally continue to do so, any better than he did in A Million Little Pieces. It provided insight as to what some other people might have experienced as well, and it’s a little easier for me to see why overcoming addictions is so terrible and, at times, so impossible. I can’t get over how eloquently Frey chooses to portray certain feelings and situations, and I think that this can almost make up for all the other crap he made up. It might actually be better if Frey classifies his memoir as fiction (or maybe it is now?) because then readers might read the story for the story and see that sometimes, there is more truth in these sorts of stories than they might expect.