By Roger C.
I read an awfully good book recently about addiction and recovery: A Million Little Pieces by James Frey.
Published ten years ago, it is billed as a “memoir.” I have only read two others of these: Go Ask Alice by Beatrice Sparks (1971) and Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man by Bill Clegg (2010). All three have their moments but for me A Million Little Pieces is by far the best of the three books.
The reason is simple: when Frey describes the blackness of his addiction, I recognized the black of my own.
For example, philosophers and psychologists have a great deal to say about isolation and the estranged self. With his stream of consciousness writing style, however, Frey talks about the same thing in a way that I totally understand. This excerpt provides some sense of that, and of his writing:
I close my eyes and I let my body shut itself down and I let my mind wander. It wanders to a familiar place. A place I don’t talk about or acknowledge exists. A place where there is only me. A place that I hate. I am alone. Alone here and alone in the world. Alone in my heart and alone in my mind. Alone everywhere, all the time, for as long as I can remember. Alone with my Family, alone with my friends, alone in a Room full of People. Alone when I wake, alone through each awful day, alone when I finally meet the blackness. I am alone in my horror. Alone in my horror. I don’t want to be alone. I have never wanted to be alone. I fucking hate it. I hate that I have no one to talk to, I hate that I have no one to call, I hate that I have no one to hold my hand, hug me, tell me everything is going to be all right. I hate that I have no one to share my hopes and dreams with, I hate that I no longer have any hopes or dreams, I hate that I have no one to tell me to hold on, that I can find them again. I hate that when I scream, and I scream bloody murder, that I am screaming into emptiness. I hate that there is no one to hear my scream and that there is no one to help me learn how to stop screaming. . . More than anything, all I have ever wanted is to be close to someone. More than anything, all I have ever wanted is to feel as if I wasn’t alone.
Most of the 400 pages of A Million Little Pieces take place while Frey is in rehab at the Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center in Minnesota. He falls in love with a crack addict, he shares a room with a federal court judge, one of his best friends is a member of the mafia, “the west coast finance director of a large Italian firm.” Frey is 23 years old. He has been an alcoholic for a decade and a crack addict for three years. He is, for all intents and purposes, a dead man walking.
Frey is harassed by the counsellors at Hazelden to get a Higher Power and to follow the 12 Steps. He is told that AA and the Steps are the only way to stay clean and maintain sobriety. He is repeatedly warned that if he doesn’t accept this that there is no hope for him: he will relapse and die.
Frey entered Hazelden with the conviction that, “There is no God. There is no Higher Power,” and that’s how he left Hazelden in 1993. He has not relapsed. He is not dead. He has written several more books, including one about the west coast finance director called, My Friend Leonard.
Frey’s own path of recovery would seem to follow a model established by Rational Recovery and practised in at least two contemporary mutual aid / self help organizations: LifeRing and SMART Recovery. “Throughout the novel, Frey speaks of the ‘Fury’ he is fighting, which he sees as the cause of his desire to drink alcohol and use drugs.” (Wikipedia)
This Fury is reminiscent of the “Addicted Self” described by the founder of LifeRing, Martin Nicolaus: “Everything that speaks for, promotes, or defends the use of addictive substances, I will call “A” for Addicted Self.” This is in conflict with the Sober Self: “Everything that speaks for, promotes, or defends living life free of addictive substances, I will call “S” for Sober Self…. (Empowering the Sober Self, p. 36) This Jekyll and Hyde understanding of the addictive personality very much describes Frey’s take on alcoholism and addiction. The “Fury” is a raging voice within him, and for Frey recovery involves ignoring, defeating or even “killing” the Fury.
For anyone who has ever crawled through residential rehab, this quote from Frey will perhaps ring true:
The clock holds me nowhere. Nowhere. Nowhere. There is nothing else but now and the shifting depth of the night. I sit at a table alone smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee and listening and surviving. I should not be here or anywhere. I should not be breathing or taking space. I should not have been given this moment or anything else. I should not have this opportunity again to live. I do not deserve it or deserve anything yet it is here and I am here and I Have it all of it still. I won’t have it again. This moment or this chance they are the same and they are mine if I choose them and I do. I want them. Now and as long as I can have them they are both precious and fleeting and gone in the blink of an eye don’t waste them. A moment and an opportunity and a life, all in the unseen tick of a clock holding me nowhere. My heart is beating. The walls are pale and quiet. I am surviving.
At the beginning of this review, I said that the book is billed as a memoir. There is a good deal of controversy about that. A Million Little Pieces was picked as an Oprah’s Book Club selection in 2005. Oprah later told Frey that she felt “duped” because it was evident that parts of the book were fabricated. Frankly, when I was reading the book, it never occurred to me that parts of the book weren’t made up. The plot flowed far too perfectly. Things happened at just the right time. That sure ain’t life as I understand it.
But so what? “I wanted the stories in the book to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require,” Frey acknowledged. He succeeded. The book has sold five million copies. One of the 2,000 or so reviews of the book on Amazon, by a detox centre worker, puts it very well: “James Frey’s wonderful, dark, and truthful portrait of addiction and the infinitely small possibility of recovery is one of the most honest portrayals of drug addiction that I have ever read.” Agreed. A Million Little Pieces is, I am here to report, a superb “semi-fictional memoir” and wonderfully describes Frey’s own odyssey of recovery. I most highly recommended it.