A Million Little Pieces

A Million Little Pieces
A Million Little Pieces, a book by James Frey.

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.

A Million Littel PiecesFrey 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.

15 Responses

  1. Jack G. says:

    This book was kind of silly and self involved, but I read “My Friend Leonard”, and, without thinking about whether it was a true account or not, I thoroughly enjoyed it. As an alcoholic who has never been in a treatment center (only detox and IOP and meetings), I can’t speak to the (in)accuracy of his tales.
    I have also read “Dry”, by Augusten Burroughs, and I identified with quite a lot of what he describes in his experiences.

  2. noonespecial says:

    Much if not most of “A Million Little Pieces” was fabricated.
    Frey was featured on Oprah when the book was published which, I’m sure, help make it become a best seller like most books Oprah endorses.
    A six week investigation discovered Frey lied. Frey was brought back to the Oprah show to disclose the fabrication.

  3. Dan says:

    My Mom and sister both wanted me to read this book due to my own struggles with crack and alcohol over the years. I knew after reading the first few pages that it was grossly exaggerated if not outright fabricated. Frey, like many I’ve encountered in the “self-help” communities over the years, has channeled his addictive tendencies from substance use/abuse into self-indulgence and over-the-top stories that border on delusions of grandeur. He, like the people in many 12-step meetings who dominate the conversation because they love to hear themselves talk, has no doubt found a healthier outlet for his addictions than the abuse of drugs and alcohol. It is of benefit to him and them, but useless, and even detrimental, to the rest of us.

  4. Ron de N says:

    I read the book in rehab. In the first 6 weeks only program books were allowed. So this was a nice chance. I liked the book despite its childishness and its weak end. The program may not be the answer but Frey isn’t interested in an answer.

  5. Roger says:

    Just read this about another book: “If only James Frey had taken a note from Exley’s self-described fictional memoir, A Fan’s Notes, and put all questions to rest on the first page by telling the reader he had “drawn freely from the imagination and adhered only loosely to the pattern of my past life.” If only.

  6. karen b says:

    I haven’t read the book but I do know that there’s so much bullshit in and around addiction that we don’t need any more of it.

  7. Lech says:

    He has another book out about street life in LA. This one, at least, states up front that it’s a novel.

  8. bob k says:

    Boy!! It shows ya – don’t mess with Oprah!!!!

  9. Pat N says:

    I think Frey is contemptible, and if he is actually an addict, he needs to get into recovery.

    His description of what he allegedly experienced in a treatment center (faux Hazelden), is utter BS. No accredited professional program would put up with the crap he describes-13th stepping, etc., etc.

    I wonder how many real addicts have died because this piece of trash scared them out of getting real treatment. I doubt he worries about that, since he hit paydirt.

  10. steve b says:

    James Frey is a liar, and I would not trust a word he says.

  11. Lech says:

    I read it but found it lacked credibility. Frey admitted he made a lot of it up. I don’t like books that claim to reflect the author’s experience and then turn out to fabricated.

    If someone gains some insight into his own condition from it, that’s Jake with me.

  12. Amelia says:

    I was never particularly bothered by the controversy surrounding this book and its honesty but I, too, hated the writing style and I found it very repetitive.

    Around the same time I read that – about four years ago – I read and really enjoyed David Carr’s memoir, “The Night of the Gun,” though I can’t recall the spiritual angle it took. I’d love to hear some more recommendations of recovery memoirs while we’re on this topic.

  13. bob k says:

    In spite of the simple but major error of not calling the piece a novel, I enjoyed this book a great deal. As a writer, Frey is very talented.

    To Oprah’s great credit, after eviscerating Frey on her television show, she brought him back quite sometime later and apologized, admitting that she had over-reacted owing to the damage to her own EGO. Nice 10th Step, Oprah, but keep working on the “promptly” part.

  14. Peter E. says:

    Can’t say. I. Share your. Enthusiasm. The description of. The airplane scene was. So. Unbelievable and unrealistic I. Could tell it was. Complete fiction. And no one would. Be able to. Stay in a treatment. Centre if. They acted like. He did. They would have kicked. Him out. Pronto.

    And the. Writing style gave. Me a migraine.

  15. John S says:

    Frey was exposed by Oprah and admitted that a lot of what was in his book, he made up. For example, the girl never existed.

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