When Janine commanded me to read A Million Little Pieces about a recovering crack head, the remarkable story of James Frey’s battle against addiction, it was never on the short list of books that I would ever read. Never! Not even on the extended list. Firstly I mainly read history but mostly because who wants to read about the travails of a recovering addict. Being an instruction and not a request, to keep the peace in the McCleland household I reluctantly demurred to do as I was instructed. The fact that the book was classified as non-fiction and had been highly recommended by Oprah Winfrey in 2003 as the best book on the subject swayed me slightly as well as the fact that I would be reading my first book on a Kindle.
For the English purists like me, it was quite a revelation. The earthy raw language often without punctuation and with arcane repetition of words is child-like and puerile but it is precisely this debased language by James Frey which brings the story to life. The depravity and the lengths to which an addict will sink in order to obtain their next fix, is evocatively expressed in this cacophony and kaleidoscope of sounds and words all intermingled.
Let’s start at the beginning.
The story opens with James Frey on a plane. How he boarded the plane in his physical and mental condition is not explained. All that one is informed of is that he has been severely beaten up. If the truth be told James himself is unable to comprehend what has happened to himself. Through a befuddled mind, James remembers that he had been on a week-long binge of coke, crack, heroin and alcohol.
He is met at Chicago Airport by his parents who have booked him into a Rehabilitation Centre a few hours’ drive from the Windy City. Like all addicts, he is severely conflicted. He is aware that at 23 years of age, the continued addiction will lead to an early demise. At the same time all that his body is screaming to him is “Get me another fix.” In this situation, the addict defers to the latter compulsion ultimately resulting in an untimely death.
Even though James realises that it is his last chance, he refuses to provide even a modicum of comfort to his distraught parents. All his answers are non-committal as he cannot force himself to utter a platitude in order to placate his distressed parents. His angry unrepentant demeanour does not belie a pleasant ride in the country.
Much to his parents’ relief, finally they arrive at the clinic. James is his usual truculent unrepentant self as he is introduced to the staff and the routine is explained to him. Their reprimand that ALL rules have to be obeyed otherwise he will be expelled does nothing to assuage James’ anger for which he has christened The Fury. His morose angry retorts are met by stern no-nonsense replies by the staff who have probably experienced equally disruptive patients before.
But James will be in their sights. He is a marked man.
As part of the recovery process, every person is assigned some menial job such as a greeter of new inmates. The primary objective is to fill their day and to make them responsible for something. On the roster, James is assigned to toilet cleaning duty.
First James has to visit the local country dentist in order to have some teeth replaced. James is unable to account for how he had lost his teeth but he was sure that he had a full set of teeth before his final drug binge.
All recovering addicts were not entitled to any form of pain relief such as Novocaine. In James’ case, he elected to have to all his teeth being done simultaneously. To prevent any precipitous action on the patients’ part, James is firmly strapped down in a lying position. A tennis ball was also provided as an object on which he could vent his frustrations.
In an excruciating session, James barely maintains control and in the process almost destroys the balls. On the journey back, Hank, the driver, communicates with James as a long lost friend. Hank is the lover of Joanne, a tough no-nonsense psychologist at the Rehab Centre.
James’ body is in rebellion. Periodically he suffers from violent tremors and vomiting spells. Almost as a substitute, James overeats. This exacerbates his nausea and sets off renewed bouts of vomiting.
Finally an obnoxious inmate by the name of Roy confronts James while he is on toilet cleaning duty. James snaps. Without flinching he beats Roy to a pulp.
James barely escapes expulsion as the antagonist cannot be ascertained.
Being fervent believers in the Alcoholic Anonymous’ Twelve Step Process to recovery, James has to admit that he is addict in front of his fellow inmates. First he is compelled to listen to a whole slew of confessions by other inmates before he is requested to explain his situation. Many of his fellow addicts have not sunk to the same level of depravity that James has in that they are – from James’ perspective – “normal alcoholics” or gamblers. Others are crack heads or coke heads like himself.
A fellow inmate Leonard befriends him, constantly referring to him by the sobriquet Kid. For whatever reason which is never truly revealed, Leonard takes James under his wing and in spite of James earnest endeavours to disabuse him of treating him as a friend, Leonard perseveres.
In a fit of pique when James can no longer cope with the religious moralising which forms part of the Twelve Steps approach, he storms out of the rehab centre and into the night. Leonard waylays James. Using reverse psychology, Leonard persuades James to retreat back to the calm and sanctity of the centre.
Even though contact between the sexes is verboten, when James spots a luscious female, Lilly, he contrives to meet her in the extensive gardens late at night. Like many other addicts – Lilly is a fellow crack head who funds her habit by means of prostitution – they both harbour other addictions like sex. Almost instantly the animal magnetism attracts them together like some oversized gigantic magnet. It is only James’ nauseous condition which prevents them from getting to know one another intimately. Lilly is certainly willing. James is not so lucky. Heavy drug use has reduced his libido and now requires a heavy dose of drugs to overcome ED.
After only three surreptitious meetings, the relationship is hot and steamy. The tale oozes with sexuality and the desire for penetrative sex. Both parties are madly, passionately and head-over-heels in love. Finally – on the third night – they are caught – fortunately not in flagrante delicto – but just as drastic – with a member of the opposite sex and – heaven forbid – alone together at night.
She is expelled.
While James is being interviewed, Lilly absconds from the Centre.
James decides to abscond too in an endeavour to find Lilly. From past personal experience he knows exactly where Lilly will be heading: the local bus station. This will afford her the opportunity to offer her body in exchange for some crack.
As an anguished James marches / jogs his way down to the Grey Hound bus station, a car with Hank and one of the male officials pulls up beside him. They offer James a lift. James is consumed with urgency as every minute is required to rescue Lilly before she breaks her first bottle and sucks in the smouldering crack through the jagged neck of the bottle.
Drunks and layabouts – the veritable dregs of American society – slough in a daze through the area. Ultimately James discovers where the extemporised crack house is situated. James dashes across, frantically searching in rooms, reeking of human excrement, discarded condoms and drug paraphernalia, in a fretful effort to find Lilly. Finally he finds her. She is hard at work. A satisfied customer is being given a dose of – as Rowan Atkinson would delicately put it – fellatio. The customer is not salubrious at all but a stinking toothless drunk who is sucking on his crack pipe while Lilly’s crack pipe lies next to her.
Without recriminations, James pulls her away from her customer and the enticing drug. In her drug addled mind, Lilly does not even comprehend that her saviour is James himself. She babbles inanely as James half walks / drags her back to Hank’s vehicle.
Lilly is quite evidently under the influence but when they cross-examine James, he blandly states that he has not partaken of any addictive substances. Both are clearly impressed with James’ level of self-control. For Lilly it is back to detoxification in “solitary confinement”. For James it is the final step prior to release into – in James’ case – prison for various felonies over the years. First James has to make an exhaustive confession to a Catholic priest.
But Joanne, the rehab psychologist, persuades him otherwise.
James lists his felonies, crimes, misdemeanours – all 22 pages of scribbled notes. It is a litany of actions taken by a one man crime machine; from beating up a motorist for refusing to provide him with money for drugs to general anti-social behaviour.
Finally James confesses to beating up a Catholic priest when he made some overt sexual advance to him at the age of 20.
As the final page of the book is turned, James lists the fate of all his newly acquired friends and acquaintances whilst within rehab. Roy survived for six weeks; Mr X was killed in a brawl after 4 months. The majority do not survive much longer. Finally the name of Lilly appears. After having a long distance relationship whilst in prison, two days before his release, Lilly commits suicide.
What a waste!
What an amazing story.
What a roller coaster ride of soaring highs only to plumb the depths of despair.
It might be gritty. It might be grimy but the essence of the surreal life of an addict is revealed – peeled off one layer at a time. It is facile to wonder why some addicts like Roy will never quit – the 85% as the rehab repeatedly drummed into its inmates – and ultimately die a premature lonely death in some stinking crack house or under some bridge; any place of shelter that they now call home.
This book is a must-read but don’t read the words. Read the emotions. Feel the overwhelming power of the addiction to entrap the recovering addict in its sticky resilient tentacles. Enter another world where the lack of humanity or rather debased humanity is exposed warts and all. In this world the sexual act is not referred to as the genteel fellatio but rather the inappropriate but crude blowjob. Taste the harsh vile bile that James regularly ejects in huge great waves into a toilet bowl with his head touching the filthy bloody water of the pan.
Not pleasant. Distinctly distasteful.
Nevertheless it exposes the entrée into the vortex which ultimately crushes all humanity out of the former person now an addict. Like a discarded husk, they will ultimately be swept away in a sea of wracking coughs, glazed eyes and uncomprehending minds where reason and ability to be rational is beyond reach.
I was truly moved by this man’s exceptional tale of the road to redemption.
Then I read about Oprah’s second interview with James Frey
This interview was not one of fulsome praise, adulation and admiration like the initial one. Rather it was tense, unfriendly and terse as Oprah named one egregious lie after another in the book.
Did Lilly even exist apart from as an apparition?
Was James even incarcerated?
Was Leonard really the Financial Director of an Italian firm – the Mafia?
James’ subsequent book My Friend Leonard about his friend in Rehab will not be on my Christmas wish list not because James Frey cannot write great prose or evoke searing emotions, be they of lust or depravity, but for committing a cardinal sin: breaking my trust.
When one watches a documentary or reads a book of non-fiction one never has to deliberately and consciously suspend one’s incredulity or disbelief. Instead one lets the visceral subsume rationality and the intellectual is an unconscious act. Rather it is as if one is no longer the bystander, the passer-by, the onlooker but rather the victim, the perpetrator, the culprit himself. Their pain is your pain. Their experience yours.
That is how I relate to non-fiction as opposed to fiction.
More than a decade after this public expose and humiliation, James Frey is still attempting to redeem himself as a credible writer. Sure he has potential but after mis-selling of a novel as a personal memoir as Janine did to me is unforgivable.
Janine too will also have to suffer. Maybe I should get her to read the 1000 page biography on Adolf Hitler by Ian Kershaw that I recently finished!
Is that adequate recompense?
Oprah clearly felt deeply betrayed.
So do I.
In more ways than one.