How James Frey Changed My Life

Last year marked my first on the job market as a teacher of creative writing. I spent most of the fall in rural Pennsylvania sending out hundreds of resumes and cover letters, watching wistfully as beautiful red, gold, and yellow leaves fell outside my basement office window at Bucknell University, an idyllic campus where I was spending a semester as a writer-in-residence. I felt more like a frantic job-seeker-in-residence trying to squeeze in a few hours of daily writing to maintain respectability. My ability to apply for jobs hinged entirely on the fact that my memoir had been sold the previous March and was on its way to becoming a book with an actual ISBN. The book, Poster Child, is the story of growing up with a disability. I often describe it as “a coming of age story with a twist.” As I edited the final drafts of the book, I felt both incredibly grateful and fiendishly excited. Finally! I thought. I’m marketable! I thought about my Austin writer friend Kate. Her idea was to get a piñata, fill it with rejection letters, and invite some friends over to whack at it while sipping mojitos.

“The market’s tough right now,” I was told as I trolled job Web sites and printed out announcements. “It’s a hellish time to be looking for a job in academia.” So instead of celebrating, I continued preparing for interviews, fueled by what many assured me might be irrational hope. On my bathroom mirror I posted a note using bright red marker: YOU WILL GET A JOB. My first thought when I woke up each morning was, “You will NAIL every interview you are lucky enough to get!” I called my brilliant friend who was studying for his Ph.D. in English literature at Harvard and asked him to give me an hour-long crash course in literary theory; I copied out the notes on color-coded cards. Because I was applying for jobs as a nonfiction writing instructor, I read countless books about effective ways to teach this ever-expanding, diverse, and (as I would discover later) hotly debated genre. I designed seven literature courses until a friend told me I was becoming obsessed. I looked up from my computer and shouted, “It’s a tough market, and I don’t have a Ph.D.,” until she practically dragged me from my office. I memorized entire paragraphs about my work and what it was “about:” its themes, potential impact, and originality. I knew who my “literary parents” were and how I would teach composition to first-year students who didn’t like to write. I interviewed Bucknell English professors to try to anticipate possible questions. I could articulately speak to my strengths and weaknesses as a teacher. I could recite my resume almost line for line. In fact, I recited it about 10 times waiting in stop-and-go traffic on a slippery highway during an ice storm between Lewisburg and Harrisburg.

On the drive home from Pennsylvania to Wyoming for the holidays, after which I would stay with my parents until I actually found a job—a fact that did not make me any less frantic—I dragged my crates of research into a cheap interstate motel in Iowa and continued reciting, memorizing, reading, obsessing. After the temperature in the room continued to drop, the maintenance man knocked on the door and told me the heat would not be fixed that night and that many guests had left for other, warmer accommodations.

“I’m studying,” I said. “I’ll be fine, but could you bring me some extra blankets?”

“You’re going to stay?”

In a road-weary daze, I said, “I don’t want to live with my parents.”

“Who does?” he said, as if my reply had made perfect sense.

I made it home, and after weeks of more phone interviews, I traveled to an on-campus interview and was promptly asked the one question for which I was not prepared.

It was this: “How does the controversy surrounding James Frey affect the way you think about memoir?”

Standing behind a podium, facing a crowd of professors and students, I felt my face drain of color. Who was James Frey? I thought frantically. A hot new literary critic my friend had neglected to tell me about? What controversy?

“James Frey,” I said thoughtfully, trying to appear as if I were crafting an intelligent response. Interview Tip #4: If you don’t know the answer to a question, buy yourself some time by repeating back the question. “You want to know how my writing life is affected by James Frey?

Everyone nodded.

As I would later learn when I Googled Frey post-interview, I was one of the few people in America who had not read the Oprah Book Club-sanctioned book, A Million Little Pieces. Like I said, I’d been in my office or in the library, avoiding the television and radio in my single-minded pursuit of employment.

Frey’s sprawling, 400-page-plus tale of addiction, woe, and non-traditional recovery sold millions of copies—more than any other title in 2005—and enjoyed multiple weeks on The New York Times bestseller list; the last time I checked, it was still there. I was not aware of the media frenzy surrounding the purported multiple lies in Frey’s “true story” that were, over a series of weeks, uncovered by the investigative efforts of the diligent writers at The Smoking Gun Web site. Throughout the book, Frey describes himself as a drug addict and a criminal and an alcoholic. According to TSG, the truth is not nearly as interesting as the fiction: “Frey writes with a swaggering machismo and bravado that absolutely crackles. Which is truly impressive considering that, as TSG discovered, he made much of it up. The closest Frey has ever come to a jail cell was the few unshackled hours he once spent in a small Ohio police headquarters waiting for a buddy to post $733 bond.” Initially, Frey refuted TSG’s charges, saying, “I stand by my book, and my life.”

However, standing in the lecture hall during my interview, I realized that although I had not read James Frey’s book (books? I wondered), I had read enough about memoir and had been working for long enough on my own memoir to know where I stood about writing it.

“I have not read his work …” I began. Did the audience gasp or was that my imagination? I barreled on. “But as all writers know, a major challenge of writing memoir involves negotiating the boundary between fact and fiction. The lens of memory is always distorted through time and imagination. In fact, imagination plays just as much a part in the crafting of nonfiction as it does in fiction.” I had read a discussion of this very issue in a book called Tell It Slant, a book I’d read cover to cover before the interview.

“So are you saying that you think it’s OK to put fiction in memoir and call it nonfiction?” someone asked.

“Well,” I said. “Thoreau did spend two years at Walden Pond, but he only wrote about one of them. The reader assumes that he collapsed certain events and moved them around for the purposes of the story.”

This same persistent person looked ready to ask a follow-up question until another angelic student asked me to talk about something else.

Less than a week later, on January 26, I walked through the front door after a visit to the gym to hear my mother yelling from the family room, “Get down here!” She was watching Oprah, her 4 o’clock weekday afternoon ritual. “This guy wrote his memoirs, too,” she said (my mother always says “memoirs” instead of “memoir”) “and he’s in big trouble with Oprah!”

Still sweating, I walked down to the family room to find my mother gesturing at the television with the remote. She turned up the volume.

“Check this out,” she said. “This writer lied! Oprah picked it for her book club, and now she’s pissed off because it’s actually fiction.”

“Oh,” I said. I knew what she was going to ask next.

My mother looked at me. “You better not have lied in your book,” she said. “I hope I don’t have to walk around town with a bag over my head if Oprah gets a hold of you and you lied!”

“Don’t worry,” I said. We both turned to look at the screen.

There, on the bright set of the Oprah show, sat a dog-faced James Frey. He was slumped in a couch after what appeared to have been about 20 minutes of interrogation. Oprah wanted the truth, she said, and I’m pretty sure she meant the truth with a capital “T.” Although he’d made my interview experience unpleasant, I felt sorry for Frey—he looked absolutely wretched.

“Did you lie?” Mom asked, muting the television at the commercial.

“No. I mean, I changed some things around, took some liberties.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It means that you need to tell a good story.”

“That sounds like a bunch of hooey to me, young lady. What liberties?”

“Well, like making a composite character, changing timelines so that events happen in a different order, like a few months apart instead of a year, reconstructing dialogue from bits I remember, that kind of thing. I mean…”

Mom interrupted me. “Am I part of a composite character—or whatever—in your book?”

“No, you’re you, Mom.”

“Well, then how do I know you got me right?”

I shrugged.

“Hmph,” she said.

Although I continued to insist that my book was as truthful as it could be, I woke up at 4 a.m. with a knot of panic in my stomach. Unable to fall back to sleep, I wandered to the study to check my e-mail. In my inbox were a few messages from friends. “Did you see Frey on Oprah? Do you think people will think YOU lied?” and “Watch those facts! You don’t want to end up like James Frey!” The knot of panic grew.

I sat down right then and went through the manuscript with a fine-tooth comb, trying to track what, if anything, I had embellished. For one scene, I eliminated a character whose real life counterpart is still living and would certainly recognize herself (as would others). I changed the scene; I did this because I believe that memoir is about telling a story (yes, a true story), but it is not about exacting revenge on people you knew 20 years ago. In re-reading the scene, I realized that this young woman’s long-ago cruelty to me was not crucial to the story and to include it felt malicious. In another incidence, I was legally bound to change the physical descriptions of a prosthetist—again, to protect the real-life counterpart of the character in my memoir. I was, and am, at peace with that, and it is here that the critics who insist that if a person is called Jane in real life, then she must be called Jane in the memoir, seem simply mean-spirited in their insistence that the same factual yardstick be used to size up memoir as well as other forms of nonfiction like journalism or history.

How did my own writing methods match up with Frey’s? Okay, so Frey apparently lied about causing the death of several classmates and about his time spent in rehab. He said he spent 30 days in jail, and he didn’t. I tried to think of a parallel fabrication in my own book. To be in Frey’s league, I might have written that I lost my leg to an explosion, rather than to a birth defect. In any case, I was all clear there. My facts were in order. Apparently Frey shopped his book around as fiction to 17 publishers as an “autobiographical novel,” only to have it rejected until it was repackaged as memoir. Check, I thought, all clear there.

As I went through the pages again, trying to ferret out every little thing that may not have happened precisely in the way in which I had described it, I realized that my point about memoir at my interview was absolutely true. Memory is a product of our imagination—how could it not be?—and therefore serves as an imperfect filter of facts, details, and events, no matter how much we may rely on its solidity and validity. But does its elusive nature make it any less likely that it bears some truth? I had written and revised the pages of my book so many times that it had become my memory. I had shown the manuscript to family members, my doctors, and finally, my mother, and changed facts, places, even dialogue to match their recollections, even when they differed from mine. So was it lying to replace my recollections with theirs? Who’s to say that their memories were any more reliable then mine? Was I going to receive letters from people who appear in the book, claiming that I hadn’t gotten it “right” or told the “truth” about a recounted event? It was at this point that some of my pity for Frey dissolved.

In The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick writes, “The memoirist … must convince the reader they have some wisdom, and are writing as honestly as possible to arrive at what they know. To the bargain, the writer of personal narrative must also persuade the reader that the narrator is reliable … In nonfiction the reader must believe that the narrator is speaking the truth.”

In the wake of the nonfiction vs. fiction debate, Gornick herself has been called to defend her writing methods in her well-known memoir, Fierce Attachments. Her argument is that although the raw material of a life must be true, how the author shapes these experiences is what makes memoir literature, and not journalism or a statement of historical fact.

The crucial element that moves memoir from a collection of lies to a work of nonfiction is the quality of the pact made with the reader. If I had written that a dragon had bitten off my left foot or I’d lost it during a dangerous skydive, that pact would be useless, based on lies alone. Can you draw wisdom from a life that was not your own? In this sense, Frey had broken his pact with the reader. How could he learn something that might be illuminating to the reader during a confrontation with the cops if it never happened? How could he be devastated by his role in a teenager’s death if he had played no part?

The next day I went to the local Cheyenne bookstore and listened as two women discussed the previous day’s Oprah show. They, too, would have appreciated the truth, they said, and swore to never read anything else Frey wrote. Now, slipped into every copy of A Million Little Pieces is a statement from Frey: “I believe, and I understand others strongly disagree, that memoir allows the writer to work from memory instead of from a strict journalistic or historical standard. It is about impression and feeling, about individual recollection. This memoir is a combination of facts about my life and certain embellishments. It is a subjective truth, altered by the mind of a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. Ultimately, it’s a story, and one that I could not have written without having lived the life I’ve lived.”

In February I was offered a job. This summer I’ve been teaching memoir, trying to help teach graduate students how to negotiate that tricky, blurry boundary between fact and fiction. And you can bet we discuss James Frey—as a cautionary tale, a case study, and as a call for vigilance to “facts and pacts” in our writing. In the end, memoirists are not historians, but that does not eliminate all allegiance to fact. Most importantly, writers of memoir must uphold their end of the pact with the reader that they have done their utmost to ferret out as much information as possible—from family members, books, and other sources—as they craft their narrative.

So, how did James Frey change my life? He not only made me more conscious of the debate over what is memoir and what is not—a notion that is with us for the long term and, I believe, for good reason—but he made me more conscious of places in my own nonfiction writing where I bend the truth to fit the story without even thinking. Did I send ou
100 resumes? Well, 85 to be exact, to be truthful. Will my mother agree with this account of our conversation? No. In fact, after reading this she said, “You watched the whole show with me. And I didn’t say ‘Hooey.'”

“Yes, you did,” I said.

“No,” she said. “I’m right. Don’t exaggerate.”

Former Observer intern Emily Rapp is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir, which will be published by Bloomsbury in early 2007. She received her MFA in 2004 from the Michener Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

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Published at 12:00 am CST