David Manning Liars of the Month for January 2006

Author James Frey

James Frey has done the unprecedented. He is at the center of an ethics controversy that has produced, in a matter of days, not only an Ethics Scoreboard David Manning Liar (Frey himself), but also an Ethics Hero (Random House, his publishers) and an Ethics Dunce (Oprah Winfrey, his patron and misguided defender). Impressive. Also impressive are the benefits he derived from his lies: his "memoir," A Million Little Pieces, was the best selling book by an American author last year, netting him millions in royalties and a flourishing career on the speaker circuit. The reason for his book's success has been, as Oprah put it when she made A Million Little Pieces the pick of her book club last spring, it was an authentic account that readers "couldn't put down...a gut-wrenching memoir that is raw and it's so real......You want to meet the man who lived to tell this tale."

The problem is that A Million Little Pieces wasn't real, at least significant portions of it. The useful website "The Smoking Gun" had begun searching for Frey's various mug shots to add to its on-line collection of celebrity police photos, when its reporter discovered that Frey's harrowing tale of multiple arrests and months in prison didn't hold up under scrutiny. In a long, detailed investigative report [you can read it at www.thesmokinggun.com/jamesfrey/0104061jamesfrey1.html] the site documented its findings, which included the fact that Frey's epiphany three month stay in the pokey was really about five hours in a police station lock-up, a misrepresentation confirmed by the author as a change he made for dramatic purposes. Other variances with Frey's account uncovered by "The Smoking Gun":

"There was no patrolman struck with a car…There was no urgent call for backup…There was no rebuffed request to exit the car…There was no "You want me out, then get me out."…There was no "fucking Pigs" taunt…There were no swings at cops…There was no billy club beatdown…There was no kicking and screaming…There was no mayhem…There was no attempted riot inciting…There were no 30 witnesses…There was no .29 blood alcohol test…There was no crack…There was no Assault with a Deadly Weapon, Assaulting an Officer of the Law, Felony DUI, Disturbing the Peace, Resisting Arrest, Driving Without Insurance, Attempted Incitement of a Riot, Possession of a Narcotic with Intent to Distribute, or Felony Mayhem."

Even more disturbing than all of these was the report's conclusion that the tragic death of his supposed high school girl friend in a train accident, an event represented by Frey as a central tragedy in his life for which he was blamed and suffered devasting guilt as a result, in fact didn't involve him at all.

These constitute a lot of made-up details for a non-fiction work, wouldn't you say? And "The Smoking Gun" only investigated Frey's claims regarding his criminal exploits; what are the odds, do you think, that the rest of A Million Little Pieces is free of fabrication?

The fictional content becomes more understandable when one learns that Frey originally peddled the book as a novel to seventeen publishers, with no nibbles. It wasn't until he represented his inspiring tale of a crime, violence and drug-filled life as true that he finally got a book contract. Pretty smart, when you think of it, for almost any work of fiction would become infinitely more sensational if it were represented as true. Jurassic Park was a blockbuster as a novel, but imagine the sales if people believed it. "My true adventures on dinosaur island, long suppressed by the government, now revealed for the first time!" Boffo.

Since the on-line expose, Frey has issued denials, explanations, spin, and protestations. On the Larry King Show, he didn't deny that the allegations made by "The Smoking Gun," but merely pointed out that only "18 pages" of his book had been shown to be inaccurate. In previous press interviews before the expose, however, Frey insisted that A Million Little Pieces was "all true," telling Winfrey on her show, "I think I wrote about the events in the book truly and honestly and accurately."

This was indisputably a lie. Frey's conversations with "The Smoking Gun" confirmed that he intentionally included phony details, and its report leaves questions about far more than 18 pages. Frey's con of the inspiration-hungry American public has some ironic ethical elements: since he described himself in the book as being a habitual liar in the past, didn't that constitute fair warning that he shouldn't be believed? Perhaps, but admitting that you are a liar doesn't excuse your lies. Frey has a different excuse; he told King that his additions, exaggerations and misrepresentations were "within the realm of what's appropriate for a memoir."

And what is that, pray tell? Frey's publisher, Nan Talese (wife of writer Gay Talese, who has condemned the practice of fictionalizing in purported works of non-fiction) challenged her husband and defended Frey, saying:

"Nonfiction is not a single monolithic category as defined by the best-seller list.Memoir is personal recollection. It is not absolute fact. It's how one remembers what happened. That is different from history and criticism and biography, and they cannot be measured by the same yardstick."

Talese's argument has merit, but nothing to do with A Million Little Pieces. Frey didn't just remember things differently; he intentionally wrote down events and details he made up and then claimed they were true. That's unethical.

And it makes him a liar…a newly rich, unapologetic liar who will probably sell more books as the result of his exposure.

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