What is reality?
By John Silveira
April 7, 2006
I don’t read much. So, I missed James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, though it made best sellers lists from the New York Times to amazon.com. If the truth be known (watch that word “truth” because it’s what’s at issue here) I hadn’t even heard of it, until the scandal was revealed by thesmokinggun.com.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, in 2002 James Frey wrote a book titled A Million Little Pieces. It was supposed to be a “memoir,” a word which, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is from Middle French memoire which itself came from the Latin memoria, meaning “memory.” In other words, “a narrative composed from personal experience.” (That last quote is also from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.) Frey’s book is a story of failure and redemption based on his purported life (though he barely had one) and included many characters he knew (though they didn’t exist) going through trials and tribulations (that never happened).
He claimed to be a drug and alcohol addict; he claimed to have been busted 14 times; he claimed to have be in jail on numerous occasions including a three month stint (that later proved to be a five-hour stay at a police station); he claimed to have had a lover that committed suicide just hours before he could reach her following one of incarcerations; he claimed to be a hardass criminal; he claimed…
Why go on? None of it’s true,
Frey’s “autobiographical” epic had less bearing on reality than Gunfight at the O.K. Corral had on the life of Wyatt Earp, less than Hurricane had on Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s life, or J.F.K. had on the Kennedy assassination. Like these movies and today’s “reality TV,” Frey’s intent was to write a piece of fiction, pass it off as reality, and make a bunch of money. It was to make him and his publisher, Doubleday & Anchor Books, a lot of dough. And it worked. Frey went from being a renter to owning a penthouse all by selling the public what they thought was steak but turned out to be Bandini. He created an obscenely profitable fraud for which there is no legal penalty. It is the literary equivalent of getting away with murder.
What he did is what a lot of men do when they’re trying to impress a woman enough for her to let him into her pants: they lie about themselves. They try to make themselves look bigger and badder than they really are or ever were. And though I don’t know if his book helped Frey get into some woman’s undies, it did help him get into millions of people’s wallets—both men’s and women’s. He’s made a fortune. His publisher has also made big bucks. And had Smoking Gun not have exposed Frey as a liar, ostensibly some movie production company would also have made oodles money by making a movie about his so-called life while, at the same time, making Frey even richer.
To absolve himself from the “crime” of peddling fiction as fact, the book proffers a disclaimer equivalent to the statement we see on TV, “based on real events” which, by the way, means we are going to indulge in the trashing of the truth because no one would pay money unless we turn this into a durn good yarn.
Is there any harm in Frey, Hollywood, or anyone else doing this? Yes and no. I say “no” because what we’re witnessing here is a guy who wrote a novel, i.e., fiction, (I don’t know if it’s any good or not—I haven’t read it and probably won’t) who enhanced its sales by claiming it’s an autobiography. It’s sort of like the advertising agency’s making guys think a certain brand of beer is sexy because there are busty and beautiful girls in the TV ads. (If you hang out at bars drinking beer, none of those girls is going to want you.) The claims are almost never true, and in most cases, deep down inside, the overwhelming majority of us know this. But they sell more beer because of the illusion they’ve created.
Nowadays, we accept the twisting of truth to make stories more interesting, more compelling, more entertaining so that…well, so that someone can make more money, because, like beer, we sell interesting and exciting stories and no one would have paid a cent for Frey’s real-life story which would have been about a second-rate writer with a second-rate booze problem trying to make some dough with BS.
And he’s not the only one doing it. According to a report in the Associated Press, many other autobiographical accounts of redemption by unfortunates who have fallen on bad times are steer manure. T.J. Leroy, a series of “autobiographical” accounts of a 25-year-old former drug addict/male prostiture turns out to be the ramblings of a 39-year-old woman. Nasdijj, a Navajo author detailing his life and heritage, is actually a white guy named Timothy Partick Barrus. And there are others too numerous to mention.
On the other hand, there is harm, there is an underlying problem and it’s that our school systems are failing and we’re turning out a generation of ignoramuses. A generation of people who think when they read a book or go to the movies they’re seeing history. With Gunfight at the OK Corral we now perceive an itinerant cowboy/gambler/opportunist who may or may not also have been a cattle rustler and murderer as a fearless vessel of good and morality. I don’t think anyone living has been hurt by Hollywood’s equivalent of the dime novel. On the other hand, with Hurricane, we let a thug, who was correctly convicted of murder, go free because people who paid good money to go to theaters saw Hollywood-created fiction as reality, and came to believe that the thug was a victim. With JFK we’re witnessing a string of so-called facts that contradict history, not only as laid out by the Warren Commission but the varying histories as conceived by almost all the conspiracy theorists.
Why is this twisting of history done? It’s because to make stories sell we have to make them more compelling, we’ve got to make the white hats whiter, the bad guys more sinister, the cliffs they fall off higher, and the guns they shoot never run out of ammo. Ask any high school student: history is boring, but “reality” TV?…hey, they can’t get enough of it.
But unlike Frey, when pressed, most movie producers, directors, and scriptwriters will admit they’re fabricating “history” to make a more entertaining story. They’ll admit that they’re not historians. They’re selling a commodity and it’s called entertainment. Frey, on the other hand, almost had to be put on the rack before he admitted his “autobiography” has as little to do with his real life as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids has to do with modern physics.
And, though Frey has joined that cadre and excused himself by saying these lies were minor alteration of reality to enhance a more important story of how to save yourself if you’re on drugs by not getting professional help (in other words, he’s sort of ‘fessed up) his original reaction to Smoking Guns’s exposure of his bovine output was to sue. So, unlike Hollywood who’ll tell you they play fast and loose with truth to make money, Frey only came clean after making his threats and intimidations of being legally bigger and badder than the folks at SG didn’t work. This is the moral equivalent of walking into a bank and yelling, “Do as I say and no one will get hurt,” and when no one goes along with your threat and the police show up, following it with, “Hey, I was just kidding.”
The truth is that we’ve come to accept lies, exaggerations, and whitewashings as reality.
Does it hurt to say drinking Pepsi will make you sexier? Or that smoking cigarettes will make you more sophisticated? That smaller government and lower taxes are coming if you vote for me (a la Reagan, Carter, Bush Clinton, Gore, more Bush, Kerry—the list goes on). Does dissembling, equivocating, prevaricating, or paltering constitute a crime? A sin?
Does making a propaganda movie during war, such as Wake Island as it was made constitute a lie?
Is it okay to promise the voters one thing when you know before hand you’re going to do something else if elected? Is it okay to make docudramas without a disclaimer because it’s business as usual? Is it okay to make your life the stuff of lies that guys tell in singles bars? It’s your call. I, for one, won’t vote for two-faced politicians or watch docudramas—and I won’t read anything written by James Frey.