Truth and Memoir
Oh, I am so all over this James Frey story. I hate to gloat, but…
I guess I will. Okay, here’s my history with “A Million Little Pieces” and my recent history with Oprah and Dr. Phil and Dr. Phil’s Wife and My Mother.
Two and a half years ago – I think around that time – I was in Amagansett with a group of Sex & the City writers over Labor Day. We had been working in New York and we all went out of the city for the long weekend. While at a bookstore I saw that book, “Million Little Pieces” and I liked the cover and it looked interesting and I bought it. I also bought about five or six other books.
You see, I have a problem with books. And I’m not trying to brag that I’m such a big reader – although I do spend much of my free time reading. My problem is that when I’m in a bookstore I can’t control myself. I buy everything I’m remotely interested in. I was buying so many books on Amazon.com that my UPS driver actually called me on it one day. He said, “You can’t possibly read this many books.” And he was right. If I were suddenly stuck in my house for the rest of my life, I would probably not be able to read all the books that I currently have that I have not yet read. I’ve tried to do big reductions from time to time. Before Mulan arrived, I actually got rid of half of my books. I only kept what I hadn’t read and what I loved so much, I sincerely thought I might read again. But then I started to mourn the loss of the books I let go of. I wished I’d kept the Herman Hesse and the first copies I had of all the Jane Austen novels – all those books I read in high school and college. This sadness made me even more out-of-control in my buying of books. Like I was making up for what I lost.
I am telling you all this because I want to emphasize how many books I buy – many of which I don’t get the time to read – and how I don’t care so much about the money. It’s my addiction and as far as addictions go, I’m letting myself just have this one. I am also telling you this to make it clear that when I, the next day after purchasing “A Million Little Pieces” took it back for a refund – yes – I read ten pages and hated it so much and thought it was so full of shit that I couldn’t stand to own it and I didn’t want to own it and I wanted to make a point at the Amagansett book store about how much I hated it – what an anomaly that is. I can only remember returning two books in the last ten years. (The other was a Huston Smith book of essays that made me so depressed because although he knows so much about religion he knows nothing about what science is or how it works…) ANYWHO – I took “A Million Little Pieces” back. I TOOK IT BACK. And I remember that it was a hassle to go back there too, I think I made Cindy Chupak take me. Or maybe Amy -- anyway, you could say that book stuck out in my mind. I remember that weekend and returning that book.
Cut to: last Fall. My mother calls me. Oprah and Dr. Phil are her heroes. Every day she watches them and she LOVES them. When it is almost three o’clock in Spokane, wherever she is, she races her car home to watch her Dr. Phil and her Dr. Oprah. And so my mother tells me that there’s this fantastic new book that Oprah is endorsing and how she got it at CostCo very inexpensively and how she bought two copies. She planned to give one to my brother Bill who is a very troubled in many of the same ways that James Frey shows himself to be. (Not exactly in the lying part of it, but the alcoholic, drug, defiant, screwed up part of it) And she planned to read the other copy of the book. I told her my story and I actually said, “You know Mom, I guess I was wrong. I should have read that book further than only ten pages. I like Oprah and what she picks to read. It’s probably a great book.”
Then, almost every time my mother and I talked on the phone she mentioned the book and how Bill was reading it too and maybe it would help him and blah blah blah. Then, Mulan and I go home to Spokane for two whole weeks over Christmas. Many days we all race home and get ready to watch Dr. Phil and Oprah.
During one Dr. Phil show I said, “I hate to say this, Mom, but I just don’t trust Dr. Phil. And I don’t know anything about him. If I were watching his show with the sound on mute, I just would say I didn’t trust him. His facial expressions don’t seem sincere to me. I don’t like how he gets a light in his eye when he delivers a “zinger.” And when I do listen to what he says, he seems like he’s exaggerating everything. I hate how he tries to make complex problems simple, and how he emphasizes one small part of a problem, often inflating it over what it really is, and then acts like he’s solved it. And I feel uncomfortable with Dr. Phil’s wife watching him with such blank adoration. I don’t trust her either.”
Okay. I am embarrassed to have written that I said that. I am probably a difficult daughter to have for my mother. I probably shouldn’t have said that. Well, my mother -- it was as if I had said Jesus sodomized little boys the whole time he was preaching and I have proof – she said, “You. Don’t. Know. Anything. About. Dr. Phil!!!! His. Wife. Is. The, MOST. WONDERFUL. Woman. In. The. World.!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” And on and on.
So, I capitulated. I said, “Okay. I don’t know anything about him. I just…don’t like his way, his way of…being. His mannerisms. I just don’t like it. But you know, I don’t know him.”
Then we watched Oprah and my mother was delighted because James Frey was on. They were rerunning the show with him and his parents. And I said, “You know…I have to say, I don’t trust that James Frey either. I don’t like the way he’s even sitting there. I get a bad vibe from him.” Once again my mother said, “No! He’s wonderful! You have to read the book! He’s gone through so much!!!!!”
And as if on cue, Oprah said on the show, “As I was reading I just couldn’t believe that this guy was actually still alive! I kept flipping to the back cover of the book to look at his picture, he’s alive! He really lived through this whole thing!”
My mother glared at me. I sunk down in the chair and put my hands in my pockets. I said, “Wow. I really should have read that whole book. I made a mistake taking it back to the bookstore.” My mother eagerly told me she would send me her copy as soon as she’d finished it.
So, you can imagine my joy when my friend Jim Emerson e-mailed me the link to the Smoking Gun story. I had told him this whole story with my mother and we had laughed about Dr. Phil and my mother’s energetic defense. I read every single word of the smoking gun article. And now I am gleefully watching this whole thing explode.
Because it is important if what he wrote was true or not. It does make a difference. Oprah is just trying to protect her choice by saying that it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. Because if it were a book labeled “fiction” she wouldn’t have bought it. And she herself said that what was so amazing to her was that this person who wrote this book was still alive. So it was important whether it was true.
So, I take away two things from this: One is that Mary Karr rocks. I love her so much. She wrote “The Liar’s Club” and “Cherry.” I LOVE both of those books. She is being very outspoken about this James Frey fabrication fiasco. She says it makes all memoirists look bad. That three months in jail is substantially different than a few hours in jail! This is not an exaggeration, this is a lie. I love that Mary Karr is saying this. I liked her before and now I like her even more.
The other thing I take away is – it’s important for me to be as truthful as I can in this memoir that I am writing at this very moment. And it’s very hard. For my show, “Letting Go Of God” I had to rearrange some details to make it more dramatic. Like, I adopt Mulan at a certain point in the show that is not exactly when I adopted her in real life – although adopting Mulan is really a very, very side note in my show and I spend very little time on that. And I debated for a long time whether I should have me explore Buddhism before I thought God was “nature” or after. Because the truth is not clear and linear in this case. But these are about ideas, not events. The other thing I do is make a composite character of Father Tom and I give him the comments that several priests made. But all in all, I feel good about my show and that it is true not just in spirit but in fact as well. Plus, I would have a disclaimer. So, I’m glad this happened to James Frey. It’s helpful for me to remember how important truth and honesty is.
I think he should say, “Yes. I fucked up. I made most of it up. And I hope that with my next work of clearly labeled fiction, I will prove to you that I am a good writer. I am embarrassed and humiliated. I may never live this down. I am so sorry.”
What about that?
Okay – on a completely different note – while on the general subject of Oprah and Dr. Phil and his wife – my mother said to me after I made those disparaging comments, “You don’t know how wonderful Dr. Phil really is. This is how he proposed to his wife: ‘I’ll make the living and you make my life worth living.’ Isn’t that the most romantic thing anyone could ever say?”
I’ll make the living and you make my life worth living.
I’ll make the living and you make my life worth living.
I can’t stop thinking about that. I just hate it so much. Or maybe I just wish someone had said that to me. But if they did, I think I would just have laughed at them. I mean, what does that mean???
“I am the focus and you are the support team and if you make things smooth for me, I will compensate you with my shared income.” Is that what that means? He said, straight out, that her part of the deal was to “make his life worth living.” That’s her job. That’s her side of the marriage, to make Dr. Phil’s life worth living.
I mean, I am all for a division of labor for efficiency. I would totally get it if someone said, “It’s more efficient for me to go have this big career and you to run support if we are going to have a family.” That – I totally get. But it’s the…make my life worth living. That part of it. Hmmm…
Also, I’ve been thinking that my bullshit reader/meter on James Frey seems to be pretty good! And I have no idea about Dr. Phil, I could be completely wrong on him. But then I was thinking how my bullshit meter is so wrong on people in real life. Not always, but often enough. And THEN I realized yesterday that when I am in a friendship with someone, or in some type of interaction where the person wants something from me – I can’t detect bullshit so much. I don’t get the distance and calm to do it, because I am all flummoxed and lit up over our interaction and what they want from me and what I want from them. It’s made me dead wrong on some people, and some boyfriends too. So, I guess I should see people on TV first and then try to be friends with them because the TV gives me the distance to judge them better. HAHAHAHA. Oh, this is going to make me laugh all day to myself.