The Church of Oprah

poprahThis is slightly outside of the normal media coverage we follow, but I couldn’t help but notice that ghosts and religious terminology abound in recent stories about author James Frey. This is the man who wrote an exaggerated or possibly even fictional account of a drug- and alcohol-addled life of crime and successfully passed it off as his factual memoir A Million Little Pieces, which sold a gazillion copies and recently was selected for Oprah’s Book Club.

The book and Frey were doing quite well until The Smoking Gun website ran a lengthy expose of their “fabrications, falsehoods and other fakery” on Jan. 8. The book hinges on the fact that Frey was a hardened criminal and drug addict, but in order to sell that story to readers, it appears that Frey changed facts. Driving without a license became a felony assault on cops. Possession of a Pabst Blue Ribbon was changed into possession of crack cocaine. Frey’s exaggerations and inventions would be less noteworthy if so many people hadn’t bought his book and if so many people didn’t believe so fervently in his story, according to The Smoking Gun:

While claiming that he does not desire to become the poster boy for unconventional recovery, Frey has nonetheless emerged as a source of inspiration and guidance for countless substance abusers (as well as their friends and loved ones) and other readers who have embraced “A Million Little Pieces” as a forthright, honest, and unconventional look at addiction. For Winfrey’s show, he even traveled to a Minnesota clinic and gave an on-camera pep talk to Sandie, a viewer who checked herself into rehab after learning about Frey’s book via an e-mail from the Oprah club. “If I can do it, you can do it,” Frey told her. A second Winfrey show is in the works, with her web site seeking viewers whose lives have been “dramatically impacted” by Frey’s book. The site asks, “Did ‘A Million Little Pieces’ Save Your Life?”

Last night Larry King had James Frey on his show for a hard-hitting interview. Just kidding. It was a relatively easy interview during which Frey kept explaining that he cannot be blamed for his faulty memory or subjective retelling or exaggeration. Things were not looking good for Frey until the high priestess of American spirituality called into the show to save the day. Here’s what Oprah Winfrey had to say:

“And I feel about ‘A Million Little Pieces’ that although some of the facts have been questioned — and people have a right to question, because we live in a country that lets you do that, that the underlying message of redemption in James Frey’s memoir still resonates with me. And I know that it resonates with millions of other people who have read this book and will continue to read this book.”

james freyTalk about a blessing! With Oprah’s absolution, Frey could very well land on his feet. The interesting thing is that the Oprah defense washes over the fabrication by attesting to some deeper truth — but it was the supposed 100 percent unadulterated truth of this memoir that was his biggest selling point. Frey kept reminding people that his words were completely honest and truthful, even recently. Take a look at this Jan. 6 letter from Frey’s attorney that reiterates the claim of complete truthfulness, for instance.

Is there something religious about the current state of memoir-driven literature? This idea that one must experience something personally in order for it to be valid? That these experiences must be dramatic and debauched? The publishing world seems to think the book would not work as fiction. Neither would it have sold — in the current climate at least — if Frey had copped to his banal and relatively comfortable upbringing. A life of unthinkable sin before conversion is what is needed. Do these mythical stories which Americans love find their way into news copy? Are reporters more biased toward dramatic conversion stories?

In any case, Seth Mnookin, a writer for Slate and a former heroin addict, said there was a problem with brushing over the factual discrepancies:

In building up a false bogeyman — the American recovery movement’s supposed reliance on the notion of “victimhood”– Frey has set himself up as the one, truth-telling savior. In fact, it seems clear that Frey would have been well-served by taking the kind of unflinchingly honest look at his own life that most recovery programs demand.

Like I said, religious terminology and concepts abound in this story. Not the least of which surround Oprah and her blessings and sanctions.

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  • Dn. David

    Mollie -
    I’m not sure I agree with you that the post is “slightly outside of the normal media coverage we follow”. I think Oprah IS about religion, and her success desperately needs some religion desk coverage. Unfortunately, the press, not “getting religion”, subsequently doesn’t recognize the religious drive within us (who was it that said that man is the animal that worships?). Oprah, however, DOES get it, and thus her incredible appeal – she taps into that universal religious drive, and offers church without god, grace without cost and faith without commitment.
    I’m waiting to find the expose of the religious manipulation going on unrecognized. . . I suspect I’ll wait quite a while.

  • J-Money

    I think in the Christian community people do this all the time.

    Frey reminds me of the person who makes their conversion story sound worse than it is to make it more compelling.

    Its not enough to just be born at war with God;
    No, you were spending the baby’s medicine money on drugs. Everyone wants to be Billy Sunday.

    The other thing thats interesting about people who have this mindset is that often they take the view that you can have done every horrible thing in the world before you “got saved” and it’s GREAT! Because it makes the story more compelling.

    But if you sin AFTER you’ve “gotten saved”, you are forever a second class Christian. Yeah, you may confess it and be “forgiven” but you are forever consigned to being clucked at and having people look at you differently.

    Funny how that works.

  • http://www.marciaznelson.com MarciaZ

    I agree that Oprah is about religion. Some of us on the religion desk do get that. I wrote _The Gospel According to Oprah_ about religious and spiritual themes and practices in Oprah’s work. I didn’t call it manipulation, though. I called it practical, everyday religion.

  • http://makaipa.blogspot.com Nancy Reyes

    http://www2.oprah.com/obc_classic/obc_essay_contest.jhtml

    Wait till later today:
    “On January 16, 2006, The Oprah Winfrey Show is doing something we’ve never done before. In addition to announcing my new book club selection—which I promise is mandatory reading for every human being on the planet—I will also announce Oprah’s National High School Essay Contest to accompany it.

    “The essay contest will be based on the book I reveal and will be open to high school students across America. ….

    To support this nationwide initiative, my website—Oprah.com—will offer comprehensive study materials for students, teachers and parents. This is an important book that I hope will be discussed in homes and schools across the country.”

    yup…a prophet of self esteem religion…

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