The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

The James Frey in All of Us

I believe there's a James Frey in all of us. Someone who lies and covers up and pretends to be bigger and tougher than we are. We just don't always get found out, and maybe he's the lucky one because he did.

The question that every individual must answer is "Why is James Frey wrong?" The answers will come: because he's dishonest, because he lied to people, because he got rich by conning Oprah. But if the only reason James Frey is wrong is that it violated others, then we might say that our own harsh judgment violates him. Well, you argue, but it doesn't have the same consequences. True. So do we determine that he's wrong by how widespread the consequences are? His lies have violated millions, but a murderer would only violate a few, so do we punish him more harshly? If I only lie to myself and it's not hurting anyone, is that okay then?

On Oprah, everyone seemed to have Truth cornered. Throughout the show, Frey looked pale, stunned like he'd just been slapped, and diminished to insignificance. He bore the burden of judgment from millions, beaten down from weeks of interrogation and unraveling. Yet, maybe relieved too.

On Truth

Oprah began,
It is really difficult for me to talk to you because I feel…duped. You betrayed millions of readers…and that’s such a gift to have millions of readers. As I sit here today, I don’t know what is truth, and I don’t know what isn’t.
Maureen Dowd (New York Times):
It’s just very disappointing that the publishing house doesn’t care; they’re just counting their money. Readers don’t care; it’s gone to the top of the bestsellers list. But somebody has to stand up for truth. This is not a close call.

I deeply regret leaving the impression that I did from the Larry King show that the truth doesn’t matter. Because it does.
Richard Cohen (Washington Post):

I talked to people…who know about addiction and they said the first step is truth. Why is he doing this? Because he could’ve said, and I think a PR guy would’ve said, walk away, just say you’ve talked and you’ve said all you have to say and that’s it. Why go back and confront and confess? But if this is the first step towards truth towards actually owning what happened to him and going on then it’s a healthy thing.... Well, I’m not going to pardon what he did I mean it was a lie. I mean, I’m a journalist, I believe in truth. I believe there is such a thing as truth. I don’t play this game.

On Lies

Oprah: "How much of the book was fabricated?"
James Frey: "Not very much."

I heard Frey, elsewhere, defend it by saying that 18 pages of the 400+ are disputed, less than 5%. What percentage of falsehood is acceptable? 10%? 1%? If Frey's error is in the 5% percent multiplied by millions of readers, then would it have been okay if only a few thousand had read it? Of course not, so what's the standard? If it's 0%, then we are all liars and failures. We are all James Freys.

Oprah: "There were two root canals?"
James Frey: "Yes."
Oprah: "There were TWO root canals?"
James Frey: "I think so, yes."
Oprah: "Were there two root canals?"
James Frey: "As far as I remember, yes. I mean…" [struggling to maintain composure, on the verge of tears]

When lies come out like this, no one knows what to believe and even the truth is questioned, undermined. Even the liar begins to question his own experience, what the truth is, how his memory serves him. For a writer, whose words are his livelihood, how many ways can you say "yes" when you've been branded a liar. Frey has no way to convince Oprah he's being honest.

On Memoir

Oprah: "To me a memoir means it’s the truth of your life as you know it to be. Not blatant fictionalization."

Oprah: "If you’re publishing it as a memoir, I think the publisher has a responsibility because as the consumer, the read, I am trusting YOU to categorize this book where as fiction or autobiographical, as memoir."

Richard Cohen:

If a man says, “I’d like you to meet my beautiful wife” and she has teeth sticking out all the time. You know it’s not his beautiful wife, but so what. That’s what a memoir is. You know, you can get away with that. But a half an hour in jail is not three months in jail. And the difference between one and the other is the difference between the truth and a lie.

Interviewus Interruptus

James Frey: "Every person in the book existed, I altered things about all of them…"
Oprah: "And you altered things about yourself."

Oprahs did this a number of times, taking the dramatic last word and asserting the Truth, and allying her image with it.

James Frey: "I struggled with the idea of it" [root canals without novacaine].
Oprah: "No. The lie of it. Not an idea, James. That’s a lie." [clapping]

All the Rearview Analysts
Yet again we can't help but be biased in hindsight.

Joel Stein (LA Times): "It’s wrong and immoral to pass off a piece of fiction as a memoir, and I wouldn’t do it."

On what grounds is it wrong and immoral? Because it has violated cultural norms, or has it violated some universal established law of Truth? If cultural norms change, what then? We must answer these questions. (They are the same questions we face with gay marriage, when cultural norms are changing.)

Oprah: "It feels and reads so sensationally…you can’t believe all this happened to one person."
Nan Talese (DoubleDay Publisher): "Do you ask someone, 'Are you really as bad as you are?'"
Oprah: "YES!!!!" [clapping]
Nan Talese: "In retrospect it might seem: how can everybody be that stupid and that dumb? "
Oprah: "The book is so… fantastical…That’s not washing with me. "
Oprah: "[I thought up] to this moment, sitting on the show, that Lilly hung herself. Obviously… I started to think: if he wasn’t in jail, if that’s true, and if he wasn’t in jail all that time and was trying to get to Lilly, and maybe there wasn’t even a Lilly."
Nan Talese: "The tragedy’s not in the hanging or slitting the wrists, it’s in the suicide…"
Oprah: "Then it needs to say BASED on a true story." [clapping]

Nan Talese: "I do not know how you get inside another person’s mind."
Oprah: "Otherwise, anybody can walk in off the street with whatever story[read:lie]
they have and say this is my story."
Nan Talese: "That’s absolutely true."
Oprah: "Well that needs to change."
Nan Talese: "No, you can’t stop
people from making up stories[read:lies], we learn by story[read:the power of story]."
Oprah: "You can if you’re going to call it memoir, you can make up stories and call it a them novels[read:fiction], people have done it for years."
Nan Talese: "A novel[read:fiction] is different. a memoir is different from an autobiography. A memoir is an author’s remembrance of a certain period in his life. The responsibility as far as I am concerned is does it strike me as valid, does it strike me as authentic. I am sent things all the time and I think they’re not real, I don’t think they’re real. …in this instance I absolutely believed what I read"
Oprah: "So did I." [with dramatic finality]

Both failed to define terms here. With a college minor in English, and as part of the publishing industry, I feel I can speak to these definitions, although I'm interpreting each speaker's (Nan Talese and Oprah) intended meaning for those words.

Lies: Falsehoods intentionally passed on as true, to cover up facts.
Myths: Legends intentionally passed on as mythic, to reveal bigger Truth.
The Power of Story: Closely related to Myths, but can be either factual or fictional and are known as such, yet still reveal deeper meaning about reality.
Novel: A piece of fiction, accepted and seen as untrue, generally for entertainment purposes.

Frey's book had both lies and the power of story. That's why it is so controversial. It touched people and it violated their moral sense of right and wrong.

Joel Stein speaks to this as well:

I think people can sense when the deep down truth isn’t true and when the bigger truth is true. That doesn’t excuse what he did. It’s still wrong, it’s someone lying to you. You resent that.

The Final Word:

Oprah: "Maybe this is the beginning of another kind of truth for you."
James Frey: "If I come out of this experience with anything it’s being a better person and learning from my mistakes and making sure I don’t repeat them."

Oprah still fails to establish Truth as singular, talking about "another kind of truth" as though there's more than one. Frey sounds like a little boy being scolded and trying to redeem himself. But until Truth is held as singular and absolute, a law beyond the mere cultural norms we've established, there is no redemption.