A Million Little Lies — and One Great Big Lie

Does Oprah Winfrey, the American television celebrity, host of the eponymously named broadcast and cable TV shows, and top-honoree in Forbes Magazine‘s 2005 "Celebrity 100" Hall of Fame, really expect us to believe that James Frey’s 2003 bestseller A Million Little Pieces is a fictional account of a young man facing-down destruction at the hands of his own drug and alcohol demons, rather than a straightforward factual report, otherwise known as autobiography or memoir? And does it really matter? And if so, for whom, exactly? For you? For me? For its author? How about for its publisher, Doubleday? The next thing you know, Oprah is going to turn on J.D. Salinger and denounce him to her devoted 30-million-households-a-week audience. What if the events that Holden Caulfield recounts in The Catcher in the Rye never happened? What if they happened, but in some kinda weird way, and these differed from the way recounted by Holden? Worse, what if it turns out that Holden Caulfield doesn’t really exist? That is to say, exists, but exists as a character within a fictional work, and therefore exists without also being real? Leaving us in the end with a kinda nonexistent Holden only? Along with his nonexistent world? A World-Catcher, for those paying attention? Kinda like a World-Lear? A World-Recherche? And a World-War on Terror? Rather than a real world? Wow. Yeah. Mm-hmm. Really. Right-right-right. Uh-huh. We’ll be right back…. (Announcements)

After all. Here was Oprah Winfrey’s verdict on her daily TV show just four months ago, recounting her "big buzz" ("Why everybody hates Chris Rock and special OBC news?" Sept. 22, 2005):

So now for my big buzz. The book I’m choosing kept me up for two nights straight. Honest to goodness. I could not sleep. I could not sleep, people. I was, like, reading, reading, reading, reading, 2:00 in the morning, coming in to the show. They say–I say, "I’m reading that book. I was up because I couldn’t put it down. It’s that good." It’s a radical departure. It’s not a classic, and it is also not fiction, but a bold choice. It’s taking us right to the edge. It’s a gut-wrenching memoir that is raw and it’s so real. It’s a wild ride through addiction and rehab that has been called electrifying, intense, mesmerizing and even gruesome. Our next book is: "A Million Little Pieces."

"It’s like nothing you’ve ever read before," Winfrey concluded her show that day. "Everybody at Harpo"—Winfrey’s production company—"is reading it. When we were staying up late at night reading it, we’d come in the next morning saying, ‘What page are you on’? Our new book club selection is called ‘A Million Little Pieces’ by James Frey."

(Quick aside. Here was Janet Maslin, reviewing Frey’s book in the New York Times the same month the American military set up shop in Baghdad: "’James Frey is a new voice in fiction’, extols an admirer of his first book, ‘A Million Little Pieces’, as part of the readers’ feedback found on Amazon.com. Mr. Frey is reported to have originally presented this material as a novel when he looked for a publisher…..Little problem: This story is supposed to be all true. It is supposed to be a scorchingly honest account of how its author sunk to unimaginable depths, railed against the Twelve Step program that was supposed to help him and ultimately found his own form of salvation. His account does have grit and myopic immediacy that could make it a campus classic, what with such attention-getting incidents as the time this self-loathing author pulls off his own toenails. But in charting the course of his experience, he follows a memoirist’s Twelve Step pattern that is as familiar as what Rehab offers. Step 1: Hit bottom….Step 12: Publish. Attract a lot of attention. You know the rest." ("Cry and You Cry Alone? Not if You Write About It," April 21, 2003.))

The plaudits grew even louder. Here are Winfrey and her acolytes in a segment assembled for a show that aired one month later ("Her Husband tried To Kill Her Three Times," Oct. 21, 2005):

WINFREY: So today you’ve met remarkable people who lived through some unbelievable challenges and are standing strong. Like them, James Frey, author of my latest Book Club selection, has a story that you should hear. His memoir is called "A Million Little Pieces." It’s already a number-one best-seller across America. But it all started right here with my staff. So people always ask, `How do you get the books?’ Once this book made its way into Harpo studios, the buzz spread like–like buzz. (Excerpt from video) JENNIFER STRAUSS: I got "A Million Little Pieces" and brought it to work. I went to Meg, I went to Kathleen, Harriet. I said, `You absolutely have to read this book. It is like nothing I have ever read in my entire life.’ HARRIET: I think I was completely mesmerized from the first page. There was something that was so–just raw and honest. KATHLEEN PENNY: I started it at work, and I couldn’t put it down, and I couldn’t wait to get home to keep reading it. MEGAN: So I was out to dinner with Sheri. I talked her ear off about the book. SHERI: And she kept saying, `There’s this book I want you to read. I want you to read "A Million Little Pieces." I thought, `OK, this is going to be a ride.’ Page 284. Page 284. That’s the page. JILL ADAMS: Sheri gave me the book, and she told me I absolutely had to read it, but I needed to be prepared because I was going to be up all night. And I was. It was just like a freight train running off the tracks. SHERI: I get an e-mail from Ellen Rakieten, our executive producer, who says, `The boys need something to read.’ She’s talking about her husband Peter, and Nate Berkus, our cutie-pie decorator. So I fire off an e-mail: `"A Million Little Pieces." Go get it right now.’ ELLEN RAKIETEN: So I got Sheri’s the e-mail. I passed it on to the guys. Out of the clear blue sky, I get an e-mail from Nate that says, `I’m obsessed. I cannot put this book down. This is one of the greatest books I’ve ever read.’ So I figured, I better read the book so I can know what everybody’s talking about. So I picked up the book. I started reading it, and, like, my whole–that’s all I cared about. That is–that was it. It was like you just become sucked in. It’s addictive. There was moments where I was reading it, and I felt physically ill. NATE BERKUS: The way the book starts with James on a plane, injured, not knowing where he is, it grabs you and it makes you wonder, how does somebody really get to that state? I saw Peter, and I just handed him the book. PETER: Nate came walking up to me with this unbelievable expression on his face, and he took the book and he literally thrust it at me, and he said, `Read this now.’ And I started the book and finished it two days later because I couldn’t put it down. SHERI: Then I’m sitting there going, `Who else? Who else? Who else can I give this book to?’ So I gave the book to Oprah. WINFREY: She sure did. Oh, those million little sleepless nights. I then called my chief of staff, Libby, Reggie, my makeup artist, and my assistant, Angelique, and said, `Read this!’ ANGELIQUE: My immediate reaction was, `Oh, my God. I can’t believe this guy is still living.’ REGGIE: The book is so amazing because it always makes you wonder what’s going to happen again. LIBBY: Oprah gave me the book. As soon as she finished it, the next day, at work she said, `I have got a book for you: "A Million Little Pieces."’ So after five years of working with her and, I’m embarrassed to say, not having finished one book that she’s recommended, I picked up this book, and I could not put it down. "A Million Little Pieces" is electrifying. ADAMS: Healing. SHERI: Shattering. PETER: Powerful. RAKIETEN: Gut wrenching. Unidentified Woman #2: Raw. STRAUSS: Excruciating. HARRIET: Brave. BERKUS: Inspiring. PENNY: Hopeful. ANGELIQUE: Totally amazing. MEGAN: Joyous. Unidentified Man #3: Intense. ADAMS: It’s about love. (End of excerpt) WINFREY: Can you tell we like the book? Anybody else reading it? It’s–isn’t it? And now the most compelling viewer e-mails are pouring in about this book. So don’t miss out if you haven’t read "A Million Little Pieces" yet. It–you can go to the bookstore. Tune in this Wednesday for our special OPRAH show with James Frey. I can’t wait to meet him. I’m thinking it’s like Bono’s coming. It’s James Frey. We have a lot to talk about. Back in a moment. Back in a moment. (Announcements) WINFREY: One of my favorite lines from another book that I have always loved is, `Life is difficult from the road less traveled.’ That’s the first line of that book. And life is difficult. I think most people have the expectation that it’s supposed to always be happy. But if you’re an adult, you know that there are always valleys and mountains. And at some point, many of us will face life-challenging trials that knock us to the ground. And what I know is that it’s how we pick ourselves back up, how you take that pain and you turn it into something powerful for yourself and for other people, that really matters. You are stronger than you know. And I thank all of our guests today who have proven that. Bye, everybody.

And then there was the show five days later, which Winfrey devoted in its entirety to Frey and to Million Little Pieces-inspired themes, with Frey himself appearing as Winfrey’s guest in studio ("The man who kept Oprah awake at night," Oct. 26, 2005). (I will spare you reproducing material from this particular show.) Now. Switch to yesterday. Same American TV show. Same American TV channel. Same Forbes-Power-Ranked-No.-One host ("James Frey and the Million Little Pieces Controversy," Jan. 26):

WINFREY: OK, everybody, have a seat. I want to just say that I’ve been in television since I was 19 years old, and I have never been in this position. As you may have heard, James Frey’s best-selling book, "A Million Little Pieces," came under fire on January 8th when the investigative Web site The Smoking Gun accused Frey of fabricating and wildly embellishing key parts of his book. Mr. WILLIAM BASTONE (The Smoking Gun): Turns out he’s a well-to-do frat boy who, you know, isn’t kind of this desperado that he’d like people to think he was…. ………… WINFREY:….(From "Larry King Live") 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. And I rely on the publishers to define the category that a book falls within and also the authenticity of the work. I regret that phone call. I made a mistake and I left the impression that the truth does not matter. And I am deeply sorry about that, because that is not what I believe. I called in because I love the message of this book and–at the time, and every day I was reading e-mail after e-mail from so many people who have been inspired by it. And I have to say that I allowed that to cloud my judgment. And so to everyone who has challenged me on this issue of truth, you are absolutely right. ………… WINFREY: OK. Tell me this. I have been really embarrassed by this and, more importantly, feel that I acted in–in defense of you and, you know, as I said, my judgment was clouded because so many people, you know–I was really behind this book because so many people seem to–to have gotten so much out of it, and I believed in the fact that so many people were. But now, I feel that you conned us all. Do you? Mr. FREY: I don’t feel like I conned you guys. ………… RICHARD COHEN [Washington Post]: Well, I’m not going to pardon what he did, I mean, it was a lie. And–I’m a journalist. I believe in truth, I believe that there is such a thing as truth, and I don’t play this game. I heard what Nan said, and I respect what Nan said. If a man says, `I’d like you to meet my beautiful wife,’ and she’s, like, teeth sticking out and all these things, you know, you know that it’s not his beautiful wife, but so what? That’s what a memoir is, you know, you can get away with that. But half an hour in jail is not three months in jail. WINFREY: Right. Mr. COHEN: And the difference between one and the other is the difference between the truth and a lie. WINFREY: James, what do you want to say? Mr. FREY: I completely understand his point, and I–I think I made a lot of mistakes in writing the book and, you know, promoting the book. WINFREY: Do you see the mistakes as lies? Because you–you–you know, I think I made a mistake. I think I made a mistake by leaving the impression that the truth doesn’t matter, because that’s not how I look. I think that’s a mistake. I don’t think I lied. So do you think you lied, or do you think you made a mistake? Mr. FREY: I–I think probably both. ………… WINFREY: Yeah. So what do you want to say about what you heard today? Mr. FRANK RICH [New York Times]: You know, I think it’s amazing television, I mean, I think that I share Richard’s view. I think it’s great that you stood up and–and–and took a stand, and the hardest thing to do is admit a mistake, particularly in these areas… WINFREY: In front of millions of people. Mr. RICH: In front of million–millions of people… WINFREY: But it real–it really wasn’t that hard, I mean, I–I have to say, I–I don’t want to be given, you know, you know, kudos for it, because it really was the only thing to do. I did not know that by going on the air and defending, you know, the essence of the story–and as I said, I got caught up because I’m reading the e-mails–I’m in a different position than you guys are, you’re sitting at your computers, and you’re viewing this from the outside. But I’m reading the hundreds of e-mails, and during vacation I’d have the staff send me the e-mails, and everyday be going, `Oh my God, this one–people are holding on.’ So I–I admit I was caught up in all of that, and left the impression that because of that, that–that the truth doesn’t matter. And so that was wrong. …………

Sincerest apologies for quoting so much of this material at length. But with yesterday’s show, followed up by today’s overwhelmingly positive responses to it, you would have thought something happened that in truth did not: That the woman who "perennially ranks near the top" of Forbes Magazine‘s annual "Celebrity 100" list, whose "chat-fest still rules the airwaves, minting new celebs—and hundreds of millions of dollars in profits," and who was awarded top-honors in 2005 for the first time ever, has renounced every last stick and stone of it, recognized the error, the vanity, and the narcissism of the Oprah Empire, and decided to dismantle the whole of it. Beginning immediately. Clearly, there are the liars who get caught telling their lies. And there are the liars who continue to get away with it. No matter what. Equally clear, the craftier the liar, the higher the truthiness the liar attains. Truth matters, you say? I’ll bet you that power, wealth, and social prestige matter a heck of a lot more. Images, too. Images must be maintained. Defended to the hilt. So if anyone cares to discuss what it feels like to be duped or conned or betrayed in the face of blatant fictionalizations—look me up. Surely the Americans live in the midst of more lies than anybody else in the history of the world. We will have a lot to talk about.

Oprah.com (Homepage) "Why everybody hates Chris Rock and special OBC news," The Oprah Winfrey Show, September 22, 2005 "Her husband tried to kill her three times," The Oprah Winfrey Show, October 21, 2005 "The man who kept Oprah awake at night: A Million Little Pieces," The Oprah Winfrey Show, October 26, 2005. (This show was replayed on January 2, 2006.) "James Frey and the Million Little Pieces Controversy," The Oprah Winfrey Show, January 26, 2006 "A Million Little Lies: Exposing James Frey’s Fiction Addiction," The Smoking Gun, January 8, 2006 "Pining for the sordid truth even if it’s lies," Brendan Shanahan, Daily Telegraph, January 20, 2006 "Truthiness 101: From Frey to Alito," Frank Rich, New York Times, January 22, 2006 "Memoir As Fiction? Not So Fast," Steve Almond, Boston Globe, January 22, 2006 "Distorting history for dramatic effect," David Zurawik, Baltimore Sun, January 22, 2006 "Before the Fame, a Million Little Skeptics," Tom Zeller Jr., New York Times, January 23, 2006 "Treatment Description In Memoir Is Disputed," Edward Wyatt, New York Times, January 24, 2006 "A million little lies," Steve Murray, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 27, 2006 "Oprah swallows her pride, takes an admirable stand," Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times, January 27, 2006 "Reversal strikes blow for truth," Steve Johnson, Chicago Tribune, January 27, 2006 "As Oprah retreats, she gains ground," Phil Rosenthal, Chicago Tribune, January 27, 2006 "Don’t mess with Oprah," Editorial, Chicago Tribune, January 27, 2006 "Oprah’s lesson hits Frey, and readers, hard," Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune, January 27, 2006 "Winfrey Throws Book at Frey," Scott Collins and Matea Gold, Los Angeles Times, January 27, 2006 "Humiliation — but on the Last Page, Absolution," Paul Brownfield, Los Angeles Times, January 27, 2006 "Live on ‘Oprah,’ a Memoirist Is Kicked Out of the Book Club," Edward Wyatt, New York Times, January 27, 2006 "Ms. Winfrey Takes a Guest To the Televised Woodshed," Virginia Heffernan, New York Times, January 27, 2006 "Winfrey grills ‘Pieces’ author, apologizes for backing book," Carol Memmott, USA Today, January 27, 2006 "Oprah Throws the Book at Herself," Howard Kurtz, Washington Post, January 27, 2006 "A Million Little Lies — and One Great Big Lie," ZNet, January 27, 2006

Postscript (January 27): To update something I posted last month ("Propaganda — Overt and Covert," ZNet, December 5, 2005): For the hell of it, I occasionally take a look at the publishing history of O Magazine, since its first issue appeared back in May/June, 2000. Since the May/June 2000 issue, O Magazine has published a total of 68 different issues (i.e., through the February, 2006 issue, which is on the newstands now). Of these 68 issues of O Magazine, Oprah Winfrey placed herself on the cover of all 68 of them! Yes. You’ve read me right. The image of Oprah Winfrey has appeared on no less than 100 percent of the issues of O Magazine ever to have been published. (Or 68 covers out of the 68 issues of O Magazine.) Here. See for yourselves:

O Magazine: 2000 O Magazine: 2001 O Magazine: 2002 O Magazine: 2003 O Magazine: 2004 O Magazine: 2005 O Magazine: 2006

Now. I’ve often joked with friends about where else in human history we might turn to find a comparable case of (self-) idolatry and totalitarian (self-) promotion of the Deity. For example, did Caligula or Nero publish a monthly magazine named in their honor? Genghis Khan? Ivan The Terrible? Louis the XIV? Josef Stalin? Perhaps some other potentate? Still. You catch my drift, I think. A million little lies. But one Great Big Lie, too.

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