How Low Can You Go?

Nobody loves you when you’re down and out—except readers.

Hollywood’s output is as relentlessly sunny as Los Angeles, and social life advances steadily toward what William James called “the religion of healthy-mindedness.” Memoirs, meanwhile, have become the place to lay bare the kind of suffering we all bear and inflict but don’t talk about at parties. This mode of writing has produced an unfortunate race to the bottom, in which memoirists gloss over any lingering evidence of normalcy or comfort and lavish attention on the darkest possible material.

In the how-low-did-you-go contest, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces (2003) might be the reigning champion, as Dwight Garner recently argued in the New York Times Book Review. The book, told in the present tense, opens with Frey, the 23-year-old son of upper-middle-class parents, awakening on a plane covered in “spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood,” having knocked out his four front teeth and ripped a hole in his cheek in a fall down a fire escape that put the exclamation mark on a two-week crack binge. He has no idea where he’s flying or why, because he’s enough of an alcoholic to black out daily. He’s also been known to try “pills, acid, mushrooms, meth, PCP and glue,” if that’s what can be found. And did he mention he’s wanted in three states?

His parents meet him at O’Hare and take him to an unnamed clinic in Minnesota (it’s Hazelden), and what lies ahead is a 400-page tour of his agonizing, reluctant recovery over a two-month stay. Among the salient characters who share time with him at the bottom is a mobster with a cocaine habit named Leonard who decides to befriend him after Frey tells him (twice), “If you’re going to force me to beat your ass, Old Man, we might as well get on with it.” We also get a rather touching love affair with a crack addict and former prostitute called Lilly, a relationship fervently pursued in spite of the clinic’s rules. The highlight/lowlight most likely to last in the mind is a long and almost ecstatically detailed description of undergoing root canal surgery without anesthesia—no drugs allowed during detox: “At the point of penetration, a current shoots through my body that is not pain, or even close to pain, but something infinitely greater.”

The book hit the top of the best-seller lists, and Amazon named it Best Book of the Year. Many people not in the habit of reading read it anyway. Frey says he received a thousand letters a week just after it was published.

Frey also made some small waves during his first book tour when he declared to the New York Observer that he didn’t “give a fuck” what other writers were up to. This bravado is entertaining, and clearly has played a role in the popularity of A Million Little Pieces (which I for one cut through in the space of a day). It also poses serious difficulties in a book about recovery. No matter how frequently Frey announces his shame and self-loathing, a certain pride keeps breaking through.

George Orwell wrote, “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.” Not a problem for Frey. But there is something suspicious, too, about a memoir that pummels you with disgrace: “At fourteen I stole a moped and pushed it off a cliff. . . . I told a pregnant Teacher I hoped her Child was born dead. . . . At fifteen I sold drugs to Kids.” More? “My first years at College. I cheated on a girlfriend once twice three times got caught every time. Told her I would change it wouldn’t happen again. I knew it would. I did it to another girl. To another.” Are you crying uncle yet? “Another Girl I knew carried me back to her Apartment one night after she found me passed out in the Street. I vomited and pissed on her couch and on her floor. When I woke up I took a bottle of vodka and I walked out. I never saw her or heard from her again.” (I don’t want to repeat the really ugly stuff here, nor anywhere actually.)

More regrettable than the litany of past transgressions, though, is Frey’s unabashed account of his refusal throughout rehab to change his bad-ass routine. Everyone trying to help him receives scorn and F-bombs in return, especially the commendable counselors. (Leonard earns the honor of occasionally being heard, because he’s almost the tough guy Frey is.)

The clinic bases its rehabilitation on the Alcoholics Anonymous program. Frey rejects the fundamental tenets of AA—particularly that addiction is a disease rather than a choice—and rants about it repeatedly: “Too much whining, too much complaining, too much blaming. Too much bullshit about Higher Powers.” Many people, including bright agnostic types like him, share some version of these reservations about AA. When faced with a debilitating drug or alcohol crisis, a lot of them have turned in a different direction to seek treatment. In some cases they have swallowed their pride and found the program more powerful than they had thought possible. Or they have simply taken their own route. What they have not done is publish a book that sometimes seems designed to insult the millions who have gratefully accepted the help they were offered.

Frey, now 35, has managed to avoid relapse since Hazelden. For someone who was told he was within a few days of death, this is an epic feat. He has no doubt been a source of inspiration, especially to those who resist the idea that AA is the only proven way. It would be easier to admire him if he had not invested so much energy in saying “I told you so.”

In his new memoir, My Friend Leonard, a kind of sequel to A Million Little Pieces, Frey makes some amends, to use the kind of recovery speak he would despise. This book is still about hardship and hurt, but in it we see more of the soft side that sporadically peeked through during rehab. Granted, we begin with James in jail engaged in a fight with a 300-pound murderer called Porterhouse, but this time Frey is willing to lose, and soon he is reading the classics to the illiterate big man every day in his cell. When James finishes serving the three months required for assaulting a policeman before Hazelden, he immediately sets off to see his Lilly at a halfway house in Chicago, as he promised her he would the night before while she cried on the phone over the loss of her grandmother. Arriving with roses in hand, he is told, “We found her hanging from the shower faucet. She didn’t leave a note.” This is a genuinely devastating moment, and well told. We might be forgiven for expecting, at this point, that Frey is about to show us that what we thought was rock bottom was just a mid-level floor.

What follows instead is an account, much less involving but more honorable than the first, of Frey picking up those little pieces to put himself back together—grieving for Lilly, finding an apartment, getting a job and losing it and finding others, getting a girlfriend and losing her and finding others. The style is the same, full of stripped-down sentences with minimal punctuation in unindented paragraphs. (Here there is less arbitrary Capitalization of Nouns.) The story itself is often rambling and shapeless—a common problem in memoirs, since life is rambling and shapeless: “I ask him if he wants me to meet him at his hotel he says no he’s staying somewhere else he tells me where I start walking downtown.”

But the book is given some coherence and form by Frey’s unusual and moving father-son relationship with Leonard. The “West Coast director of a large Italian finance firm” took a shine to Frey at the clinic for reasons that are difficult to fathom. “I like fucked-up people,” he says, by way of explanation. When James decides to ditch the clinic early on, Leonard gives him some extra-tough love: If you leave, he tells James, “I’ll call out my dogs to bring you back.”

Before checking out, Leonard gives James a card with five names and numbers on it, all of them Leonard’s, and tells him to call whenever he needs anything. The unmarried man adds, “I have decided that from now on, I would like you to be my son. I will watch out for you as I would if you were my real son.” Remarkably enough, he does.

Throughout the book, no request for help goes unmet by Leonard. Often there’s no need to ask, since “his people” always seem to know when it’s time for him to fly in unannounced and give Frey a lift. “My son!” he cries, wrapping James in a hug and taking him out for a lavish feast. Leonard also has a knack for mysteriously making his charge’s problems disappear. After James calls to say his neighbor has viciously threatened him and his girlfriend, the neighbor puts his house on the market within a week. Leonard’s advice is sometimes dubious; on more occasions it’s sensible and powerful, however well worn.

Frey was wise to shape his narrative around the relationship with Leonard, whose death lends a natural ending to a book that would otherwise have no logical stopping point. In the second half Frey takes a stab at becoming a screenwriter in Los Angeles, and meets with some success and some failure, often simultaneously. A big studio movie starring David Schwimmer is made from one of his scripts—and opens “to resoundingly awful reviews and huge numbers of empty seats.” He keeps getting work anyway, somewhat to his surprise. There is also a passionate relationship, James’s first real love since Lilly, but it falls apart. In other words, nothing much changes.

But the likeable mob boss’s outsized presence awakens our flagging interest and alleviates the unremitting emphasis on the self that marred A Million Little Pieces. James shows a gratitude and humility toward Leonard that were rarely in evidence in the previous book. The heartbreak of his death, like that of Lilly’s, is therefore more likely to be shared by the reader than the pain in A Million Little Pieces, brandished as it was like a loaded gun.

Although Frey’s second book is made of weaker stuff than the first, it takes a laudable step away from the de rigueur autobiographical mode. A Million Little Pieces, whose title calls to mind a child’s tendency to exaggerate, is one of a number of recent memoirs that set out to find our reservoirs of sympathy and pump them dry. Real anguish, whether borne or meted out, has always been fascinating to readers but was once an occasion for reticence in a first-person account. Now it’s a point of pride. Writers grab us by the lapels, one after the other, and command us to look into their bloodshot eyes. At a certain point, all we want to do is turn away.

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