Further fact-checking of James Frey's memoirs

By now, just about everyone has heard about the evidence on thesmokinggun.com regarding gross fabrications in the James Frey memoir “A Million Little Pieces.”

Frey’s primary defense has been to say that his criminal history is a minor part of the book and these inconsistencies do not substantively change the meaning of the story.

Of course, his criminal history is the only thing that thesmokinggun.com actually looked into. Given that virtually nothing checked out, it doesn’t bode well for the veracity of the rest of the book.

Which got me thinking about whether there are ways to verify other facts in his memoirs.

For a number of my research projects, I have worked with a data set called the “Mortality Detail File.” As the name implies, these data, which are publicly available from theCDC, provide detailed information on every death that occurs in the United States.

In the beginning of his second book “My Friend Leonard,” Frey describes rushing directly from his three-month jail term in Ohio to Chicago to see his lover Lilly, only to arrive and discover that she has committed suicide by hanging herself. Since thesmokinggun.com showed that he hadn’t spent three months in jail, one might wonder whether the suicide is a fabrication as well.

So I looked in the Mortality Detail File for evidence of a death that would match the one described in the book.

Indeed, there was one case that vaguely fits the description. A 24 year old single white woman did commit suicide by hanging in Chicago in March of 1994. That much, at least, looks favorable to Frey’s description.

Working strongly against him, however, is that the woman who committed suicide had completed college. From Frey’s description of Lilly — a prostitute since the age of 13 and a long time heroin and crack addict — it seems highly unlikely that she would have completed college.

I don’t think Frey is very interested in answering questions these days, but I would be quite curious to hear what he has to say about this.

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  1. missmarya says:

    Frey’s behavior is typical of an alcoholic and a drug addict, to exaggerate stories to involve more desperate times, more severe fights, more rock bottom circumstances. Drug addicts are liars and they love to talk about themselves. They are insecure and they try to escape the boring reality and tedium of life at every possible turn. They need to escape the fact that in reality they are douchbag losers who are only hurting themselves and fading into obscurity one day at a time. Are we naive to trust gritty memoirs such as these or is Frey just another Jayson Blair, a fame hungry fluke?

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  2. missmarya says:

    Frey’s behavior is typical of an alcoholic and a drug addict, to exaggerate stories to involve more desperate times, more severe fights, more rock bottom circumstances. Drug addicts are liars and they love to talk about themselves. They are insecure and they try to escape the boring reality and tedium of life at every possible turn. They need to escape the fact that in reality they are douchbag losers who are only hurting themselves and fading into obscurity one day at a time. Are we naive to trust gritty memoirs such as these or is Frey just another Jayson Blair, a fame hungry fluke?

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  3. traveler says:

    I read the book when it first came out, in early 2003. I may be the sucker who buys everyone’s first novel, but I am not a sucker who believes everything I read, no matter how it’s labeled. I never believed everything happened the way he said it did, but it didn’t matter. A book with a glossy cover as a bible for recovery? The guy rejects AA, rejects acknowledging that he couldn’t turn it off and on at will. The book is anti- the cult of recovery. That was what was fascinating for me. I don’t think he wanted to be a model for other addicts. I think he wanted to be a famous writer. Why else be willing to write yourself that bad, true or not? Was it marketed back then as non-fiction? Does it need to be any more non-fiction than “In Cold Blood” or another memoir of addiction, “Drinking, A Love Story” by Caroline Knapp from 1996? (Ms. Knapp died of lung cancer in 2002, a result of her lesser addiction, smoking.) It’s a marketing thing not a lying thing, in my opinion. The book was devastating, mesmerizing and a breakthrough in style. I was shocked when Oprah chose it, because as anyone who’s now read it knows: it’s really ugly. Yes, addicts lie and embellish, but so does every author in order to make something you want to read and share and read again and talk about. Give credit where credit is due. The guy wrote, from memory and/or his creative wellspring, a really good book.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1
  4. traveler says:

    I read the book when it first came out, in early 2003. I may be the sucker who buys everyone’s first novel, but I am not a sucker who believes everything I read, no matter how it’s labeled. I never believed everything happened the way he said it did, but it didn’t matter. A book with a glossy cover as a bible for recovery? The guy rejects AA, rejects acknowledging that he couldn’t turn it off and on at will. The book is anti- the cult of recovery. That was what was fascinating for me. I don’t think he wanted to be a model for other addicts. I think he wanted to be a famous writer. Why else be willing to write yourself that bad, true or not? Was it marketed back then as non-fiction? Does it need to be any more non-fiction than “In Cold Blood” or another memoir of addiction, “Drinking, A Love Story” by Caroline Knapp from 1996? (Ms. Knapp died of lung cancer in 2002, a result of her lesser addiction, smoking.) It’s a marketing thing not a lying thing, in my opinion. The book was devastating, mesmerizing and a breakthrough in style. I was shocked when Oprah chose it, because as anyone who’s now read it knows: it’s really ugly. Yes, addicts lie and embellish, but so does every author in order to make something you want to read and share and read again and talk about. Give credit where credit is due. The guy wrote, from memory and/or his creative wellspring, a really good book.

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  5. wild horse says:

    I must be the only person who read that TSG posting, and thought, “She hung herself from a shower faucet? That’s pretty unlikely.” Those things aren’t load bearing structures, they’re just held in place by the plumbing and the hole in the wall.

    Assuming it’s got enough of a height advantage on you, and just out perpendicularly far enough from that wall, that you might conceivably be able to hang yourself, go into your shower and give the faucet a good shake…do you think it’ll hang you?

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  6. wild horse says:

    I must be the only person who read that TSG posting, and thought, “She hung herself from a shower faucet? That’s pretty unlikely.” Those things aren’t load bearing structures, they’re just held in place by the plumbing and the hole in the wall.

    Assuming it’s got enough of a height advantage on you, and just out perpendicularly far enough from that wall, that you might conceivably be able to hang yourself, go into your shower and give the faucet a good shake…do you think it’ll hang you?

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  7. aljones15 says:

    I didn’t finish the TSG article, but did the fact that there was a “Leonard” in the Ohio prison system around the time stated match up with the timing of the girl in Chicago’s death? Also your assumption that a prostitute wouldn’t be college educated certianly seems a little weird. Of the 2 heroin addicts I’ve known, both were college educated. One even ended up in a trailer home with what appeared to be her dealer/ pimp. Anyway, I don’t find the fabrications that alarming, the fact of the matter is I think culturally we love a good rags to fame story and Americans in particular are fond of this form. For instance in Taiwan an english school owner once told me she didn’t understand why all the Americans who come to her school “don’t have any money” and yet go out and buy motorbikes and other gifts will beyond their means with their first paycheck. We play the game with ourselves all the time of “coming from nothing.” What I do find alarming is Frey’s inability to fess up to his fabrications. I mean Vanilla Ice eventually got around to telling the truth… or at least a series of comic books unmasked him for what he was just another suburban kid with a myth to tell.

    peace,
    A

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  8. aljones15 says:

    I didn’t finish the TSG article, but did the fact that there was a “Leonard” in the Ohio prison system around the time stated match up with the timing of the girl in Chicago’s death? Also your assumption that a prostitute wouldn’t be college educated certianly seems a little weird. Of the 2 heroin addicts I’ve known, both were college educated. One even ended up in a trailer home with what appeared to be her dealer/ pimp. Anyway, I don’t find the fabrications that alarming, the fact of the matter is I think culturally we love a good rags to fame story and Americans in particular are fond of this form. For instance in Taiwan an english school owner once told me she didn’t understand why all the Americans who come to her school “don’t have any money” and yet go out and buy motorbikes and other gifts will beyond their means with their first paycheck. We play the game with ourselves all the time of “coming from nothing.” What I do find alarming is Frey’s inability to fess up to his fabrications. I mean Vanilla Ice eventually got around to telling the truth… or at least a series of comic books unmasked him for what he was just another suburban kid with a myth to tell.

    peace,
    A

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