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Further fact-checking of James Frey’s memoirs

By now, just about everyone has heard about the evidence on 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 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 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.