A Million Little Pieces
James Frey, 2003
In 2006, this book and its author became the subject of a highly publicized controversy—after Oprah had selected it as one of her books. It was revealed that parts of his "memoir" were fabricated.
A Million Little Pieces is James Frey's scorching account of his descent into the hell of addiction and the brutal journey to recovery. When he arrives at a famous clinic in Minnesota, he is nearly dead from a decade of drug and alcohol abuse so spectacular even doctors who have spent their entire careers treating addicts are amazed. He took everything he could find, and as much as possible: Cocaine, crack cocaine, crystal meth, PCP, glue, and alcohol in quantities so great he blacked out every day for years. His body is shot, and his mind is in an almost constant rage of self-hatred and destructiveness. He is wanted in three states for crimes ranging from DUI and resisting arrest to assaulting an officer, attempted incitement of a riot, and felony mayhem. He has, as they say, hit bottom. A few more drinks, the doctors tell him, will kill him.
His ordeal inside the clinic is hardly less harrowing. Balancing on the razor's edge between hope and despair, Frey describes the writhing delusions of withdrawal, the constant need of addictions screaming to be fed, and the blinding Fury that overtakes him and makes him want to run. That he completely rejects the clinic's Twelve Steps program makes his recovery seem even less likely. But he meets a fellow patient, Leonard, who will not give up on him, his brother gives him a copy of the Tao Te Ching, which speaks to him more profoundly than anything he reads in the AA literature, and he falls in love with Lilly, a beautiful and doomed crack addict. In them he finds reasons to try to heal himself. And he insists, in a gesture either heroic or just plain stubborn, that whatever the sources of his addictions might be, he will place the responsibility for his life and its disasters, the pain he's caused himself and others, squarely on his own shoulders. He will stay sober not by attending AA meetings in church basements, or praying to a god he can't believe in, but by deciding not to act on his addictions. A recipe for failure, his counselors tell him, but a risk he decides he has to take.
In writing that jumps off the page with all the rawness and immediacy of life, A Million Little Pieces is an unforgettable act of self-witnessing and a terrifying account of what the human spirit can destroy, endure, and overcome. (From the publisher.)
• Where—Cleveland, Ohio, USA
• Currently—lives in New York, New York
In his words
I was born in Cleveland, Ohio. I spent most of my childhood in Ohio and Michigan, and I have also lived in Boston, Wrightsville Beach NC, Sao Paulo Brazil, London, Paris, Chicago, and Los Angeles. I graduated from high school in 1988 and received further education at Denison University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1993, I was sent to the Hazelden Foundation for the treatment of cocaine addiction and alcoholism. I moved to Chicago in 1994, where I worked variety of jobs, including doorman, stockboy, and member of a janitorial crew. In 1996, I moved to Los Angeles where I worked as a screenwriter, director and producer. In 2000, I took second mortgage on my house, and spent a year writing A Million Little Pieces. It was published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday in May of 2003 and became a New York Times Bestseller, a #1 National Bestseller, and an International Bestseller. It was also named The Best Book of 2003 by Amazon.com. In 2004, I wrote My Friend Leonard, which is a sequel to A Million Little Pieces. In June of 2005, Riverhead Books published My Friend Leonard, which also became a New York Times and International Bestseller. I live in New York with my wife, daughter, and two dogs. (From the author's website and publisher.)
From a Barnes and Noble interview:
• I've cut my own hair since I was 18, which is probably a bad thing.
• I once worked as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny at a department store.
• I have about 15 tattoos.
• I love baseball, boxing, football, and playing with my daughter.
• I read for a couple hours a day. I surf. I love looking at art, spend tons of time in galleries.
• When asked what book influenced him the most, Frey said:
The Tao te Ching, by Lao Tzu, translated by Stephen Mitchell. Completely changed how I think and live my life. It's an ancient book of Chinese philosophy, the basis for most Eastern religion and thought. Teaches the principles of patience, simplicity, compassion, and acceptance. Helped me get through some hard times in my life, and still helps me. (Auther interview and bio from Barnes and Noble.)
[I]t gives away nothing to say that he finds himself whole at the end of A Million Little Pieces. How that came to be would be a first-rate tale of suspense, if it weren't drawn so hideously from an actual life.
James Sullivan - San Francisco Chronicle
For as long as he can remember, Frey has had within him something that he calls "the Fury," a bottomless source of anger and rage that he has kept at bay since he was 10 by obliterating his consciousness with alcohol and drugs. When this memoir begins, the author is 23 and is wanted in three states. He has a raw hole in his cheek big enough to stick a finger through, he's missing four teeth, he's covered with spit blood and vomit, and without ID or any idea where the airplane he finds himself on is heading. It turns out his parents have sent him to a drug rehab center in Minnesota. From the start, Frey refuses to surrender his problem to a 12-step program or to victimize himself by calling his addictions a disease. He demands to be held fully accountable for the person he is and the person he may become. If Frey is a victim, he comes to realize, it's due to nothing but his own bad decisions. Wyman's reading of Frey's terse, raw prose is ideal. His unforgettable performance of Frey's anesthesia-free dental visit will be recalled by listeners with every future dentist appointment. His lump-in-the-throat contained intensity, wherein he neither sobs nor howls with rage but appears a breath away from both, gives listeners a palpable glimpse of the power of addiction and the struggle for recovery.
Frey wakes up on an airplane with four broken teeth, a broken nose, a massive cut on his cheek, and unsure where he is or where he's going. Where he ends up is a residential treatment center based in Minnesota. This is the story of his experiences in that center as an addict and alcoholic. Listeners will meet the residents, including some who helped Frey continue his treatment and his work toward sobriety. The author's tale is brutal and honest, providing a realistic view of the life of an addict, something not for the faint of heart. It's full of profanity and graphic depictions of violence and drug use. In fact, Frey's description of the repair of his teeth without painkillers or anesthesia may keep people from ever going to the dentist again. That said, this presentation, read by Oliver Wyman, is an important addition for all library collections. Organizations that provide support for substance abusers, counseling centers, and prison libraries also should consider purchase. —Danna Bell
Frey’s lacerating, intimate debut chronicles his recovery from multiple addictions with adrenal rage and sprawling prose. After ten years of alcoholism and three years of crack addiction, the 23-year-old author awakens from a blackout aboard a Chicago-bound airplane, "covered with a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood." While intoxicated, he learns, he had fallen from a fire escape and damaged his teeth and face. His family persuades him to enter a Minnesota clinic, described as "the oldest Residential Drug and Alcohol Facility in the World." Frey’s enormous alcohol habit, combined with his use of "Cocaine...pills, acid, mushrooms, meth, PCP and glue," make this a very rough ride, with the DTs quickly setting in: "The bugs crawl onto my skin and they start biting me and I try to kill them." Frey captures with often discomforting acuity the daily grind and painful reacquaintance with human sensation that occur in long-term detox; for example, he must undergo reconstructive dental surgery without anesthetic, an ordeal rendered in excruciating detail. Very gradually, he confronts the "demons" that compelled him towards epic chemical abuse, although it takes him longer to recognize his own culpability in self-destructive acts. He effectively portrays the volatile yet loyal relationships of people in recovery as he forms bonds with a damaged young woman, an addicted mobster, and an alcoholic judge. Although he rejects the familiar 12-step program of AA, he finds strength in the principles of Taoism and (somewhat to his surprise) in the unflinching support of family, friends, and therapists, who help him avoid a relapse. Our acerbic narrator conveys urgency and youthfulspirit with an angry, clinical tone and some initially off-putting prose tics—irregular paragraph breaks, unpunctuated dialogue, scattered capitalization, few commas—that ultimately create striking accruals of verisimilitude and plausible human portraits. Startling, at times pretentious in its self-regard, but ultimately breathtaking: The Lost Weekend for the under-25 set.
1. A Million Little Pieces presents some unusual formal innovations: Instead of using quotation marks, each piece of dialogue is set off on its own line with only occasional authorial indications of who is speaking; paragraphs are not indented; sentences sometimes run together without punctuation; and many passages read more like poetry than prose. How do these innovations affect the pace of the writing? How do they contribute to the book's rawness and immediacy? How is James Frey's unconventional style appropriate for this story?
2. A Million Little Pieces is a nonfiction memoir, but does it also read like a novel? How does Frey create suspense and sustain narrative tension throughout? What major questions are raised and left unresolved until the end of the book? Is this way of writing about addiction more powerful than an objective study might be?
3. Why does the Tao Te Ching speak to James so powerfully? Why does he connect with it whereas the Bible and Twelve Steps literature leave him cold? How is this little book of ancient Chinese wisdom relevant to the issues an addict must face?
4. James is frequently torn between wanting to look into his own eyes to see himself completely and being afraid of what he might find: "I want to look beneath the surface of the pale green and see what's inside of me, what's within me, what I'm hiding. I start to look up but I turn away. I try to force myself but I can't" [p. 32]. Why can't James look himself in the eye? Why is it important that he do so? What finally enables him to see himself?
5. When his brother Bob tells James he has to get better, James replies, "I don't know what happened or how I ever ended up like this, but I did, and I've got some huge fucking problems and I don't know if they're fixable. I don't know if I'm fixable" [p. 131]. Does the book ever fully reveal the causes of James's addictions? How and why do you think he ended up "like this"?
6. Why are James and Lilly so drawn to each other? In what way is their openness with each other significant for their recovery?
7. Joanne calls James the most stubborn person she has ever met. At what moments in the book does that stubbornness reveal itself most strongly? How does being stubborn help James? How does it hurt or hinder him?
8. The counselors at the clinic insist that the Twelve Steps program is the only way addicts can stay sober. What are James's reasons for rejecting it? Are they reasons that might be applicable to others or are they only relevant to James's own personality and circumstances? Is he right in thinking that a lifetime of "sitting in Church basements listening to People whine and bitch and complain" is nothing more than "the replacement of one addiction with another" [p. 223]?
9. What are the sources of James's rage and self-hatred? How do these feelings affect his addictions? How does James use physical pain as an outlet for his fury?
10. How is Frey able to make the life of an addict so viscerally and vividly real? Which passages in the book most powerfully evoke what it's like to be an addict? Why is it important, for the overall impact of the book, that Frey accurately convey these feelings?
11. When Miles asks James for something that might help him, James thinks it's funny that a Federal Judge is asking him for advice, to which Miles replies: "We are all the same in here. Judge or Criminal, Bourbon Drinker or Crackhead" [p. 271]. How does being a recovering addict in the clinic negate social and moral differences? In what emotional and practical ways are the friendships James develops, especially with Miles and Leonard, crucial to his recovery?
12. James refuses to see himself as a victim; or to blame his parents, his genes, his environment, or even the severe physical and emotional pain he suffered as a child from untreated ear infections for his addictions and destructive behavior. He blames only himself for what has happened in his life. What cultural currents does this position swim against? How does taking full responsibility for his actions help James? How might finding someone else to blame have held him back?
13. Bret Easton Ellis, in describing A Million Little Pieces, commented, "Beneath the brutality of James Frey's painful process, there are simple gestures of kindness that will reduce even the most jaded to tears." What are some of those moments of kindness and compassion and genuine human connection that make the book so moving? Why do these moments have such emotional power?
14. In what ways does A Million Little Pieces illuminate the problem of alcohol and drug addiction in the United States today? What does Frey's intensely personal voice add to the national debate about this issue?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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