I read Go Ask Alice a few months ago in about 5 hours. I went into it believing that the diary was true. I had borrowed an old edition from a friend who, as far as I know, also thought it was true. Upon finishing it and doing a bit of googling, I was horrified to learn that the whole thing had been fabricated by some woman named Beatrice who wanted to keep teenagers away from drugs.
I was pissed. I felt like Beatrice Sparks had cruelly manipulated me and countless other young readers, and I felt like she had picked the absolute worst possible form of conveying her message. If she had just stood on a soapbox and handed out flyers, at least I could respect her for her honesty and openness. I actually wrote a fairly heated blog post about it at the time, which I will post later. The final sentence and theme of that post was “I would rather be friends with a drug addict than a liar.”
Enter James Frey.
I saw this book recommended probably on Buzzfeed or Pinterest or someplace really intellectual like that. I found it sitting on a table at a used book sale, recognized the weird cover art, and purchased it without even realizing what it was about. I started it a month or so ago, got confused by the dialogue, and put it down. I guess I needed time to warm up to the idea of reading what the NYT Book Review called “a meltdown dispatched in telegrams.”
I started it again on a Greyhound on Friday and finished it a few hours ago. I liked it. I like a good anti-hero, and I like stream-of-consciousness, and I like real dialogue–all of which Frey creates. But by far the best part of the book is that as James works out his issues, it makes you think about your own issues.
The part where James and his parents and Joanne are meeting as part of the family program, and we learn about James’ childhood ear infections, and Joanne says “Most behavioral patterns, including our personal boundaries, are set during those first two years. Sometimes the pattern of establishment of those behaviors and boundaries is disrupted.”
Think about it. What was happening during the first two years of your life? You can’t remember. All of that important developing was taking place and you’ll never know what the environment was like because you can’t remember it. That’s scary. James just accepts it as interesting and refuses to let it be the basis of his life as an adult, which I guess is pretty fucking mature.
Frey uses a couple of cliches that make me cringe, but once in a while he comes out with a line of poetry (aside from his artful use of repetition). I knew I’d have to finish all the way to the end this time on the second page when James is describing how he feels trying to get off the plane:
“My head hurts, my mouth hurts, my eyes hurt, my hands hurt. Things without names hurt.”
Things without names hurt. That’s fucking beautiful. And a perfect way to start a story of recovery, involving therapy where he’ll be forced to remember and name and deal with all his past hurts. Beautiful.
The book is beautiful. I fell way more in love with James than I did with Alice, and for that reason, I am infuriated by the controversy over which parts of the book may or may not be fictionalized.
Frey repeats over and over again throughout the book “I’m fucked up” or “I was fucked up” or “I blacked out” or “I don’t know.” Were readers actually expecting everything to be completely, 100% described as it actually took place? For the number of times he blacked out, it’s a miracle he even remembers how to write, let alone can weave any of it into a comprehensible narrative.
Secondly, I am going to borrow Tim O’Brien’s definitions of “story-truth” and “happening-truth” because I think that they apply to writing about any type of traumatic events. The happening-truth may have been one thing, but that doesn’t make the story-truth less true. And it’s important for these things to be written down so that the people other than the writer can feel them. And sometimes the happening-truth doesn’t convey the emotion of what it was actually like, out of context. You, the reader, are not actually in Vietnam, or wandering around the streets of Paris fucked up beyond recognition. Simply telling you all the tidy, accurate facts is not going to make you feel anything. If you wanted to read a police report like the shallow, anal reporters at you could do that, and the results would be appropriately disappointing.
Beatrice Sparks completely fabricated the diary of the girl she wrote about with the intention of manipulating readers. That’s not what Frey did. Not even close. He wrote about his life. He wrote beautifully and effectively about something that no one else seems interested in documenting at all.
A Million Little Pieces only works because Frey had the courage to blur the story-truth with the happening-truth and say something that no one had said before. Trying to prove which aspects actually happened and which aspects are invented defeats the purpose of the memoir and sucks the art right out of it. You cannot prove that “things without names hurt.” You cannot prove that something makes you feel something. You just have to trust it.