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Addict's memoir: Loathe it or love it

James Frey's first book, an unusual combination of the sentimental and the repulsive, has provoked a firestorm of controversy.

May 20, 2003|Bernadette Murphy | Special to The Times

"Sorry for the mess," first-time author James Frey mutters, picking up empty beer bottles at the friend's house in Laurel Canyon where he is staying. Traces of leftover food are splayed on the dining table, though the rest of the place looks immaculate. "We had a party last night." It's 8:45 on a foggy morning and he's bright-eyed and attentive. "That's the nice part about not drinking." He gestures at the bottles. "Feeling good the next morning."

Frey is the author of "A Million Little Pieces," a brutally honest memoir detailing the horrors of his experience in drug and alcohol rehabilitation at age 23, and of the painful struggle toward life when the Alcoholics Anonymous method didn't work for him. The parties he used to have, one surmises surveying the neat room, didn't look quite this manageable the next day.

The book opens as he emerges from a blackout to find himself on an airplane. "My four front teeth are gone, I have a hole in my cheek, my nose is broken and my eyes are swollen nearly shut," he writes. The night before, he'd taken a face-first dive down a fire escape and ended up in a hospital where a friend had urged his parents to arrange help.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 24, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Author's marriage -- A story in Tuesday's Calendar about memoirist James Frey incorrectly said he and his wife have been married five years. The couple met five years ago and have been married just over a year.

He'd been put on the plane, on his way to a famous rehab center in Minnesota where the narrative takes place. "My clothes are covered with a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood," he recounts. He had no wallet, no ticket, no baggage, no idea where he was or where he was going, only that he'd come to the end of the line.

Now, on a recent morning, Frey sits forward on the white, heavily upholstered couch to show his tattoos. On his right shoulder, there's a triangle within a circle, a mark often associated with 12-step programs; a series of tick marks, one for each of the nine years he's been sober, floats above it. Though he doesn't follow the AA program, that sign, he says, is an ancient Chinese symbol for serenity. "It's what I aspire to."

The Taoist emblem for life blossoms in dark ink on his left shoulder, and on his left inner wrist, the letters "s p c d h c" are inscribed. They stand, he explains, for serenity, patience, compassion, discipline, honesty and courage, traits he's learned from the Tao Te Ching, a book of wisdom written 25 centuries ago by Lao Tsu, which his brother gave him while in rehab. Skeptical at first, Frey says the book has become the road map that helped him gain and hold onto sobriety. "When I read the Tao, it helps me feel better," he says. "My process is really simple: If I want to do something, I have a decision to make. The decision is either yes or no. Oftentimes, the decision I want to make is yes, but the decision I know I have to make is no. What do I do? If I sit and wait, I know I'll feel better, and know that saying no will cease to become a decision, it'll just be something that I can do."

Meeting the author, now 33, is a startling experience, mostly because he's not at all what one expects. A certain clamor has preceded the former screenwriter on his book tour, like the rumble of thunder, boisterous and ear-splitting, distinct from the book itself. He's been portrayed in media across the nation as an arrogant, macho jerk, thanks in part to an early article in which he slammed a number of well-established writers as overrated, including Dave Eggers, earning him enmity in the literary community.

His memoir, meanwhile, has received explosive reviews -- critics either love it, or they write passionately about the venom his tale inspires. The most common accusation, beyond what's seen as his brazen personality, is that he mined the salacious details of his recovery and pandered them for celebrity. He's in negotiations for a movie deal based on the book, for which he may write the screenplay.

The book has a stream-of-consciousness flow with little punctuation and odd capitalizations. "The way I write is the closest articulation to how I think and how I feel things. I also wanted the reader to be addicted to it. Be unable to put it down. That would help them understand more what being addicted to something is like. To do that, everything would have to move very quickly."

Perhaps his use of graphic, in-your-face descriptions may be to blame for some of the firestorm. Frey pulls no punches and softens no edges. He is an undiscriminating addict -- alcohol and pills, cocaine and crack, acid and PCP. Readers learn in exacting detail just how hard the detoxification process is -- how physically draining and emotionally demanding it is -- and how painful the experience of moving through the world as a tentatively sober person can be.

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