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Website Finds Facts Behind Addiction Memoir Are Shaky

A bestselling book picked by Oprah has key events that can't be verified, a report says.

January 10, 2006|Scott Martelle and Scott Collins | Times Staff Writers

James Frey's rendition of his troubled past -- drug abuse, blackouts, jail time and an addict's betrayal of friends and family -- is not the kind of story you'd expect to tug at many readers' heartstrings.

Yet Frey's graphically drawn 2003 memoir of downfall and rehabilitation, "A Million Little Pieces," became last year's top-selling nonfiction book after Oprah Winfrey picked it for her viewers' book club.

Frey's memoir sold nearly 2 million copies, the movie rights were purchased by Warner Bros. and the book established the author as an inspirational figure for recovering addicts.

But there might be less to Frey than meets the eye, according to the Smoking Gun website, which reported Sunday that it had been unable to substantiate significant portions of Frey's book, including arrests and court actions for which public records should be available.

The website's investigation, which began in November, sparked an Internet fracas involving Frey, who first broke the news Saturday night by posting a Smoking Gun e-mail to him on his bigjimindustries.com website.

"This is the latest investigation into my past, and the latest attempt to discredit me," Frey wrote. "In an effort to be consistent with my policy of openness and transparency, I thought I should share it with the people who come to this website and support me and my work. So let the haters hate, let the doubters doubt, I stand by my book, and my life, and I won't dignify this with any sort of further response."

Frey has said in past interviews that he initially pitched a version of his story as a novel, but found no takers.

The Smoking Gun article, written by founding editor Bill Bastone, a former Village Voice reporter, quoted Frey, 36, as acknowledging over three interviews that he embellished many elements of his personal travails, including much of the three-month jail term he claimed to have served after drunkenly striking an Ohio police officer with his car in October 1992.

Bastone said Monday that the incident was much tamer than portrayed by Frey, who described a scene in which he was charged with assault and other felonies in Granville, Ohio, after he hit a policeman with his slow-moving car and cursed at officers as he forced them to remove him from his car.

Instead, Bastone wrote, Frey was detained after parking in a no-parking zone with one of his wheels rolled up onto the curb. An officer who spotted the infraction -- and who was interviewed by a Smoking Gun reporter -- said he arrested Frey without incident after suspecting he was drunk.

Another key moment called into question by the Smoking Gun centers on the death of a teenage girl who Frey said had befriended him when his family moved to St. Joseph Township, Mich., in the early 1980s. Frey wrote that he became a town pariah when the girl died in a tragic accident while on a forbidden date with her boyfriend after lying to her parents that she was going to the movies with Frey.

Bastone said the reporting found that two girls, including the one Frey wrote about with a different first name, were killed in 1986 when a teenage boy tried with a car to beat a train at a crossing. But Frey had nothing to do with the event, according to police records and the girl's parents, the Smoking Gun reported.

Frey did not return telephone calls to his home or cellphone.

The Smoking Gun website, www.thesmokinggun.comwhich began operating in 1997, focuses on procuring and posting online court records and other legal documents. It was the first outlet to obtain copies of grand jury transcripts in the Michael Jackson child molestation investigation.

Bastone said the Smoking Gun began looking into Frey's life after a reader e-mailed them a suggestion that they add Frey's mug shot from the Ohio arrest to its "Arresting Images" page of celebrity arrest photos, including infamous shots of Nick Nolte and Paul Reubens, the actor who played Pee-wee Herman.

Bastone said they had trouble finding Frey's records, which raised suspicions.

This is not the first time that the credibility of memoirs has been called into question. After the success of "Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul," Tony Hendra's 2004 tale of his troubled life, one of the author's daughters said he had omitted her allegations that he had molested her.

Frey's book, No. 1 this week on the Los Angeles Times' list of Southern California's bestselling nonfiction paperbacks, was lauded by some reviewers and many readers for what they believed was Frey's unflinching look at his life and stint in rehab.

Some of those readers posted reactions Monday on Internet discussion boards, offering scathing condemnations of Frey and heartfelt support.

"I don't really appreciate someone making up a bunch of fiction and presenting it as a nonfiction autobiographical account," read a posting at Amazon.com. "When you realize that it's all made-up, you realize that this guy is just ... pathetic. And not a very good writer."

But at Oprah's Book Club discussion board, some fans were more forgiving: "Every true story has some bias .... James had the courage to write about an addiction he had; he shouldn't be knocked down for it."

Winfrey's production company did not respond to calls seeking comment. Her selection of Frey's book was the first of a living writer in nearly two years, and the book remains prominently displayed on her book club website.

The book's hardcover publisher, Doubleday, and paperback publisher, Anchor, issued a joint statement of support Monday. "We stand in support of our author, James Frey, and his book which has touched the lives of millions of readers."

Frey's sequel, "My Friend Leonard," about a mobster with whom he said he struck up a friendship while in rehab, was published in June by Riverhead Press. A call to Frey's editor for both books, Sean McDonald, now at Riverhead Press, was redirected to a spokesman who said there would be no comment.

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