‘A million little pieces’ is Frey’s memoir of the time he spent in a de-addiction centre. James is 23 when he is addicted to crack, liquor, and is wanted in three states. He started smoking and drinking since the age of 10 and had tried drugs since the age of 13. One day, after a virulent session of crack, Frey has some sort of an accident and gets injured badly. Then, he is flown in to Ohio by his parents. This is where they admit him in a rehab centre.
Frey then recounts day after difficult day on his road to recovery. He explains the fury that envelops him when he is getting detoxed. The rage he feels when he is around his parents, especially, seems to be a running theme in his life. He writes about the total hopelessness and despair when he thinks about his life. There are paragraphs on the sordid tribulations that his body undergoes – constant, incessant retching where he vomits ‘blood, food, and chunks of his stomach’; an aversion, yet an obsession to fill a hole with anything –food, mindless T.V., coffee, cigarettes, or routines of cleaning the toilet. Perhaps what is mind numbing is his strategy to methodically relive every little experience.
When James is first brought in to the addiction centre, he is badly wounded. He has a hole in his cheek, scars and wounds around his eyes, a broken nose, a broken jaw, and several broken teeth. His mind runs amuck with hatred, guilt, shame, and despair. He is angry with everyone and everything. He doesn’t believe in God or any of the 12 steps in the Alcoholics Anonymous program. At first, he and his thoughts are a congealed mass of wounds, scars, and screw-ups. He undergoes four root canals strapped to the dentists chair without anesthesia (anesthesia cannot be administered because he is on an addiction recovery program.) He scrubs toilets (as part of his duty in the Centre) even though he is faint from puking violently. Expectedly, he attempts suicide, and during one such attempt, an inmate talks him out of it. Frey and this inmate, Leonard, later go on to share a very close bond. (James Frey’s next book ‘My friend Leonard’ is based on this friend.) Leonard’s simple advice to James is to hold on.
As the book progresses, the author writes about how he held on. He decided to just be mindful of one moment at a time – not necessarily categorize it as good or bad, progress or plateau – but just go through each moment, choosing not to bolt or kill or drink or die. As with all kinds of addiction, the healing signs come by really slowly. At first, he can simply taste the sugar in his oatmeal. That is a notch in the scale of recovery. Then he can eat one donut with his coffee without throwing up. Later, he gets past 3 hours of nightmares and sleeps for 15 minutes without fear. He can sit beside someone and not feel like ripping the guy’s head off. A girl called Lily smiles at him and he smiles and stares, long after the girl is gone. This too, is healing.
Sporadically, James introduces portions of his life before he joined the Centre. He talks about the girl he fell in love with – ‘the one with Arctic eyes’. When his family comes to participate in the Family Program, he introduces pieces of his childhood when his father wasn’t around much and his mother seemed to be overprotective of him. He talks about his run-ins with the law.
At the end of the de-addiction program, James needs to make a list of all the things he must confess to a priest. Although James doesn’t believe in God and isn’t a Catholic, he still consents to meeting one. He knows that he won’t be able to go further before he senses some sort of closure – something that marks the end of this phase.
This book courted controversy briefly when it was published. It was nominated to be part of Oprah’s book club and later it was found that Frey had exaggerated or fictionalized portions of the memoir. In an interview with Larry King, Frey talked about what kind of changes he had made to the book – he changed the scar on the lip to the scar on the cheek, he changed criminal charges of DUI to charges to possession of drugs, certain names in the book were changed to protect the identity.
And since the colossal trademark of our times is to completely miss the point, certain factions were furious about the book being a fallacy. Memoirs were supposed to be factual and anything falling out of this puritan premise was to be discarded. Oprah, who interviewed James Frey, ticked him off over this. Later, in an interview with Larry King, Frey defended his book. A memoir, he explained, was a personal account of one’s own experiences and by virtue of this, it can’t be objective. The undisputed portions of this book are what are most important though.
The journey of a man who wept with shame and guilt before bleeding and cussing every night at a de-addiction centre. His story talks about dealing with fury (in graphic, gravelly detail) by pulling out his toenail and washing the blood in cold water. The parts, which Oprah later commended Frey on in the same Larry King Show, were what resonated with so many people – this explanation of the light that comes to you when you hold on. Grief and guilt can be undignified little pellets of emotions. They come tangled and snotted and it is so easy to give up when they trap you tight. Frey, through some sort of serendipity, fell in love in the midst of this trap, was nourished by teachings of Lao De Jing, serenely deconstructed his life on paper over black coffee and cold, icy wind in the park. It took him time and turmoil, but he finally came to terms with this simple fact that so many of us take for granted – that there is a tomorrow.
I took up the book to understand somebody else’s story. I understood my own. I have always believed that life, even the most menial kind, comes with a very strong force. Sometimes the force is strong enough to self-destruct. I am that type, although I have never been an addict. (I have, consistently though, made the more difficult and inconvenient choices.) Sometimes, that force shatters everything you’ve got. And then, slowly, when the dust settles, you pick up itsy bitsy fragments and make something beautiful of your own.
The wondrous thing about life is that you remember it as one strong thing. The wondrous thing about life is that you forget it was, once, a million little pieces.