One of the books that I’ve read and really enjoyed recently is A Million Little Pieces by James Frey. It is the author’s memoir of his life up to the age of about 23, at which point he is in a rehabilitation centre for severe drug addiction and alcoholism. It is therefore mostly about his experiences struggling to face up to, and overcome, his addictions, and is very powerfully written. The writing style is unusual: all the sentences are short, some monosyllabically so, and nothing is disguised or embellished. This very direct way of writing fits his personality and attitude perfectly: stubborn, determined and open. He captures his own self-loathing perfectly, as well as giving a real sense of what it is like to be in the grips of a serious addiction. He is scathing of ‘programs’ such as ‘The Twelve Steps’ of the AA, seeing the religious focus of such support groups as merely replacing one type of addiction with another, and prefers to rely on his own sheer will-power and the threat of the knowledge of his own death if he were to relapse.

Some of the scenes described in the book are shocking in their detail – the vivid dreams he has about relapsing and the cravings he has for any, all and as much as possible, drugs; the violence he himself has perpertrated whilst on drugs in the past; the abuse some of the friends he makes at the centre have suffered – but this is part of the strength of the book. I think anyone who has ever experienced even less than one percent of this type addiction will find echoes of it in this book, and those who have never experienced it will gain a far greater understanding of just exactly what it can be like.

There has been a fair amount of controversy surrounding this book. It was very publicly endorsed by the media machine that is Oprah Winfrey, who then just as publicly withdrew her endorsement when it emerged that some of the details of the book – for example, the arrest warrants he is wanted for in different states – were innacurate. A big hoo-ha was made about this because it was meant to be a ‘memoir’, and therefore a factually accurate account of his life – some people even went as far to claim their money back because they said they had been misled.

Personally, I think such people have a little too much time on their hands, and are perhaps a little jealous of the author’s success. Yes, it is marketed as a memoir, but there is a subtle difference between a memoir and an autobiography or biography, which are designed to be non-fiction, straight-forward accounts of someone’s life. A memoir also has to be a story; therefore, if the author chooses to interpret certain events in a certain way, to include, exclude or adapt certain facts in order to make the story and themes he wants to tell more hard-hitting and memorable, I don’t see anything wrong with it. How is it any different to films which are ‘based on a true story’ changing the facts of someone’s life to make a better film? A Coen Brothers film which I can’t remember the name of said it was based on a true story when in fact it was completely fictional and no-one complained or asked for their money back. No-one complains about Laura Ingalls Wilder adapting the story of her childhood in order to make more enthralling and readable children’s novels.

Whilst it has to be said that, for every person who demanded their money back, the controversy surrounding the book probably meant there were several more who went out and bought it out of curiousity, I don’t think such controversy should detract from the essential power of this book. It is incredibly well-written, insightful and engrossing and I thouroughly recommend it. Every author has a right to an ‘artistic licence’ and I would argue that James Frey has used his to incredible effect.

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