James Freyed for our sins.
That's what I kept thinking during those agonizing weeks when every journalist, academic, commentator, and social critic seemed obsessed with flaying the drug addict turned writer for embellishing the details of his sad, pathetic life. It wasn't just a scandal.
It was a cottage industry.
Okay, so here comes the required disclaimer: What I'm saying should not be misconstrued to mean that I am supporting or defending what Frey did. I believe that when a work claims to be nonfiction, it should be just that. It should tell the truth. It should not exaggerate, inflate, or distort the truth. As someone who is gearing up to teach a memoir writing workshop this fall, I have special reason to resent Frey for what he did ? he has made my teaching life harder.
And here's another disclaimer: I never saw Oprah castrate Frey on national television. I just read about it. And read about it. In fact, I read and heard so much about the public humiliation that I felt I had witnessed it. It well could be that, years from now, when my false memory syndrome kicks in, I may announce that I actually witnessed this great national moment of catharsis. As Mr. Frey has taught us, memory is not just selective but also self-serving and suggestive.
But still and all, the pitch of all the hysteria was wrong. James Frey, after all, is guilty of what has become our greatest national characteristic ? the effortless blurring of truth and fiction. Our highest leader is a man who took us into war based on an untruth, or several untruths. Until recently, many of our countrymen believed that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. Our vice-president told so many lies linking Hussein to Bin Laden that he hypnotized our less savvy fellow citizens into believing that the invasion of Iraq had something to do with 9/11. And away to war we went.
On television, shouting matches between tweedy, effete liberals and snarly, red-meat conservatives masquerade as news shows. The lines between information and entertainment are so blurred that we have coined a new term ? infotainment. The grotesque reality shows are not realistic at all ? unless you count surrealism to be a form of realism. The White House pays journalists to plant stories in the press and no one seems to care very much. And in the business world, euphemisms thrive ? downsizing, restructuring, involuntary attrition. These euphemisms have one objective ? to bury the truth.
And I think Frey was just the poor sap upon whose shoulders this world of deceit and deception came tumbling down. I think the anger and angst that all the pundits felt, all the scorn that they heaped on Frey, has been building for a good long time. I think all the armchair cheering that went on when Oprah nailed the memoirist ? You show him, Oprah! You tell it as it is, girl! ? was a kind of accumulated rage, a cheated sense that we???re being lied to and duped by our political leaders, our media commentators, our business leaders. And James Frey happened to be the guy sitting across the chair from Oprah ? not Karl Rove, not Ken Lay, not George W. ? and so we let him have it.
And then we gloated about the fact that we had taken this bestselling writer and reduced him to a million little pieces (Ah, the sweet irony! What a godsend this title has been for every two-bit journalist and blogger). And we did our best to ignore what we know in our hearts to be true ? that actually, it is our reality-denying society that lies in a million little pieces of denial and subterfuge.