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Claims Against Frey’s Memoir Raise Issues

January 12, 2006

NEW YORK (AP) _ Does the author of a memoir have an unspoken contract with readers to be true to the facts? Even if those facts are intensely personal?

Many have been asking that question since James Frey was accused this week of embellishing important parts of his best-selling (and Oprah-endorsed) memoir, ``A Million Little Pieces,″ a searing account of his battle with substance abuse.

One of them is Heather Lafortezza. The 39-year-old mother from Chappaqua, N.Y., just read the book for an upcoming session of her book club, a monthly gathering of 14 friends.

``As you’re reading it, you really feel like you know him, and you become emotionally invested in him,″ said Lafortezza. So, when she read about the alleged fabrications in the book, ``I felt kind of duped,″ she said. A book, she said, should be ``either fiction or nonfiction.″

Frey acknowledged Wednesday night he’d embellished certain parts of the book but characterized such changes as minor, adding that a memoir is an ``imperfect animal″ and a ``subjective retelling″ of events. Oprah Winfrey defended him, too, dismissing allegations of falsehoods made by The Smoking Gun (www.thesmokinggun.com) as ``much ado about nothing″ and urging readers who have been inspired by the book to ``Keep holding on.″

``What is relevant is that he was a drug addict ... and stepped out of that history to be the man he is today and to take that message to save other people and allow them to save themselves,″ Winfrey said Wednesday night in a surprise phone call to CNN’s Larry King, who was interviewing Frey on his live television program.

His publishers, Doubleday and Vintage Anchor, said in a statement Tuesday that ``recent accusations against him notwithstanding, the power of the overall reading experience is such that the book remains a deeply inspiring and redemptive story for millions of readers.″

That position infuriates Mary Karr, author of the famous 1995 memoir ``The Liars’ Club.″

``With three million books in print, that’s a very convenient stance for Doubleday to take,″ Karr said in a telephone interview. Assuming the allegations are correct, she said, Frey has ``the moral credibility of a sea mollusk″ for fabricating his work.

A memoir, Karr said, is exceedingly difficult to write, even when you think you have all your facts straight. ``You’re a solitary voice, telling a life story as truthfully as you can,″ she said. ``Even when you think (your memories) are true, you have to peck and push and nudge yourself,″ she said. ``Is that right? Could it have really happened that way?″

Karr’s view was echoed by Nicholas Christopher, an author of 14 books and a writing professor at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.

``When you write a memoir, I think you’re making a covenant with the reader,″ Christopher said. ``You’re on the honor system.″

He said he was troubled by the view, advanced by some, that readers ``expect″ facts to be occasionally distorted in a memoir.

``Yes, we do that sometimes _ it’s called a novel,″ he said.

Sometimes, memoir writers will begin their books with a disclaimer, saying that some events have been distorted or changed. (Frey did not, although he did in a follow-up book, ``My Friend Leonard.″) Even that is a cop-out, Christopher said. ``How does the reader know which parts are true? It’s just a game.″

Other memoirs have been questioned in recent years. One of the best known is ``Fragments of a Childhood 1939-1948,″ a widely hailed Holocaust memoir by Binjamin Wilkomirski that was later discredited as a fraud.

Christopher and others interviewed expressed concern for addicts who may have read Frey’s book for guidance or as an inspiration for their own struggles. When Winfrey chose the 2003 book for her book club last fall, propelling it up the best-seller lists, it was because it told a harrowing tale of recovery. A number of organizations devoted to helping addicts recover have recommended it as important reading.

One of them is the Addiction Recovery Guide, a Web site set up by Dr. Lucy Waletzky as a public resource after her son’s death five years ago from substance abuse. The site’s message board was humming this week after the allegations against Frey.

``Well, I think we let an addict dupe us,″ wrote one woman under the name Amy S. ``I hope someone sues so I can get my $20.00 back.″

Another reader, though, saw the book’s value despite the allegations.

``It doesn’t matter to me if it was all lies or not,″ wrote ``Ashley.″

``I read it I loved it meant something to me. Would you read it if it was boring? NO. Would you read if it he talked about the boring days where he just sat around and smoked cigarettes? NO.″

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