In reaction to Oprah’s recent two-part interview and reconcilliation with James Frey, I was inspired to write the Wizard of O the following…and yes, I will take off my skirt…
In the spirit of honesty and truth that I feel is necessary in the wake of your recent double episode with James Frey, I feel it imperative to admit to you that I may have watched part of an episode of your show over the past 25 years, maximum. Frankly, I viewed you as kind of a much-heralded icon and voice for women and children and minorities and the less fortunate in our world, but also as being over-the top, preachy, off-putting and a little frightening to anyone with a Y chromosome.
In some misguided way, I felt you abused your growing power as a leader of women in a manner that may be threatening to men, and that the views you instilled in women would make it impossible for a man to ever live up to the increasingly ridiculous standards all womankind would have for the men in their lives. I irrationally viewed you as little more than the leader of the world’s most popular cult, whose overall desire for global dominance and the softening and feminization of our populace would potentially destroy the very fabric of society.
But my wife of six months, god bless her soul, felt it necessary to DVR your final 20 or so shows, and coaxed me into watching a few of them with her. I truly enjoyed the messages and love that each episode seemed to focus upon, and started to gain an appreciation for you and the work you have done over the past quarter of a century. I mean, I always knew who you were and all of the great philanthropic work you have done in America and abroad. But I am not sure I ever really saw how your work touched people, and how people reacted to being touched by your seemingly god-like heart and soul.
I watched a few celebrity-centric final shows, as well as a few that focused on “ordinary people.” I watched the gregarious two-part United Center fanfare as well as your final show “lecture.” All painted a vivid picture of the work you have done over the past 25 years as well as the incredible love and gratitude you have evoked in so many across the globe.
But oddly enough, the very last shows I watched were the double episode featuring James Frey. My wife wanted to watch them with me a week or so ago, and I refused. I wanted no part, and dismissed the episodes saying “I wasn’t interested,” and “what could he possibly say now that could be worth investing not just one, but two hours of my precious time.”
Home alone yesterday, I found myself thumbing through the DVR, and not finding anything of interest at that specific point in time (or guided by a force outside my control or understanding), I reluctantly settled on the first part of the James Frey episode from May 16, 2011, thinking to myself, “Ok, I will give it a couple minutes…if I still feel underwhelmed, I will turn on SportsCenter.”
After about 70 seconds, I was engrossed, mesmerized, in fact. I watched the entire first part glued to the television screen, but still wanted more. So I watched the second part too. And I am pretty sure that interview may have changed my life in ways still unknown.
So many thoughts have been running through my head since the two minute mark of that interview – it has been about 20 hours now, and the constant thoughts have not subsided. In fact, that is why I am writing this email – because I have so much to say and feel it necessary to get it out.
That interview and the messages I gleaned from it touched me in some profound manner, not unlike some of the many people I have seen these past few weeks that watched or were part of your shows and efforts over the past 25 years. Something I honestly thought I would never admit in my lifetime was happening to me: I had been Oprahed (my life and paradigm has shifted because of you).
I find myself drawn to the common catchphrase uttered by Dr. Greg House on the eponymous hit television series…“Everybody lies.” The reason that quote and theme is so powerful, ironically, is because of how true it is.
Fact: James Frey wrote a great book, A Million Little Pieces. In fact, many people consider it to be one of the fifty or 100 “must read” books ever.
Fact: James Frey lied about said book and its classification as a memoir.
Fact: James Frey and Oprah Winfrey are irrevocably connected regarding A Million Little Pieces.
After watching your double episode interview with James Frey yesterday, I now realize why I was reluctant to watch it at first.
I was sure that interview would yield the same unsatisfying results every other interview or press conference I have seen in my life under similar circumstances had produced.
We live in a culture where everybody lies.
We also live in a culture that deifies celebrities, from actors to rock stars to athletes to politicians. We shine the spotlight on them each day, long after their movie or concert or game has ended, and keep it trained in their direction as we observe and fawn over their every move. They are famous. We are not. And we are fascinated with the lives of the famous.
And what “ordinary” people love more than anything is the discovery that celebrities are human. That’s right. With cameras and recorders focused on celebs at all hours of every day, we learn that the rich, famous and powerful lie, cheat, abuse substances, abuse their spouses, treat their employees poorly, drive drunk, defy the police, get divorced, lose their homes, make poor investment choices, lose their singing or acting or athletic chops with age, get injured, get sick, have children with diseases or disabilities, lose family members, commit crimes and use profanity – just like we do. And we eat it up.
Fact: Oprah Winfrey, with her power to influence the minds and habits of millions, made James Frey a celebrity.
Whether you like it or not, choosing A Million Little Pieces as an Oprah Winfrey Book Club selection in 2005 piqued the world’s curiosity about a man who wrote an incredible book, and in particular, the man upon whom we all thought said book focused. We wanted to know more about him…even more than the seemingly brutally honest and detailed accounts of his very personal demons and struggles bore out through the pages of his memoir.
And so the machine that is the American media got to work to bring this once unknown author’s “true” story to newspapers, magazines, and television and internet outlets all across the globe. This is what the media does to all celebrities. This is what society demands. The media must feed our addiction to everything celebrity. James Frey was a celebrity.
Just as the ordinary get hooked on celebrities, the famous too become addicted to their own celebrity. That’s right; most stars love the spotlight, and crave it again once they taste it for the first time. To the famous, fame is a drug, and as addicting as heroin. Many athletes refuse to retire until they are merely shells of their former selves on the playing field – or until an injury forces them from the game. Rock stars and musicians cling to the stage at ages where they no longer can carry the instruments they once played, nor carry a tune nor hit those high notes they once belted out so effortlessly. And actors who once were nominated for awards every time they made a movie or show get reduced to bit parts and caricature roles that barely remind the viewers of the once brilliant talent the actor possessed in his or her heyday.
In some cases, the desire to hold on to their glory forces celebrities to make life-changing choices. Some cheat – for example, athletes take performance enhancing drugs, or singers lip sync at concerts and performances. Some try to reinvent themselves, by moving from the big screen of movies to primetime television, or by moving into a television commentary job after retiring from a sport. Some go for the money grab of B movie parts and reality television simply to remain in the public eye. And many turn to mind-altering narcotics and/or alcohol to ease the pain of fading talent and/or to try to recapture the feeling of being on top and adored by millions.
James Frey wrote a book. He put his heart and soul into writing that book, and invested years of his life. He had a message he wanted disseminated to the world. He felt his message was important. He compromised his morality and ours to publish his book. James Frey made a choice.
James Frey lied, and garnered success under false pretenses. James Frey was, and still is, guilty of lying. James Frey paid a price for his dishonesty.
James Frey is not the first celebrity to lie or cheat in order to succeed or in order to maintain success or to cling to fame – nor will he be the last. But by god, in that two hour interview with you, James Frey was among the extreme minority who completely OWNED their mistake and genuinely regretted the pain they caused and admitted to the lessons learned from it.
He spoke eloquently and thoughtfully. He was as open and brutally honest as he was in the pages of AMLP. And he fully exposed his human side throughout the interview. I thought the interview was masterfully conducted, and that both sides proffered valuable insight, regret, remorse, humility and proof of closure and renaissance that are seldom seen in the wake of a scandal or controversy of this magnitude – or any magnitude at all, really.
My mind keeps drawing comparisons to Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds and baseball’s steroid scandal of the past decade. There are a number of similarities I saw between James Frey’s predicament and the steroid-laced swan songs of Rocket, Bonds and Big Mac’s careers. Maybe one of them will eventually own their responsibility and participation in baseball’s recent shame.
But what I do know is this: James Frey wrote a great book. He didn’t lie or cheat in writing that book. He lied and cheated in publishing it. Had he refused to compromise himself, we may never know that James Frey wrote a great book. Bonds and the litany of juicers who tainted baseball in the 1990s and early 2000s cheated in writing their book. Though it is universally accepted that Bonds and Clemens and a few others from that era were tremendous talents even before taking ‘roids, the records achieved, personal accolades garnered, ridiculous money earned and the trust of its fan base are forever tainted by the culture of cheating that permeated the sport of baseball.
The public will never truly know how good these players were or whether or not anything that happened on the field during their careers was honest athleticism or steroid enhanced bullshit as a result of the lying and cheating that defined that era of baseball. The public can and should know that James Frey wrote a great book. His message was real.
Richard Nixon lied and paid a steep price with his legacy for doing so. Bill Clinton lied and paid less of a price. Is that fair? Who’s to say. But the primary reason is that Clinton lied about something in his personal life, while Nixon lied about events surrounding his administration and his professional life. Does it matter, though? Both lied, and America voted them into the highest office in the world because we trusted them.
I thought it was very interesting and a valid point during your interview when Frey opined that most memoirs are published under false pretenses; that most authors of memoirs embellish and fabricate truths in order to tell a more interesting story. He wasn’t making excuses for his own actions, but rather allowing viewers to understand what I believe to be the most important fact at work in the entire James Frey scandal – James Frey is among the smallest percentage of memoir writers that ascended to celebrity status after writing his memoirs and without having any sort of fame prior to authoring his book.
Because his fame and celebrity stemmed directly from his memoir, and ballooned in such a short period of time, there was a frantic effort by the media and fact checking populace at large to get to know this previously unknown author. And all they really had to go on regarding James Frey was what was written in his book. With most other memoir authors, there was often an entire history and career of fame spanning many years. The media and paparazzi had already unearthed every truth and lie and scandal and boring minutiae regarding the author. Most of the big stories in said memoir were already in the public consciousness, or at least in the media’s.
Furthermore, as I stressed earlier, ordinary people and the media are fascinated with celebrities. Celebrities (and all famous people) are the most-often published memoir authors. And most celebrities use their memoirs as a last ditch effort to bask in and retain the spotlight, even after they are dead and gone. And they enjoy an advantage that Frey did not. People’s general fixation on celebrity makes famous people more interesting than common people in the American psyche…that is to say, if Joe Shmo and Brad Pitt had the exact same set of events occur in their lives, people would always to prefer to hear the version involving Brad Pitt.
So it would not be at all surprising to learn that Frey’s opinion/accusation is true. In fact, it would validate what we all know about the nature of the celebrity psyche and also what we know regarding how the media and general public perceive and subconsciously add layers of excitement and intrigue to an otherwise mundane story if a famous person is involved.
After all, everybody lies. Particularly when doing so protects somebody’s own real or perceived happiness, sense of security and status, be it celebrity or simply popularity in a community. People lie and embellish their resumes, cheat on their spouses and significant others, cheat on their taxes, lie about their age and weight, lie about their sexual history and hygiene, lie about their income, their medical history, whether or not they smoke, their insurance claims, their household employees, their income from tips, their grades in school, the reason the teacher called home, whether they had been drinking and/or speeding when pulled over by a cop….or even lie to make someone they love or care about feel better about themselves. It happens every day.
James Frey is an addict. Addicts are addicts for life, and it rarely limits its manifestation to one specific vice. An alcoholic may not do drugs, but if he or she did, he or she would eventually show addictive behavior with drugs as well. Same with gambling, sex, food and yes, even celebrity. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that once confronted with his lies, Frey maintained the charade and kept right on lying. He was addicted to his celebrity and to living in the limelight. He didn’t want it to end. It was better than any drink or drug he ever took.
To truly recover from his addiction, however, your interview and his full owning of what he did and his expression of regret, remorse and humility were vital. And you made it happen. And it was amazing theater. Truly beautiful to watch.
I thank you for allowing me to witness such an important, watershed moment in the handling and closure evoking resolution of a celebrity scandal.
Train wrecks that are celebrity scandals rock our world each and every day. How the celebs handle the moment, however, continues to be an opportunity wasted by each and every one of them. The overwhelming majority of celebs embroiled in a scandal refuse to own it. And the cover up is always worse than the crime. And few own that.
It may have taken a few years and a seat across from you, but James Frey owned everything. And it was one of the greatest moments I have ever witnessed. I am not yet sure how this moment will influence my life, but I know it stirred something in me I do not yet understand.
So thank you, and I wish you all the best as you open the next chapter in your own book.
It may have occurred late, but you have left your mark on me and I am proud to admit it.