Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Lies and damned lies

I'd been on the run a long time and I knew the cops were at my heels. They missed me by seconds over in Fresno. I caught the squawking of their scanners as they came up the stairs and I beat feet through a window and onto a fire escape. A big bull of a cop was waiting for me on the ground and we fought. He had me in a chokehold and I felt my freedom slipping away, along with my wind. But I came around after a few seconds and beat him down. When I left the musclehead, he was writhing in a mound of trash.

Those were hot, desperate times over on the West Coast. Everywhere I turned, those gumshoes were right behind me. I caught a train for Chicago and laid low there for a while. Then some U.S. marshals sniffed me out of the rathole flat I was living in and a whole squadron of them swooped in. I duked it out with another gorilla and managed to escape, this time through a dumbwaiter.

It's all hazy. The strip joint mix-up in Manhattan, the meth lab down in Baltimore, the brothel in Tennessee. I was using a lot then and the memories are fuzzy, like a blown-out photograph on a computer monitor. Running from The Man, fighting with The Man, knocking The Man down and beating feet.

Yeah, I was on the run a long time and I saw some crazy stuff. I was just a kid, but I was faster, meaner and slicker than the rest. I hear someone wrote a folk song about me in Tucson. In the Midwest they named a tornado in my honor. That's me, all right. Powerful, unpredictable and enigmatic.

Great stories I could tell for a lifetime. Too bad none of them are true. I just felt like going James Frey for a while. I felt like recreating my youth in hopes that people would believe it and find me heroic. Hey, feel free to send me money if my story has moved you.

I don't mean to get down on Frey and his struggle with booze and drugs. I think it's admirable that he conquered his addictions through sheer will and that he chose to write about his travails. What irks me is that he invented a majority of his experiences and then asked his reading public to believe it without question. One gets the feeling that Frey sat through a few group therapy sessions and felt inadequate for the tales he had to tell.

Which is fine. When one guy starts talking big, the guy next to him will start talking bigger. It's what we do. We are hardwired by evolution to build tales as high as they will go when we are in the company of our peers.

The problem I have with Frey is that he presents his struggles as mightier than those of the the next alcoholic or the next addict. He asks that you believe his battle was more valiant and harder fought.

He scrapped with cops. He served long prison stretches. He threw down with every officer and lost a girl while he was in the slammer. He suffered through a double root canal without anesthesia, stared down a Mafioso and established himself as the toughest hombre in rehab. He lost a girlfriend to a train wreck and spent his young years drinking away her memory.

At an AA meeting, it would make a great drunkalogue. Few people would bother to check the facts. But, sell a few million copies of a book and people will rightfully begin asking questions. They will find the police reports that reveal only minor arrests. They will find officer statements describing you as polite and cooperative, instead of combative and powerful. They will check prison records and find that you were never there. They will learn that the young lady killed by the train was never your girlfriend, and that you were never the neighborhood ruffian.

And so as the lies stack up, we start to wonder if Frey's sins of hyperbole are equal to or greater than those of someone like Jayson Blair. Blair fabricated news stories and hornswoggled those who trusted him. Frey deceived people who needed to believe the most - the suicidal drinkers and ragged-edge druggers who were inspired by his story. When they learned about his deceits, they might have felt they had been betrayed yet again, that there was one more entity in which they could not believe.

Mothers of rowdy children might claw your eyes out if you utter a word of criticism about Frey's book. Because they want to believe that even bad kids are essentially good, and that change is always possible. And while that may be true, Jim Frey should not be the symbol of the transformation.

Jayson Blair, Jim Frey. Two men who concocted clever mixtures of fact and lies and hoped they would ring true. Two men who fooled their audience for a time and then were called on it. A word of advice for them both: If you want to make things up, write fiction. People may still condemn your work. But at least they can't call you a liar.


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