January 26

This Day in History

Literary

Jan 26, 2006:

Oprah Winfrey takes James Frey to task for lying

On this day in 2006, during a live broadcast of her daytime TV talk show, Oprah Winfrey confronts author James Frey about fabrications in “A Million Little Pieces,” his memoir about addiction and recovery, which she chose as an Oprah’s Book Club selection in September 2005.

“A Million Little Pieces,” published in 2003, was James Frey’s first book. In it, he describes in graphic detail his harrowing experiences with addictions to drugs and alcohol, and his time at a treatment center when he was in his early 20s. After Winfrey picked “A Million Little Pieces” for her popular on-air book club, which launched in 1996, the memoir climbed the best-sellers lists, following in the footsteps of many of the club’s previous selections. In October 2006, Frey appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to promote his book, which the talk show host had previously said she “couldn’t put down,” calling it “a gut-wrenching memoir that is raw and it’s so real…”

Then, in early January 2006, The Smoking Gun Web site published an expose claiming court records, police reports and interviews with a variety of sources showed that Frey had falsified and exaggerated parts of “A Million Little Pieces”--especially surrounding his criminal past and time spent in jail--in order to make his story more dramatic. On January 11, 2006, Frey and his mother appeared on “Larry King Live” to defend “A Million Little Pieces,” and Winfrey called in to the show to express support for the author. However, two weeks later, on January 26, when Frey appeared on Winfrey’s for a second time, he faced tough questioning from the talk show host, whose attitude toward him had changed. Winfrey began the live program by telling him, “It is difficult for me to talk to you because I feel really duped. But more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.”

Frey admitted to Winfrey that he had altered and embellished details of his story, including the fact that he had been in jail for just several hours, not 87 days, as stated in his book. When Winfrey asked him about a particularly memorable incident from the book in which he wrote about having root canals without anesthesia, Frey conceded he couldn’t recall whether or not the dentist had used any Novocain. Winfrey also confronted the publisher of “A Million Little Pieces,” saying her staff had been contacted about possible inaccuracies in the book, only to be told that the publishing company stood by Frey’s story as a work of non-fiction. During the show, the publisher acknowledged that “A Million Little Pieces” had not been fact-checked.

Frey’s fabrications sparked a national debate over the definition of memoir. In the aftermath of the controversy, he was dropped by his literary agent, and his publisher settled a class-action lawsuit brought by readers who claimed they had been defrauded. Future editions of “A Million Little Pieces” included a note from Frey in which he admitted to altering parts of his story. However, the scandal did not signal the end of Frey’s career: He went on to publish the novels “Bright Shiny Morning” (2008) and “The Final Testament of the Holy Bible” (2011).

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