Like the wind, fakers destabilize

— Photo by Rhododendrites

James Frey signs a book at the BookExpo America 2018 at the Javits Convention Center in New York City.

When James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” appeared in April 2003, it was sold as a memoir in the nonfiction section of the store.

In the book, if you’ll recall, Frey expounds on his life 10 years earlier when at 23 he was strung out on crack and booze and wrangling with law-enforcement officials, felony-wise, in several states.

His parents couldn’t take it anymore; they dragged him to a 12-step program and locked him up. A good part of the memoir has to do with things there.

When the book first came out, it got some good reviews but then people started piling on Frey, saying he didn’t tell the truth; his memory didn’t smell right.

The poet and essayist John Dolan in “Exile” (May 2003) began his piece with, “This is the worst thing I ever read.” You can guess what he said next from the title: “A Million Pieces of Shit.”

Very few can predict the trajectory of a book’s success but after Oprah Winfrey picked the memoir as an Oprah’s Book Club selection, it shot to number-one on Amazon; The New York Times listed it 15 times as a best seller. Sales reached the millions, it was translated, there was talk of a movie.

When Winfrey had Frey on her Oct. 26, 2005 show, it was billed as, “The Man Who Kept Oprah Awake At Night.” She said the book is, “like nothing you’ve ever read before. Everybody at Harpo is reading it.” The staff kept asking each other, ‘What page are you on?’”

Frey was a hit, and “memoir” had moved up a notch on the Great Genres of Literature Scale.

Then the Earth shook. An article appeared in the Jan 8, 2006 edition of “The Smoking Gun,” saying Frey prevaricated. He didn’t write a memoir, he spoke fictoir.

William Bastone, the journal’s editor who wrote the piece, called it “A Million Little Lies.” For example: At a Barnes and Noble appearance Frey told onlookers he had been in jail “a bunch of times ... the last time ... for about three months.”

But Bastone found that Frey had hardly seen a jail: “The closest Frey has ever come to a jail cell was the few unshackled hours he once spent in a small Ohio police headquarters waiting for a buddy to post $733 cash bond.”

There were no felonies, no skirmishes with police. From cover to cover, Frey had projected the identity of someone else, someone he thought might better win fans and bring him what? Fame? Glory? Adventure? I have no idea but, whatever it was, Frey had impersonated someone.

And those who impersonate do so to borrow strength for a self they feel does not measure up. Whether called imposters, prevaricators, or impersonators, this “type” offer no solid ground to stand on. Like the wind, fakers destabilize.

But if I tell you, “Hey, let’s play a game; I’m going to tell a story I imagined,” then we’ve set the ground rules for a fictive, make-believe world. There’s no truth to stretch or alter.

Memoir is an art form that reflects a person’s endeavor to see the record of one’s life as if it’s occurring now. It’s a mirror to find grounding in.

In the case of Frey, at first Winfrey thought the criticisms were no big deal: “To me it seems to be much ado about nothing” but, as the difference between what Frey said his life was and what it really was, was revealed, Winfrey called Frey back to the show saying: We gotta talk.

In front of a nation, she told the prevaricator he “duped” her and that readers felt “betrayed.” I’m sure she meant her book club (as well as her considered reputation as a judge of life-affirming literature). On TV, she fried Frey.

Frey’s publisher, Random House, took positive steps by offering a rebate to anyone who thought they were buying “memoir” but got BS, composites, lies, the imagined projections of a weak ego to save itself. What’s the right phrase here? Fake news? No, it’s fake personal history.

All “victims” had to do, Random House said, was: (1) give proof of purchase; (2) provide a piece of the book; and (3) issue a sworn statement, saying they believed they were buying truth and all they got was lies — and were, as Oprah Winfrey was, duped.

This of course was an era when writing and selling memoir had become big — it was an economic and psychological phenomenon. Every soul seemed compelled to tell its story, and in public, some the devotees of memoir guru, Mary Karr.

And it was Karr who said in her 2015 “The Art of Memoir,” that the first commandment of memoir is: Thou shalt not dupe; truth must abide.

Duping is a virus that destabilizes the liar’s body as well as every body it touches. The title of her second chapter is “The Truth Contract Twixt Writer and Reader.”

Which means, if your memoir is a Christmas tree, no tinsel. No tinsel, no glitz, no dazzle, no sleight of hand, no duping jive of anyone, any time.

While Frey was under siege, a similar thing was happening to David Sedaris, the eternally side-splitting humorist some consider a Will Rogers.

Sedaris’s truth IQ got called on the carpet by Alex Heard in the March 19, 2007 edition of “The New Republic.” He called his view of Sedaris’s story “This American Lie.”

He said that Sedaris said, at 13, he had volunteered in a mental hospital and got assigned to a black man, Clarence. One of his first jobs was to help Clarence lift an old woman from bed to gurney.

Sedaris said that, as they lifted, the old lady’s sheet fell off and there, before his virgin eyes, appeared a pile of wrinkled old flesh; whose teeth then bit him!

Heard, who had begun looking into Sedaris’s claims, called Sedaris, went to Richmond to interview his family, and then to the asylum where Sedaris said he and Clarence had worked.

Heard found there was no Clarence, there was no old lady, no body got bitten. And the place didn’t look like how Sedaris had painted it. Heard then gave a pile of other stretchings-of-truth.

I’m always puzzled why people exaggerate, why they project a self that is not who they are, but say it is.

Did Sedaris exaggerate for a bigger payday? For fame? A house? A psychological boost?

Creating a make-believe self and saying it’s you, and then calling the deception memoir, is identity-laundering, borrowing strength to counter weakness.

Memoir, no matter what your position on lying is, is not fiction. When a person says, this is my life, it cannot be someone else’s. Truth injects sanity into the psyche, and into our relationships with everybody we touch. It stabilizes.

Which brings me to Donald Trump and his excretion-filled tsunami of prevarications. Fact Checker says, after 800 days, Trump stomped on the truth 9,451 times. The researchers call it “false or misleading claims” but we all know it’s destabilization.

In history books, Abraham Lincoln is spoken of as “The Great Emancipator”; in days to come, Donald Trump will be called “The Great Prevaricator,” a man who tore a nation into — in the words of James Frey — “A Million Little Pieces.”