Frey's Lies: What Did Oprah Know and When Did She Know It?

AND, Frey's Lies Grow in Size

A New York Times report today (HT Lucianne) by Edward Wyatt is shredding Oprah Winfrey's defenses relating to what has turned out to be a largely false book (third item at link), namely James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces."

Straight to the point: Oprah has a lot of explaining to do. After reading the article, you're almost forced to conclude one of two things:

  • She runs an operation that's so intimidating that people within her company who knew better felt they couldn't speak out.
  • Or, she knew about Frey's Lies and has been an active participant in a monumental literary hoax.
Are there any other choices?

Specifically, addiction counselors at the rehab center where Frey was treated, including a frequent guest on Oprah's show, are outraged at Frey's descriptions of what happened there; are concerned that Frey's Lies may keep others from getting needed treatment; and claim that Oprah's people, if not Oprah herself, knew well in advance that the parts of Frey's book relating to his rehab were largely false (free registration required; link within story added by me; bolds are mine):

Treatment Description in Memoir Is Disputed

To Oprah Winfrey, the power of James Frey's memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," lay not in whether the author really spent three months in jail, as he claimed, or whether he lost a lover to suicide.

Rather, she said in her now-famous call to CNN's "Larry King Live" on Jan. 11, where Mr. Frey defended himself against accusations that he falsified significant parts of his life story, it was the author's story of recovery, a rebirth that took place within the walls of an addiction treatment center, that provided "the underlying message of redemption" that resonated with her.

But more than three months before questions were raised about Mr. Frey's memoir by the Smoking Gun Web site ..... - before, in fact, Ms. Winfrey first had Mr. Frey as a guest on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" - producers at the program were told by a former counselor at the foundation that runs the Minnesota treatment center reportedly used by Mr. Frey that his portrayal of his experience there grossly distorted reality.

Several other addiction counselors who formerly worked for the organization, the Hazelden Foundation, which runs the Hazelden rehabilitation center in Center City, Minn., have also come forward to dispute Mr. Frey's claims about Hazelden. The accusations call into question what Mr. Frey has labeled the "essential truth" of his book, the "420 of the 432 pages" that take place during treatment. It was Mr. Frey's story of redemption that led Ms. Winfrey to make "A Million Little Pieces" a selection for her television book club and propelled it to sales of more than two million copies.

After receiving the information from Debra Jay, a Michigan addiction counselor who herself has been a frequent guest on Ms. Winfrey's program, a senior producer for the "The Oprah Winfrey Show" conducted an extensive interview with Ms. Jay. It is not known if Ms. Winfrey was apprised of the concerns, but she made no mention of the potential discrepancies in her many on-the-air comments about "A Million Little Pieces," including when she called the book "all completely true" on her program and told Mr. Frey, "I don't doubt you."

In response to questions last week about the early warning given to the program, a spokeswoman for Ms. Winfrey, Angela DePaul, said, "We have no comment."

In a statement, Mr. Frey said he was not acquainted with any of the people who were disputing his account. "It's quite possible that different people have different experiences," he said. "There are situations that patients experience that staff know nothing about and which are deliberately kept from them."

..... "His description of treatment at Hazelden is almost entirely false," said Ms. Jay, who trained as an addiction counselor at Hazelden's operations in Minnesota and who is the co-author of two guides to treating addiction published by the Hazelden Foundation. She has appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" at least six times to discuss issues related to alcohol and drug addiction.

Ms. Jay said she voiced her objections about "A Million Little Pieces" to a senior producer for Ms. Winfrey's program on Oct. 1, nearly a month before Ms. Winfrey's interview with Mr. Frey was broadcast. "I'm coming forward because his descriptions of treatment are so damaging," Ms. Jay said. "These are things that could not happen to anybody at Hazelden or at any reputable licensed treatment center."

Among the episodes she and the other former counselors have called into question are Mr. Frey's claims of being physically abused by other residents of the treatment center, of being left to sleep on the floor of a common room overnight after an altercation, of regularly vomiting blood and of having his nose rebroken and set by a doctor. "He describes a level of medical care that would not occur at Hazelden," Ms. Jay said. "He would have been taken to an emergency room, and any violent behavior would have been met with a discharge."

..... In interviews over the last week, Ms. Jay and the other counselors said they had decided to speak publicly because they feared that Mr. Frey's portrayal of rehabilitation was more likely to scare people away than lead them to seek help. While questions have been raised about the book's depiction of rehab by some critics and in online chatter, this is the first time treatment professionals who have worked inside Hazelden have spoken publicly at length.

None of the former Hazelden employees who have decided to speak out ever met Mr. Frey during his stay at Hazelden; nor could they talk about it if they had. But each of them said the regulations and procedures at Hazelden were subject to rigorous review by groups of counselors, so that the many breaches of protocol described by Mr. Frey would have been unlikely to go unnoticed.

Carol Colleran, who worked for 17 years in the Hazelden system, including two years at the Minnesota locations, said that unlike Mr. Frey's contention on "Larry King Live" that only about 5 percent of his book is in dispute, "98 percent of that book is false" in its descriptions of how Hazelden works.

..... Mic Hunter, a psychologist who worked for four years at Hazelden-related treatment centers in Minnesota, said Mr. Frey's book made him angry. "It's hard enough for people to get accurate information about treatment because of all the confidentiality rules," he said. "So many people have negative feelings about treatment to begin with. Why would anybody want to send anyone to a treatment program where they would be treated like this? He is claiming it is true, but it's not."

With relatively rare exceptions, the criticism of this entire fiasco has been muted, almost to the point of condoning it. I for one am totally sick of the "nobody's being hurt" arguments that have been making the rounds in some circles. The valid concerns about the impact of Frey's Lies on future rehab patients should put an end to those contentions once and for all.

It's also worth asking: How would a conservative talk-show host who put considerable effort into flogging someone else's nonfiction book be faring in similar circumstances?

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.