All right, maybe you’ve heard enough about James Frey and the whopping, wicked lies he told about himself in his mega-selling memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Frey’s was the ultimate confessional blockbuster, an “Oprah’s Book Club” pick and blazing ray of hope to untold numbers of recovering alcoholics, addicts, ne’er-do-wells, soul-searchers and narcissists -- at least 3.5 million people, which is how many copies A Million Little Pieces is reported to have sold in hardcover. What Oprah herself had sanctified as “a gut-wrenching memoir” turns out to be a tissue of … er … untruths.
Or maybe you haven’t heard anything at all about James Frey. Maybe you’ve been too busy keeping your eye on your job, the kids, your credit rating, Judge Cashman, that pervert down the street and those ever-rising gas prices. Maybe you’re old or disabled, and you’ve been too worried about your new, improved Medicare drug benefits to concern yourself with fancy “literary” scandals.
Either way, I’m sick of the story. So much media wind has been expended on Frey and his shocking crimes against the Truth that I can't keep up with all the commentary. And what difference does it make? Most Americans, it seems, don't mind being lied to.
You don’t believe me? Go out west and hear what they’re saying about “gay cowboys” -- i.e., there aren’t any, despite the huge success of director Ang Lee’s homo-western, Brokeback Mountain.
"They've gone and killed John Wayne with this movie," says Jim-Bob Zimmerschied, a disgruntled, beer-swilling ranch-hand in Sheridan, Wyoming, in an interview with the London Telegraph. "I've been doing this job all my life and I ain't never met no gay cowboy.”
That’s what he thinks. In fact, cancer killed John Wayne, and even then he was persistently described as “a survivor.” So you see what I mean -- the truth has nothing to do with it. Just listen to Bush’s chief press spokesman, Scott McClellan, who announced last week, apparently with a straight face, "The president remains fully committed to building a culture of life, a culture of life that is built on valuing life at all stages."
You’ll forgive me for saying that the accuracy of McClellan’s statement depends entirely on what kind of life you have and, for that matter, what kind of life you are. If you’re an acre of wilderness or a polar bear or a whale up the Thames, your chances aren’t very good. And if you’re an Iraqi, or an Afghan or a Pakistani, your life isn’t valued at all. On January 13, in Bajaur, Pakistan, a U. S. air strike that was meant to “take out” Osama bin Laden’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, instead resulted in the deaths of 18 civilians, “among them a dozen women and children.” Once again, the intelligence was “faulty.”
“Officials first indicated that the U.S. had killed [Zawahiri],” writes Maureen Dowd in The New York Times -- “or at least his son-in-law or a friend of his son-in-law, or maybe the guy who delivered a kabob to him.”
Maybe. According to the Associated Press, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has instructed the United States that the January 13 strike "must not be repeated." But you can bet that it will be, and that it will be lied about again.
"The president is more determined than ever to stay the course," says a former defense official to The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh. "He doesn't feel any pain. Bush is a believer in the adage, 'People may suffer and die, but the Church advances.'"
It sure does. In a recent ABC holiday special, "Heaven: Where Is It? How Do We Get There?" Barbara Walters asked a whole slew of celebrities what they thought about this subject. And while she didn’t actually come up with a “road map” to Elysium, Walters did explain in that tough, penetrating way she has that heaven is “a journey, an exploration into life as an interlude.” Walters is like Oprah in that sense, only with more facelifts.
No, Americans don’t mind being lied to at all. We’re used to it. Sure, some people out there may honestly believe that Brad and Angie aren’t “involved” -- even though Brad has adopted Angie’s children and they’re having a baby of their own – and that The Da Vinci Code actually represents a serious theological discussion. But these are a minority, I expect; most of us are fully aware that we’re lied to constantly, and most would agree with The Times’ Frank Rich when he says that “no one except pesky nitpickers much cares whether Mr. Frey's autobiography is true.” As Frey’s former editor, Nan Talese, remarks with a sigh, “We aren’t talking about weapons of mass destruction here.”
Why aren't we? I really think the reason James Frey is in so much trouble is because he made up stories about himself instead of something else. That’s a big no-no in America, where the myth of redemption holds heavy sway, allowing us not just to write bestselling balderdash but to bomb other people with impunity while going deaf on our iPods.
You see, Americans are always right. We’re always sincere. And if you believe that, it’s just as well to leave the last word to Frey, who, at the height of the controversy, turned up on Larry King Live to defend himself -- with his mother, no less -- and actually told the truth: "We're dealing with a very subjective memory.”
Peter Kurth is the author of international bestselling books including: Anastasia: The Riddle of Anna Anderson, Isadora: A Sensational Life, and a biography of the anti-fascist journalist Dorothy Thompson, American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson. His essays have appeared in Salon, Vanity Fair, New York Times Book Review, and many others. Peter lives in Burlington, Vermont. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his website at: www.peterkurth.com/
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