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The Art of Responsibility

James Frey

     . . . writer. A Million Little Pieces, Mr. Frey’s memoir of surviving a profound and almost fatal addiction to alcohol and drugs, reached #1 on 5 different bestseller lists. His second book, My Friend Leonard effectively completes the story he told in the first one. In addition, Mr. Frey has successfully written and produced Hollywood films. He is currently writing a screen play based on his memoirs and anticipates writing novels. Originally from Cleveland, Mr. Frey now lives in New York City with his wife and their daughter.

Excerpts2:13 secs

If you want to quit doing drugs or quit drinking, that “want” is what essential, says James Frey. Then you’ll find a way. After half a lifetime profoundly addicted to drugs and alcohol, he landed in an addiction treatment center, where apparent differences evaporate -- you’re is just someone in a huge amount of trouble and you have to figure out a way to deal with it.  Or you’ll die.

James Frey found his way and his telling of the tale landed him at the #1 spot on 5 bestseller lists. Others didn’t. The life of addiction is not for the feint of heart, James Frey says, it’s hard, hard, hard. But he makes no excuses. He says he always knew what he was doing, was very conscious of decisions he was making and when he decided to live, found it absurd not to take responsibility for himself.

The thing that Mr. Frey finds so tough about addiction is that there’s no “right” or “wrong” and there is no single answer. And there is currently no way to “fix it” (though he is encouraged by promising medical breakthroughs.) Of course, no one wants addicts to freak out or give up, he says, and he knows it’s hard to tell people what he believes they should be told -- we don’t know why you are the way you are and we don’t know how to make you better, you’ve got to figure it out and we’ll do our best to help you.

He found help in the Tao Te Ching which his brother gave him, because he learned to think in a very specific way.  But, he says, he doesn’t got to “the Tao club” and the Tao has no rules. But he’s not selling the Tao, either, confident it could just as well have been War and Peace.

He calls himself a proud heretic when it comes to the 12 step programs on which most treatment programs are founded. Even they claim low levels of success. He remembers that it made no sense to him to swap one dependency for another -- that’s not solving a problem but transferring it. He figured the idea is not to be addicted to anything -- not a substance, not an activity, not a meeting, not a god. He also objects to what he calls a culture of fear in the culture of treatment. Why couldn’t he keep his friends of 15 years standing just because of his own challenges?  He knew what he was doing and it was up to him to fix it.

Not surprisingly, people are always asking him for advice and he finds it hard to give because he thinks the answers are different for everyone. But the one thing he always does say is, “If I can, you can. I’m not any different.” And he insists that he really, truly believes that.

After a lifetime of running from his feelings, James Frey calls on us all to feel greatly. Having lived a life that reads like fiction, he is no longer addicted to anything. He thinks his approach to keeping it that way is probably harder in certain ways. But ultimately, he is convinced, it works better.

[This Program was recorded June 22, 2005, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

James Frey tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell what stories matter most to him and wonders why people have gotten frightened of feeling greatly.

Conversation 1 RealAudio6:34 sec

Conversation 2

Having spent the first 23 years of his life teaching himself to be invulnerable, Mr. Frey found that the result is a loss of humanity. He depicts the solitariness of true alcoholism and drug addiction, which he defines. He considers what he calls a weird kind of upside to his nearly complete self-reliance. Serious addiction is not for the feint of heart, he says, detailing the huge consequences of what a hard, hard life it is. He introduces his “Fury” and describes plausible biological roots for both his rage and his addictions.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:54 sec

Conversation 3

Having spent the greater part of his life wanting more-more-more-more-more-more-more, Mr. Frey compares his own self-destructive drive to other people’s pursuit of money, women or cars. He describes what it took when he confronted the idea of ending his assault on himself. He proudly declares himself a heretic and explains why he rejects 12 Step programs. He explains why he chose to take full responsibility for his own actions rather than what he considered substituting one dependency for another. It’s harder, he says, but it ultimately works better and explains why, keenly aware of what he calls the paradox of addiction. If you want to quit doing drugs and drinking, you’ll find a way, he says, convinced “the want” is what counts. Describing how the ancient Tao Te Ching helped him, he insists that if he can quit, you can.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:46 sec

Conversation 4

There was more truth for him in paradoxes and contradictions than in simple answers, Mr. Frey says, and talks about the complicated lives addicts live. In a treatment center, he says, all of the apparent differences among people disappear -- ultimately you’re a person in a huge amount of trouble and you have to figure out how to deal with it or you’ll die. The thing about addiction that is so tough, he believes, is that there is no “right” or “wrong” and no way currently to “fix it.”  He expresses hopefulness about medical breakthroughs. His books themselves are explored.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:53 sec

Conversation 5

Hollywood made him successful but not happy, Mr. Frey remembers, caught up in the idea that money matters but feeling empty, finding his life awful. After he describes his years in Los Angeles, he remembers what he wanted when he decided to be a writer, why it mattered to him and how it contributed to his singular style. The profound problems associated with crack cocaine are raised.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:42 sec

Conversation 6

Describing his experience of physical illness as a metaphor, Mr. Frey summarizes how he learned how to stop hating himself and became comfortable looking himself in the eye.  Finally, he considers what’s ahead.

Conversation 1 RealAudio4:24 sec


We admire James Frey’s courage, candor and compassion. We thank him for telling his stories from which all of us can learn more about what it is to be human.

James Frey found Lao Tze’s Tao Te Ching helpful. You can find a variety of translations and ways to access it
at the “Taoism Information Page for Tao Te Ching ~ Dao De Jing in English”

The Chinese offer their own translation of this very ancient text on their China Page

Related Links:
James Frey has his own website and one for My Friend Leonard, a Riverhead Book, published by Penguin Group.
A Million Little Pieces is published by Doubleday and Ancohor Books, divisions of Random House.
Andrew Solomon’s struggles with depression are radically different from James Frey’s fight against addiction. However, both provide fundamental insights into what it means to be human.
Judy Collins’ struggles with addiction and with the suicide of her son show one path to overcoming deep adversity.
In American Dream Jason DeParle tells the story of three women trying to survive amidst welfare reform in America. The dangerous ecology of racism, drugs and the context of poverty challenges their efforts to lift themselves and their families.
New York cardiologist Dr. Evan Levine takes on the prescription drug industry (Big Pharma) in What Your Doctor Won’t (or Can’t) Tell You.
Former Republican Governor of New Mexico Gary Johnson says that America’s “war on drugs” is racist, misguided, destructive and ... it doesn’t work .

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