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by James Frey
1594481954, 2005
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jul 18th 2006

My Friend Leonard

Now that James Frey has acknowledged that major features of his memoir A Million Little Pieces (reviewed in Metapsychology 8:39) were invented rather than fact, it is not so clear how to react to his work.  Some will dismiss it out of hand as a pack of lies, but that's not a very thoughtful response.  Other recent memoirs have been pretty hard to believe, (especially those of Augusten Burroughs) and some have frankly blended facts and lies together partly in exploration of the genre (see Lauren Slater's Lying).  Just about every memoir will disguise people's true names, and many of them will describe the distant past with so many small details of conversation, weather and household decoration that they have to be unreliable descriptions unless the author was followed around by someone with a video camera recording all the important events.  Eyewitness testimony is often untrustworthy and memories of trauma can certainly be flawed.  Any critical reader of a memoir will wonder how accurate the author's recollections are and how different the versions of events would be if given by other people in the story. 

Nevertheless, when coming to Frey's follow-up memoir, My Friend Leonard, one wonders whether there really was any such person as Leonard.  He's not a very believable character: a criminal with a heart of gold, very wealthy and powerful, a former addict who unofficially adopts Frey as his son.  Now that we know that Frey himself is a less brave, less interesting character than he portrayed in his first memoir, it becomes even less credible that, if Leonard existed, he would have wanted Frey as his son.  As each event follows the next, one wonders whether any of the descriptions are true.  At the start of the book Frey's new girlfriend, the one he met when he was in a treatment program, also a recovering addict and the one true love of his life, hangs herself just before Frey arrives in town to be reunited with her, a bunch of flowers in his hand.  It's a very dramatic moment.  Too dramatic?  Do some searching on the Internet and it is easy to find allegations that there was no such suicide.  It certainly makes the story more gripping.  Frey spends the following months in mourning, struggling not to return to his former life of alcohol and drugs.  Yet he makes sure to keep a bottle of potent cheap wine in his apartment and he spends his time with his old friends, in bars during the evenings, getting drunk while Frey drinks cola and plays pool. 

Leonard comes into town and changes Frey's life around, putting him into a different apartment and giving him a job that is obviously associated with criminal activity.  Frey gets paid handsomely for doing rather little.  Eventually, Frey quits this job in favor of an honest day's wage: he decides to go to Hollywood to become a script writer.  He starts to lead a more sociable life, forming a relationship with a woman and getting himself some dogs.  But he has only moderate success, and he is not always so good at staying in relationships.  Leonard is there for him many times, providing him advice and moral support, mysteriously coming and going.  But ultimately Frey makes it on his own, without ever going to a single AA meeting.

Frey uses the same distinctive grammar, punctuation and formatting as he did in his first memoir.  He avoids all quotation marks, and he never indents the first line in his paragraphs.  Often for dramatic effect he omits comas or semi-colons.  He uses many short sentences.  All of this gives the feeling that the reader is listening into Frey's internal voice, and creates an unusual sense of intimacy.  He sounds like the narrator to a black and white detective movie, telling the reader it was a dark and rainy night when there was a knock at the door.  He is both terse and surprisingly open about his feelings, his crying and his agony.  Like it or not, Frey is a powerful writer, although occasionally it all feels too stylized. 

There's no doubt that Frey has been dishonest and self-serving as a memoir writer, and this undermines the book as a story of his life.  This knowledge affects the experience of reading this memoir.  Nevertheless, as an account of living life as an ex-addict without the use of the usual forms of group help and therapy, My Friend Leonard remains a forceful and unusual work. 

 

 

 

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© 2006 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.