When I read about author James Frey in Poets and Writers July/August magazine, I marked in red the part where Frey said: Alcohol is not a disease. It is a choice.
I have always believed that. I was surprised to hear someone say it. I was more surprised because Frey was an alcoholic.
To say “I’m an addict and I’ll always be an addict” seems self-fulfilling. What else could you be? I say this without being ever having experienced drug or alcohol addiction. But Frey proved the philosophy works. He proved it by staying sober.
Then when I read Frey was a fan of Charles Bukowski, I knew I had to read his book, A Million Little Pieces. Bukowski writes like no other, sparingly and raw and raunchy. He curses. He writes a lot about alcohol and sex.
In Frey’s memoir, recently picked for Oprah’s book club, Frey winds up in Hazelden, a well-known drug and alcohol rehab clinic in Minnesota. He gets there after a long and viscious spree that should’ve left him dead. He gets there at age 23 in the worst physical shape, from his decaying teeth to his rotting insides. He spends much of the beginning of the book violently vomiting, describing the toilet as a familiar friend, and describing the contents of his stomach.
Frey uses literary devices such as repetition of a word or a phrase. He writes sparingly, never uses quotation marks and disposes of proper punctuation. He gives the Fury in himself life by capitalizing the Fury. He curses plenty.
Hazelden uses Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step program, and Frey fights it all the way. Instead he leans on a book his brother gave him, Tao Teh Ching, which offers simple wisdom such as: “There is simply what is and that is it,” “Detach and become,” and “Let go of all and you will be full.” Eventually he passes the book along to Miles, one of his friends at the clinic, an addicted clarinet player and judge. Miles, like all the men at the clinic, is looking for hope.
Frey also rejects the notion of God or a Higher Power, one of the tenets of the 12-step program. But when you finish the book, you could conclude that Higher Powers were on the job—and I wonder if he now believes in a Higher Power.
Frey gives and receives more love in the clinic than some see in a lifetime. He meets friend for life, Leonard, the subject of his second book, My Friend Leonard. Leonard is wise and caring, and teaches Frey one of the main themes of the book: Hold on. No matter, just hold on.
Frey gives love and hope to Lilly, the vulnerable girl with the smile. Their love breaks the clinic’s rules: Women and men aren’t supposed to talk to each other.
Frey gives and receives love from society’s hardcore abusers. He shows the reader their humanity and ironically, their innocence. He shows the reader that the gangster and the boxer and the judge are the same. Frey never judges. He never blames.
Some of his friends there are criminals and worse. Frey makes sure the reader knows that he was a criminal, too. He reminds us throughout the book. He pulls together his crimes and evil deeds near the end of the book. Then he drops a final bombshell.
But it was his relationship with Lilly, perhaps the most desperate person at the clinic, that we hope for. At the same time, we hope they get caught. Lilly had been through enough heartbreak. Her life was brutal. How she lived through it is beyond comprehension. What Frey did for Lilly was remarkable.
The book conveyed that when it all goes down, we’re all the same. We’re frail, we have our vices, we’ve done evil deeds and have had them done to us and we need each other.
It also conveyed that addiction is brutal and your chances of surviving after once becoming an addict are slim.
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