James Frey is well known for his book, A Million Little Pieces, which Oprah Winfrey originally blushed about. Mr. Frey has just released his latest novel, It Takes a Village to Abuse a Child. It’s about a woman, named Oprah, who becomes a multimillionaire television personality. At first, she is a great television hostess who has a warm sense of humor, great guests, and covers a variety of interesting topics.
As the years go by, Oprah begins to change once the money hits her head. She engages in philanthropy projects that seem to be more about Oprah than the cause she is trying to help. Oprah then creates a cult of middle-aged housewives who can’t seem to think for themselves. Oprah is their God! She pushes products on them like a prostitute pushes sex and creates her own “book club” where she recommends pathetic books, then unprofessionally berates the author of a particular book when her audience discovers that not everything in the book is true. The Oprah character in this book seems very similar to Oprah Winfrey, the talk show millionaire who recently berated James Frey on her show.
The book starts off with Oprah telling people, at a dinner party, how bad her past was and how she had to rise above it all to become who she is today. The guests don’t seem particularly touched by the story because it seems like Oprah’s purpose in telling it was just to brag about herself. James Frey’s writing style seems a little bit personal at the beginning, although he lets go as the novel goes on.
Then, we see Oprah getting on a plane to go to South Africa. She hugs and kisses (multiple times) her assistant, Gayle. “I’m off to save the world,” Oprah says. Another assistant reminds Oprah that she received a call about donating money to inner city schools in America. “Will this get me on magazine covers?” Oprah questions. When the assistant shakes her head “no,” Oprah tells the assistant to stop bothering her. I wish James Frey could have elaborated more on the character development in this part of the novel.
We then see Oprah in a South African village. She has a bunch of photographers, web camera specialists, audio recording specialists, and high definition video experts that she brought a long with her. She then says, “Hey, I think I’ll open up a school for girls!” She then jumps up and down and stops after she realizes that nobody on her staff is as excited as she is. The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy is announced by Oprah on several media outlets. It is at this point where the major trouble starts and Oprah, along with the readers, learn a valuable lesson. James Frey is able to put the reader in Oprah’s shoes so they can understand how a simple act of philanthropy can turn into a disaster if the purpose of the philanthropic act was nothing but self-serving in the first place.
While the school is being built, Oprah seems more interested in announcing that the school is being developed rather than making sure she has the right staff to make her “dream” come true. Teachers get hired without proper background checks and administrators have criminal backgrounds that aren’t discovered. Oprah then puts herself on magazine covers, bragging about her latest philanthropic efforts. She even creates a television special about it. Once again, Oprah fools her audience into believing something wonderful has just been done.
The night after filming the television special, Oprah heads back to America. She goes out to eat with her assistant Gayle – an activity that both enjoy very much – but gets into a major argument. Gayle tries to tell Oprah that since she started this new academy for girls in South Africa, she needs to go there at least once a month to make sure everything is going well. Oprah fires back and says that she hired the right people to make sure things go well.
Rumors start circulating that some of the girls at Oprah’s new school aren’t being treated very well. When a specific incident that involves an alleged sex act occurs, Oprah dives for the phone. “You need the number for the school?” Gayle asks.
“No, we’ll deal with that later; I’m calling my publicist,” Oprah answers. It is at this point where Frey gives an accurate description of Oprah’s breakdown. When Oprah’s publicist assures that the information will not get out into the media, Oprah breathes a sigh of relief.
For the next several months, Oprah fears the worst: not that the kids will be hurt, but that the media will find out about the kids being hurt. She buys several bags of potato chips, cookies, popcorn, and candy bars. Whenever she feels stressed, she makes herself a junk food cocktail with all that she bought. Gayle gives Oprah a weird look one night while both of them are eating out. “Oprah, you look like you gained a lot of weight. What are you going to tell your audience?” she questions.
“I’m going to tell them I have a thyroid problem. The healthcare industry will pay me millions for this because many middle-aged housewives will then get physicals to have their thyroids checked,” Oprah smartly answers. Both continue their dining experience but Oprah shows continued signs of breaking down.
One week later, the sex abuse scandal breaks. Oprah acts shocked and hires an “investigator.” Tiny Makopo, a 27-year-old former dorm matron, is arrested and Oprah acts as if the problem is solved. She runs to Africa with all her digital photography and video crews again to act like a savior. This time, she gets an unwelcome reception. “But we put the abuser away!” Oprah cries. The government officials cover their heads. “Oprah, we may have put the abuser away, but that still doesn’t make everything right,” Mr. Banda, the South African D.A. says. Oprah gives him a confused look.
“It’s not just Ms. Makopo’s fault. It’s the other staff's fault for not doing anything on time. It’s the parents’ fault for not talking with their kids. It’s the neighbors’ fault for not making sure that their neighborhood school is okay. It’s the mayor’s fault for not implementing the rules. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes one to abuse a child as well!” Oprah then looks confused.
“But it’s also your fault, Oprah. You see, in order to successfully operate a school, you have to hang around after all the photo ops, television specials, and magazine covers. You have to understand South African culture and why such an extravagant idea of yours might work in the United States, but not here.”
I won’t give away anymore details of the plot because one has to pick this novel up for the surprise ending. I will say this: what is it with the “Stedman” character that James Frey vaguely refers to? It’s as if this Stedman guy isn’t real. Perhaps, James Frey meant for him to be used as some sort of prop. It gets more confusing when Oprah confronts Stedman and refers to him as Gayle. However, this is a minor flaw and in no way takes away from the overall excellence of this novel. It Takes a Village to Abuse a Child should be on every avid reader’s “must” list.