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Book Review - A Million Little Pieces
A Million Little Pieces
by James Frey
Anchor, 2003
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Sep 24th 2004

A Million Little Pieces chronicles the time that James Frey spent in rehab and managed to overcome his chronic drinking and drug use.  At the start of the book, he checks into a clinic in Minnesota at the age of twenty-three, having come to stage where any further drinking or drug use would very quickly kill him.  He is missing his front four teeth, he has a hole in his cheek and his nose his broken.  He hates himself and is ready to end his life.  It seems the main thing stopping him walking out of the facility and going on one final binge is that he is so ill that he can hardly stand up.  He gets his cheek sewn up, without the use of anesthetic because that would just fuel his addictions. Within a few days he is taken to the dentist and has oral surgery, capping two teeth and doing root canals on the other two.  The surgery is also done without anesthetic.  Frey gets through it all, and even though the pain is excruciating, he shows no self-pity.  As he tells the doctor, he has been through worse.  As a member of the treatment facility, like all other residents, he has to perform daily tasks, and the one he has in his first weeks is to clean the toilets.  He doesn't complain about that either.  The part of life at the facility that he has most trouble with are the daily lectures given by outside speakers about the evils of alcoholism and drug addiction.  He also hates the Twelve Steps with their talk of a Higher Power, because he has no belief in any such being.  He is told that without accepting the Alcoholics Anonymous program, he will die.  He insists he can use his own willpower. 

It is Frey's determination and unsparing self-descriptions that make A Million Little Pieces such compelling reading.  Most memoirs of addiction are almost unbearable to immerse oneself in because they are tales of constant lying, manipulation of others, stealing and cheating, self-deception, and self-destruction.  Frey did all those things, but by the time he gets to the clinic, that part of his life is behind him.  Through his meeting with the other people at the clinic, his discussions with counselors, and the family work he does with his parents, Frey turns his life around.  He starts to eat well and to enjoy the company of others.  Even though it is strictly against the rules of the clinic, he starts meeting with one of the women residents and falls in love. 

The clinic has the highest success rate in the world, yet only about one in six of their patients remains clean and sober.  Most of the people Frey met and befriended during his time there ended up dead or in prison.  He could have easily had the same fate; indeed, he did have to go to prison for crimes he committed a few years before.  His story helps to highlight how serious addiction is and how difficult it is to provide any lasting help to addicts.  What gives his story theoretical and even political interest is Frey's complete rejection of the AA approach and his survival despite the beliefs and advice of the clinic's experts.  Nevertheless, it remains unclear what enabled Frey to succeed when so many others have failed; if it was a matter of sheer willpower and determination, maybe he simply had more than others, but it is hard to say.

What makes A Million Little Pieces stylistically interesting is Frey's idiosyncratic use of grammar, formatting, and repetition.  New paragraphs are not indented, some nouns are capitalized, and he repeats key phrases like mantras.  There are very few commas.  It conveys the sense of a stream of consciousness.  A passage early in the book when he is at the dental surgeon is typical:

I walk toward a door where a Nurse stands waiting for me.  As I walk past her she is careful not to touch me and I am brought back from the happy afterglow of pachyderm memories and I am reminded of what I am.  I am an Alcoholic and I am a drug Addict and I am a Criminal.  I am missing my front four teeth.  I have a hole in my cheek that has been closed with forty-one stitches.  I have a broken nose and I have black swollen eyes.  I have an Escort because I am a Patient at a Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center.  I am wearing a borrowed jacket because I don't have one of my own.  I am carrying two old yellow tennis balls because I'm not allowed to have any painkillers or anesthesia.  I am an Alcoholic.  I am a drug Addict.  I am a Criminal.  That's what I am and I don't blame the Nurse for not wanting to touch me.  If I weren't me, I wouldn't want to touch me.  (57)

383 pages of this have a cumulative effect, making it one of the most powerful memoirs about addiction written in recent years. 


© 2004 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 Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.