When Oprah and author James Frey sat down in 2006 on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” to talk about Frey’s purported addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces, no one expected the public flogging that was about to ensue.
“You conned us all,” Oprah told Frey, as he sat there squirming. “That's a lie. It's not an idea, James. That's a lie,” she cut in when he tried to defend himself.
Oprah had championed A Million Little Pieces for her book club and defended Frey more than once against his detractors before realizing the book had some not-so-little lies in it. Frey called the 2006 interview a “public stoning.” An announcer this week called it “the biggest controversy in Oprah show history.”
Now, as Oprah winds down the final week of her last ever season five years later, she has invited Frey back on the show once more for what might be an apology.
According to Frey, Oprah recently apologized to the author and says she now realizes her ambush of Frey was more about her bruised ego and feeling personally betrayed.
During the interview, which will stretch over two episodes, they are likely to talk about what happened in 2006 as well as Frey’s upcoming book, The Final Testament of the Holy Bible.
Oprah has fallen for another feel-good fake memoir in the past, authored by Herman Rosenblat, a Holocaust survivor who embellished his true story of survival in the camps.
In a story in New Yorker Magazine on the history of the memoir, Daniel Mendehlsohn writes:
Winfrey’s susceptibility suggests how an immoderate yearning for stories that end satisfyingly—what William Dean Howells once described to Edith Wharton as the American taste for “a tragedy with a happy ending”—makes us vulnerable to frauds and con men peddling pat uplift.
When readers find out they’ve been conned by a feel-good memoir like Frey’s, they get angry. They are angry because they invested in the redeeming value of the story. They invested in Frey’s recovery.
Readers also invested in the uplifting tale Three Cups of Tea , the story of “one man’s mission to promote peace — one school at a time.”
Last month, the humanitarian author of that book, Greg Mortenson, was accused of similarly betraying his advocate, author Jon Krakauer.
Just as Oprah supported Frey, Krakauer supported Mortenson, donating considerable sums to the non-profit Mortenson founded, the Central Asia Institute. But when an April episode of the show 60 minutes called the veracity of Mortenson’s inspirational best seller Three Cups of Tea into question, Krakauer rapidly transitioned into Mortenson’s loudest critic.
Like Oprah, Krakauer felt similarly conned and decided to use his medium to respond to the betrayal. While Oprah gave Frey a televised spanking, Krakauer published Three Cups of Deceit, a book he hoped would be the unmasking of Mortenson.
A month later, Mortenson is still in the frying pan. He may even face a class action lawsuit by the readers who feel he conned them.
But time has been good to Frey, who will soon have published two books after A Million Little Pieces.
He is staying away from memoirs for now, a genre increasingly under fire, and his new book is a novel about a bisexual alcoholic who impregnates a prostitute and then realizes he’s Jesus. It may not be the feel-good, redemption story Oprah and much of the rest of us love to read, but Frey can be sure that no one can call it a lie.