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Oprah's Grand Delusion

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Because she has led countless billions and billions of people to the promised land of books, because she preaches self-help and self-sufficiency and not least because she has shown that even a middle-aged person can keep weight off, I must tiptoe up to the amazing Oprah and merely whisper to her that in the case of James Frey, the liar whose memoir turns out to have a good deal of fiction alongside fact, she is not only wrong but deluded. What she needs is a session with Dr. Phil.

So important is Oprah Winfrey in our culture that it is not possible to type her name and not hear the rumbling of a mighty Wurlitzer, or imagine the many antechambers that undoubtedly precede an audience with the queen of England. Oprah is huge, powerful, akin to no one and nothing else. A mention of anything on her show will make a millionaire out of a pauper or, in the case of a writer such as the Frey the Fibber, a bestseller of undreamed proportions. The man became famous and rich on account of Oprah -- and, or so we all seem to believe, happy as well.

Frey's memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," is about his recovery from drug addiction. It is apparently a hell of a read, filled with gripping, cinematic details, some of which turn out not to be true. The Smoking Gun Web site found out, for instance, that Frey had not spent three months in jail, as he wrote, but maybe a couple of hours or so waiting for a friend to post bond. His account of his stay in a treatment facility is questionable, as is his involvement in a train-car collision that took the lives of two teenage girls. These are not, as Frey keeps claiming, the usual tussle we all have between memory and fact, but veering departures from fact into fiction. It is probably significant that he first tried to sell the book as a novel.

"A Million Little Pieces" was Oprah's selection for her book club, literally sending it off bookstore shelves and into the stratosphere: About 2 million sold after her endorsement. Recommending the book was one thing. No one expects Oprah to fact-check every book she urges her audience to read. Sticking by it is quite another matter. Even after the Smoking Gun smoked Frey, Oprah told Larry King that no matter what, the book still retained its "underlying message of redemption." Instead of getting a magisterial rebuke, Frey had been pardoned.

Here is where Dr. Phil steps in. He might tell his friend and mentor that there is no redemption without honesty. Treatment, as one expert told me, begins with "owning your life" and not embellishing it for the sake of others or yourself. It was one thing when Frey's tale was believed to be 100 percent true. Now that the lie has been exposed, the message can no longer be about redemption but about concoction -- the lies that addicts tell others, the ones they tell themselves.

As for Doubleday, the liar's publisher, it uttered all sorts of nonsense about different rules for memoirs but had no real explanation of how an hour or so in jail could be recollected as three months. In this vast corporation, there seemed to be no one who knew the difference between fact and fiction, truth and a lie. (Fiction packaged as fact is a lie.) Doubleday did not seem even a tad embarrassed that it had been snookered, that it had lent its considerable name and reputation -- built on the hard work of many an honest writer -- to a sham. What's more, it did not acknowledge that it must have suspected for some time that Frey had cooked his book. Back in 2003, for instance, the Minneapolis Star Tribune had questioned the book's factualness. (Some of "A Million Little Pieces" takes place in Minneapolis.) In effect, the story was dismissed -- go away, silly newspaper, there's too much money at stake.

This, I know, is not a revelation. Doubleday will chase a buck like any other company. As for Oprah, that is not quite the case. Whatever happens to Frey's book will not make her richer or poorer. But fame and wealth has lulled her into believing that she possesses something akin to papal infallibility. She finds herself incapable of seeing that she has been twice fooled -- once by Frey, a second time by herself.

Does Dr. Phil make house calls?

cohenr@washpost.com

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