Now that the hysteria over the James Frey story is starting to die down, it’s a good time to reveal the simple truth about this debacle.
Frey, the recovering addict whose book A Million Little Pieces has been revealed as a fraud, got caught playing the game called “one-downsmanship.” The term comes from Douglas Coupland’s book Generation X. It refers to the tendency in 12-step meetings to escalate one’s miserable experiences to elicit admiration and sympathy from the audience.
The game is easy. Just go to some 12-step meeting like Alcoholics Anonymous, and when someone there shares about falling down some stairs, getting arrested, or kicking the dog, you have to top it. It goes something like this:
ALCOHOLIC #1: Hi, my name’s Bob, and I’m an alcoholic.
GROUP: Hi Bob.
BOB: I’m really grateful to be here. I’m glad to be alive. I just got a new dog, a black lab. And watching him playin’ in the backyard, I got to thinking about my old dog Moses. I used to come home drunk from Nathan’s bar and I would kick Moses when I came through the door. It got to the point where he would be hiding in the closet when he heard me comin’ up the front porch. Now it’s a whole new life. My new dog is glad to see me come home. Thanks for lettin’ me share.
GROUP: Thanks for sharing.
ALCOHOLIC #2: Hi, my name is Stan. I’m an alcoholic.
GROUP: Hi Stan.
STAN: Bob reminded me of something. I used to own three dogs. One night I got so drunk I forgot that they were in the car with the windows up.
STAN: It was in the middle of the summer.
STAN: Luckily I got them out in time. And it may sound silly, but I still cry about that.
GROUP: Not silly at all!!
STAN: Now it’s a whole new life. I love my dogs, and I’m there for them. Thanks.
GROUP: Thanks for sharing!
TED: My name is Ted. I’d like to pick up on that. I own a kennel. I used to chug a bottle of tequila and then use a match as a blow-torch to light all the dogs tails on fire…
You get the idea. This kind of thing is de rigeur in the recovery movement — the movement that gave us James Frey. One-downsmanship serves a dual purpose. The first stems from the simple joy and inexorable pull of competition. People by nature like to outdo the folks next door. Recovery meetings are like a poker game of debauchery. This guy thinks puking on his shoes is bad? I see your upchucking and raise you a DWI. Overnight in the pokey? I did six months. Stomach ulcer? Try liver failure. And so on. This is how Frey’s three hours in detention became six months in jail.
The second reason for one-downsmanship is far more insidious. Recovery culture is deeply invested in the idea that addicts do not get better. Oh, they sober up and get jobs and become functioning members of society. But there’s no cure. To many in the recovery movement, this limited horizon is perfectly fine — indeed, it’s a good thing. To plod through life carrying this problem means lots of attention from sympathetic fellow sufferers in the meetings. It also can mean a big book contract and, if you’re lucky an appearance on Oprah. But you have to make sure that your story is good. Your one-downsmanship has to smoke the other losers. James Frey made sure that his did.
Of course, this is tragic. Most obviously because the truth is important. But it’s also bad because it keeps people trapped in a recovery cul-de-sac. When your identity becomes bound up with your addiction and those who listen to you dilate about it, the real world becomes a very tough and unfriendly place. And that brings us to full disclosure time: When I was younger I had a drinking problem. The only way to solve it, for me, was AA. It truly is a magnificent, beautiful, wonderful thing that can help you stop drinking when nothing else can. I also should add that, while I will not call alcoholism a disease, I do believe — and research backs me up — that is a biochemical disorder that certain folks are more susceptible to. This in my mind makes one more, not less, responsible for it: if alcoholism is in your family tree going back to the old country (in my case Ireland), it’s best to watch your drinking.
But if you don’t, if, like me, you were too stupid to listen to people and wind up getting arrested and passing out a lot (dammit! Now I’m one-downing again!), then AA will work for you. But here’s the thing: for me, it had a beginning and an end. At first, I couldn’t go hours without thinking of drinking. Then it was days between drinks. Then weeks. Then months. Then a decade. In short, the 12-step thing worked, worked so well that I got to the point where there was only one time when I thought of booze: in AA meetings. I figured out that I had down what AA founders Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith advocated: I had rejoined the living. I learned how to swing dance, dated girls I remembered the next day, and wrote four books (yep, one of them is a recovery book; don’t read it). My advice to every alcoholic is the same: throw yourself on the mercy of AA. It will work.
But there also, I think, comes time to leave. A couple years ago, I went to my last AA meeting. It was, as usual, an Olympic session of one-downing, as well as being anti-Catholic, another problem of the recovery movement. I decided that I did not want to be a 65-year-old man recalling how I passed out at the prom 50 years earlier. I didn’t want to be known as the guy with the worst and wildest story, even if such embellishment would get me in with Oprah. I wanted to move on. A couple days later I wrote a piece about my break and it ran in the Washington Post. Surprisingly, many emailers supported my position. I never heard from Oprah.