A Million Little Lies: The Drug War Exception to the Truth

By Ellen Komp

The bestselling book A Million Little Pieces, which purports to be the true confessions of a recovered heroin addict, still tops the New York Times nonfiction paperback bestseller list, where it has appeared for the past 17 weeks. But a six-week investigation by The Smoking Gun using police reports, court records, interviews with law enforcement personnel and other sources reveals that the book's author James Frey "wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms, and status as an outlaw." 

A Million Little Pieces has sold more than 3.5 million copies with the blessing of Oprah Winfrey, who has apologized but not removed her endorsement for the title as part of her book club. Frey admitted he lied or exaggerated about himself and other characters in the book on Oprah's January 26 broadcast, saying the Smoking Gun report was "pretty accurate."  Winfrey, who had called in to Larry's King's January 11 CNN show to defend Frey, said on her own broadcast she felt "conned" by Frey. "I regret that phone call," she said. "I made a mistake. I left the impression that the truth does not matter, and I am deeply sorry about that. That is not what I believe."

"I called in because I loved the message of his book," Winfrey continued. "At the time, every day, I was reading e-mail after e-mail from people who were inspired by his story. And I have to say I allowed that to cloud my judgment. To everyone who has challenged my position, you are absolutely right."

Like the drug war exception to the Constitution that courts have long acted on, it seems when it comes to the drug war propaganda that abounds, the truth isn't important as long as we "send a message" that nonsanctioned drugs are scary and naughty, and that one can redeem oneself only by abstaining from them. The New York Times declared, "Today's readers want a tale of redemption, even if it's an invention of the author."

When the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (funded largely by pharmaceutical corporations) admitted it ran a TV ad in 1987 depicting the flatline brain wave of a coma victim as belonging to a 14-year-old marijuana smoker, a PDFA spokesperson said it was a justifiable lie because of the great need to demonstrate the dangers of drugs. The White House drug czar's office $2 billion "National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign" exaggerates the dangers of marijuana to such a ridiculous degree that messages about physically addictive drugs like heroin are disbelieved, because the messenger has lost its credibility.

After decades of anti-drug education and billions of dollars wasted, drug use remains at much the same levels in this country, with some spikes and dips that seem to reflect trends rather than successful prevention programs. Is it an achievable or desirable goal to stamp out all drug use by force or craft?

Milton S. Hershey, the subject of a new biography, once said, "Chocolate is something we will always have." The same might be said of drugs other than chocolate, which has been shown to have effects on the brain similar to marijuana's. Hershey got his start selling candy at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, which also featured a Turkish exhibition complete with hasheesh smoking. Soon companies were marketing hasheesh candies, and there were more hash-smoking parlors in New York than there were speakeasies during alcohol prohibition.

In 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson published a fictional tale of a man who transforms into an evil creature by taking a drug. "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" sold 40,000 copies in six months, was made the theme of countless church sermons, and was read by Queen Victoria herself. All this, plus the enduring popularity of the tale, without claiming it was a true story.

Much speculation has ensued about the basis of Dr. Jekyll in Stevenson's life. Some theorize the chronically ill author was prescribed cocaine as a medical treatment, since at that time many doctors were endorsing its use, including Sigmund Freud. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Stevenson's contemporary and the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, also took cocaine.

Stevenson wrote a 40,000-word draft of his most famous story in three days' time, evidence he may have been under the influence of a stimulant drug. But his wife rejected this first attempt, telling him he should write the tale as an allegory (of his own life?) rather than just a horror story. He agreed and threw the draft into the fire, spending another three days furiously rewriting it.

As a young man, Stevenson smoked hashish and horrified his strict Protestant parents by announcing he was an agnostic. Although he showed early promise as a writer, he studied law at his father's insistence, and began having dreams that he lead a double life, by day a surgeon and by night a sinner. He consulted a physician who prescribed an opiate, which stopped the dreams.

Stevenson as Jekyll writes that his worst fault was "a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public." He called the perennial war between good and evil with man's soul "the curse of mankind" and worked to develop a potion that would separate them in himself. Freud called this the id and the ego and tried psychotherapy instead.

After Jekyll first drinks his potion, he writes, "I felt younger, lighter, happier in my body; within, I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a millrace in my fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul. I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil; and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine. I stretched out my hands, exulting in the freshness of these sensations; and in the act, I was suddenly aware that I had lost in stature." Apparently the yoke of original sin laid heavy on Stevenson.

In our own kind of modern Victorianism, two psychiatrists, Eric Altschuler and Daniel Wright, recently concluded Dr. Jekyll meets six of the seven criteria for a diagnosis of "substance dependence" and recommend the story as "a useful primer for patients, their families, and physicians on substance dependence and its treatment." (The only treatment in the tale is prison.) Aware that Stevenson used hashish and opium, and that cocaine was available at the time, Altschuler and Wright discount these and speculate that Stevenson may have tasted a hallucinogenic mushroom, or that one of his doctors may have accidentally synthesized a hallucinogen while trying to treat him.

Are we still living in an age where humans are divided between our wild desires and our need to be upstanding citizens? Hallucinogenic drugs have been used since the dawn of mankind, at least by the shamans, to help unlock the secrets of life we all struggle to understand. How many people today are self-medicating with stupefying drugs like heroin and alcohol to dull this most basic quest into the oblivion of modern life?

First published twenty-nine years ago, psychologist M. Scott Peck's "The Road Less Traveled" sold 10 million copies and stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for eight years. Although Peck's book preaches self-discipline and delayed gratification, by his own admission, Peck had "a weakness for cheap gin, marijuana and women." In one of his last interviews before he died last September, he told the UK's Times Online: "A fellow who was thinking of doing my biography once asked me: 'God, have you ever denied yourself anything?' And I said: 'Well, I've never smoked or drunk as much as I would like to'."

Doubleday, the publisher of "A Million Little Pieces," has said it will put corrective stickers on existing books and edit future editions. My suggestion for a sticker: "This is bullshit, and so is the war on drugs."

Ellen Komp manages the website www.veryimportantpotheads.com

Copyright 2006

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