Oprah took Frey to the televised woodshed


Oprah Winfrey, right, talks to James Frey, author of "A Million Little Pieces," in Chicago, challenging him over his disputed memoir.

Harpo Productions
Published: Saturday, January 28, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 27, 2006 at 10:24 p.m.
It was indeed amazing television. James Frey - the truculent tough guy who used to compare himself to Hemingway - now sat like a boy in detention, gloomily taking his licks from the nation's headmistress until he seemed to whimper. Sure, Frey was supposed to have been humbled already, brought low by the grievous sins he chronicled in ''A Million Little Pieces,'' his best-selling creative nonfiction memoir novel of drug addiction. Oh, but that book's phony ''hitting bottom'' was nothing compared to the chastening - the emasculation, really - that he received Thursday on ''The Oprah Winfrey Show.''
Just like back in the days when her guests were abusers and sexual deviants, Winfrey came for vengeance - and vengeance on behalf of the poor, the voiceless and the women above all, who get conned and defrauded and violated by men who think they're so bad. But because Winfrey never sounds just one note, she turned in an uncanny performance, modulating her aggression with such finesse that she seemed to be the penitent one, and not the one with the whip hand.
She had promoted Frey's book in her all-powerful book club; now he had embarrassed her. But the mistake, to hear her tell it, was Winfrey's own: She had defended Frey, most notably on ''Larry King Live,'' and in so doing ''left the impression that the truth does not matter.'' Having come clean herself, she felt free to savage Frey, hammering him with questions and heaving deep sighs of fury until he stammered with cartoonish diffidence: ''I - I - I -.''
As other guests appeared to get a bite of Winfrey's kill, they could hardly mute the glee they were taking in doing Frey in. The show had quoted many journalists - including Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich of The New York Times - and several did seem to be piling on. Some had been critical of Winfrey for initially supporting Frey. Now her change of heart received praise.
The Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen saccharinely addressed Winfrey. ''I just want to take off - tip my hat to you,'' he said. ''The year is very new, but I still name you Mensch of the Year, for standing up and saying you were wrong. Takes a lot of courage.''
Applauding Winfrey for courage on her own show - it was almost as though Cohen was hoping to win the teacher's-pet status that Frey was being forced to forfeit. And as it became clear that Winfrey was turning on her protege (''I feel really duped,'' ''You betrayed millions of readers,'' ''Why would you lie?''), there did seem to be an opening in her esteem. The crowd in her Chicago studio booed Frey early in the hour; maybe, it seemed, one of the other guests could claim the Dr. Phil role, and play the good guy.
But Winfrey seemed sick of the lot of them. She made quick work of Nan Talese, Frey's publisher, who hemmed and hawed as badly as her author did. Winfrey then refused Cohen's flattery and sat impatiently by while Roy Peter Clark, of the Poynter Institute, tried to jolly her with dumb jokes.
The house was going to win this time. The conversation would end only when Winfrey felt sure that absolution was hers to bestow. Her magnanimity was over, and this time she wasn't going to wave her wand and excuse all sins, as she had when she called in to ''Larry King Live.''
Finally, Winfrey turned to Frey, who had stayed silent for much of the program, as if fighting tears. She pressed him, and he conceded he had been lying.
And then he uttered the only words that - while they sent the final shards of his Hemingway-style bravado up in smoke - could parole him in Oprah's world. ''If I come out of this experience with anything,'' he said, ''it's being a better person and learning from my mistakes and making sure that I don't repeat them.''
Winfrey looked pleased. ''Thank you for having me,'' Frey said.

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