Truth Or Consequences

An Oprah's Book Club book titled "A Million Little Pieces" by James Frey is displayed at a Borders Book store September 26, 2005 in Norridge, Illinois. Oprah has once again began to name living authors in her book club as the importance of having an Oprah book club logo on one's book is extremely good for sales. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)
Getty Images/Tim Boyle
The latest literary controversy involves the best seller, "A Million Little Pieces," a memoir by James Frey. It's supposed to be an inspirational tale about Frey's battles with drugs, alcohol, and the law, and his turning his life around. The only problem is that Frey made up many of the details in his "memoir."

In recent years, other writers, historians, and journalists were discovered to have fabricated things that they had passed off as facts. Those writers were scandalized, and often lost their jobs or even their careers. The difference this time is in the reaction to the discovery of the fraud: instead of the many fans of the book being outraged by Frey, they seem to be angrier with those who have exposed him. Their reaction is that it's "close enough" to the truth, so don't make a big deal about it.

But the truth is a big deal. And let's face it, it's not all that hard to tell the truth. I'll prove it to you right here. I'm going to be completely truthful with you in this column.

Back when I was at Harvard Law School,1 I was impressed by the value given to telling the truth. And while working with Steven Spielberg as he put the finishing touches on "Schindler's List,"2 I was amazed by how important it was to Spielberg for every frame of the film to be truthful. Sometimes, while exercising, I see the importance of truth. Just the other day, while I was working out with two-time Oscar winner, Hillary Swank,3 I had one of those moments of clarity.

Frey's book has been the No. 1 nonfiction paperback best seller on The New York Times list for weeks. (At this point, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that I have a long-standing relationship with The New York Times.4) It became a big success after Oprah Winfrey touted it on her show and it became a selection of her "book club." (Once again, in my attempt at being completely truthful, I should mention that I have been a guest on Oprah's show.5)

Now that it's been revealed that the memoir is not completely non-fiction, Oprah has surprisingly stood behind the writer. She's declared that the discrepancies between the book and the truth are "much ado about nothing."6 This is Oprah Winfrey talking. If fudging and telling lies is OK with Oprah, who's going to mess with the truth next? The president?7

Maybe we're so used to accepting lies in our everyday life that we aren't particularly upset by something like Frey's book. Our politicians lie to us, and we barely blink. Viewers know "reality TV" isn't reality, but they watch it anyway. And we tell "little lies" every day: "Your hair looks great." "No, it's delicious. I'm just not very hungry." "I was just about to call you."8 We rationalize these lies as things we say so that we don't hurt other people's feelings, or sometimes it's just "easier" than telling the truth. But isn't it possible that we are so used to hearing and telling these little lies every day that we allow ourselves to tell and be told bigger ones?

If you believe that some of us are being too picky when it comes to the truth, then you also probably believe that this column is just as valid without the footnotes as with them.9

So, let's see just how hard it is to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Let's "just say no" to lying.10 We'll declare today "National Truth Day." Let's all try to tell the truth for 24 hours.11 Will we alienate our friends? Will we lose our jobs? Will we incriminate ourselves?12

Let's see what happens. Write me and tell me how it went for you. If it works out for a day, maybe soon we'll try it for a week or even longer. One good thing is that if each of us tells the truth, we won't have to wonder if the other guy is lying to us. But best of all, maybe we'll feel better about ourselves. I think there is some real value in taking those words of Shakespeare seriously: "... to thine own self be true" — "Hamlet."13


1 Once I visited my friend, Ralph, who was a student there.

2 Spielberg was simultaneously working on Schindler's list while Executive Producing "The Flintstones." I was one of the many uncredited writers on "The Flintstones."

3 Actually, we just happened to be exercising at the same time and place. I was walking on the bike path and she was running in the opposite direction.

4 The relationship consists of my subscribing, and their delivering the paper to my house.

5 I really was. I was on the show about 15 years ago because of a piece I had written for "Newsweek" about "Nintendo addiction." Why she didn't choose that to be part of her 25th Anniversary celebration, I'll never know. Maybe it was my sports jacket.

6 Although it may have been assigned to me in high school, I don't recall ever having read Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing."

7 I know. Cheap shot.

8 I really was just about to call you.

9 I admit that some of my passion about this is because I'm excited that I figured out how to do footnotes on my computer.

10 This is in no way affiliated specifically with the "just say no" to drugs movement or to Nancy Reagan, in general.

11 It won't count if you nap for ten hours.

12 I've broken no laws.

13 I did read "Hamlet" — although I don't think I got a great grade on the paper.

Lloyd Garver writes a weekly column for He has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.

By Lloyd Garver