James Frey: Five Years Later, Part 2
After her 2006 interview with author James Frey, Oprah says she continued to read criticisms that said she was too tough on him. "Every time I'd see a story about you, every time your name is mentioned, my name is also mentioned with it," she tells James. "Also mentioned in terms of how harsh I was."
At the time, Oprah says she simply could not see what others were seeing—until pressure to interview former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin sparked an epiphany.
During the 2008 election, false reports surfaced stating that Oprah refused to allow Sarah Palin on The Oprah Show. But, since Oprah had already publicly supported Barack Obama, she says she felt she shouldn't interview any presidential or vice presidential candidates. "I didn't think it would be fair for me to put myself in a position where I'm interviewing candidates when I'm clearly already for another candidate," she says.
Yet, pressure mounted for Oprah to do a show with Sarah Palin. So, Oprah says she meditated to try to arrive at a solution. "I was sitting in prayer, meditation, trying to get myself still," she says. "I was just trying to get to a place where I could really hear what was the right thing to do."
That's when she says the voice inside her spoke. "Do not make the same mistake that you made with James Frey," it told her.
Oprah says she started crying. "I literally said [to myself], 'What is that? What is that mistake?'" she says. "And the voice inside myself said, 'Do not rule from your ego.'"
In that moment, Oprah says she made an important decision. "Find James Frey," Oprah told her assistant. "I have to speak to him today."
Once he was ready to talk, however, James says he and Oprah had a nice conversation. "I really appreciated it, and I was surprised by it. ... I thought it was big of you, and I thought it was cool," he says to Oprah. "If anything, I should offer the apology to you. This mess was my mess, you know? You've done nothing but be really generous and cool with me. And whatever happened on that second show happened because I created that situation. If anything, you deserve the apology more than I deserve one."
"Thank you for saying that," Oprah says. "But my apology is not for what I said; it's for the way I said it."
Watch Oprah's emotional apology to James and what she has to say about ego
"There were a lot of times I wanted to [use]," James says. "I became an addict because I felt things I didn't like, and I wasn't comfortable with that. The way to get rid of those feelings was to use. And there were a lot of those feelings then.
"In a way, I think there were people who hoped I would relapse. Aside from knowing for my own self that nothing good would come of it, I wasn't going to give anybody the satisfaction of it. I wasn't going to let that newspaper article be written."
So, instead of reaching for drugs or a drink, James says he reached out to friends for strength and support. "One thing I know [from] having gone through this experience is I'm really blessed to have a really great family and some really great friends who were there," he says.
Eighteen months after his 2006 appearance on The Oprah Show, James faced a devastating personal tragedy. His son, Leo, was born with an incurable and fatal neuromuscular disease called spinal muscular atrophy. Leo died 11 days later.
Watch James talk about Leo's passing
To this day, James says he has not recovered from losing his first son. "I think there are a lot of things in my life I've recovered from, [but] I don't know if I'll ever recover from that," he says. "That's a wound that's open."
James: I didn't want to come home. I never wanted to come back here. I loved France. ... I remember the day we went to the airport, we kept having to pull over so that I could vomit on the side of the road.
James: I mean, it was a beautiful road to vomit on, but I didn't want to come home.
Oprah: You didn't want to come back because it was coming back to more of the stuff from A Million Little Pieces?
James: I loved France. I love the country, and I loved the life that you can live there. But, no, I didn't want to come back. There were a lot of things I had to face. There were a lot of things I needed to deal with. And sometimes it's easier to run away.
"It didn't ever shake it, no. I never woke up and said [to myself], 'You'll never write again,'" James says. "In the days immediately following [the 2006 interview], I got calls from most of my European publishers saying, 'We don't care about what's going on over there. We're still going to publish you. We think you're a great writer.'"
James says his resolve to continue working and confidence in his abilities is something that goes back to his early days of writing. "I spent 9 or 10 years alone in a room writing a book, trying to write a book, before I actually got one published," he says. "And through those years, I always believed that I would be able to do it. That I would be able to write a book that could change somebody's life. And even after the mess of A Million Little Pieces, I didn't lose that faith."
Watch James discuss what he's learned about himself professional and personally since the controversy
James says his manager once asked him what he would write if he could write any book in the world. "I said, 'I want to write the great book of life,'" James says. "He said, 'It's already been done. It's called the Bible.' ... I thought, 'Why not do it again?'"
The Final Testament of the Holy Bible is the story of the Second Coming of Christ in today's modern world—but in James' book, Christ is a bisexual former alcoholic who lives in the Bronx and impregnates a stripper.
Writing a story like this may set off its own controversy, but James says it is not his intention to offend people. "I'm trying to change people's lives," he says. "That book wasn't written for the sake of controversy. I think it's easy to be controversial if you want to. I think it's easy to offend people if you want to."
"But you expect to push some buttons," Oprah says. "You can't even put a title with the word 'Bible' in it without causing some people to be already automatically pissed off at you."
"Sure," James says. "But I think that's the role of art. And the role of literature—or it should be—is to challenge people and to push them into places where they don't necessarily want to go. ... I want to make things that force people to confront themselves and to confront how they feel and to confront how they think and to confront what they believe. And if you're trying to do that, it's not always going to [get] a positive reaction."
James also says the blessings he's had in his life, which helped him get to this place, are not lost on him. "I've been given a lot of gifts, and I've had a lot of things go wrong—often because of my own bad decisions," he says. "But I've had a lot of things go right. And I know that. And I'm thankful for that."
"I think I'm a better person. I think I'm a better writer. I think I'm happier. I think I'm more at peace," he says. "In a way, as bad as it was, it was one of the best things that happened to me. Sometimes you need to go through bad things to arrive at a good place."
Something the memoir controversy allowed James to do, he says, is to write freely and without pressure. "When I wrote A Million Little Pieces, I was alone in a room. Nobody cared. There were no expectations for me, there were no rules, there was nobody waiting for it and there was no pressure," he says. "When I started writing [my next book] Bright Shiny Morning, it was the same again. Nobody cared. There was no publisher. There was no agent. There was nobody waiting to see what I was doing. Nobody expected me to ever do anything again."
Oprah: That makes all the sense in the world to me because I think that all of us are on a path to really figure out what is the truth of who we are and to find out a way to honor that. I think otherwise your life is a lie, no matter who you are or what you are doing. And so to be freed, to be true to who you are, that was the gift.
James: That was the gift. Thank you.
Oprah: That was the gift.
James: Sorry it was such a rocky ride.
Oprah: But that was the gift.
James: Yes. Earlier, you asked if I could go back and change things, would I? I don't know if I would, because my life would probably be different. I know I made bad mistakes. I know I was wrong. But that's what you've got to do sometimes to learn how to be right. And you gave me a great gift the first time you had me on the show. In a way, you did the second time, too, even though it hurt.
James: Thank you for having me back.