James Frey

A Million Little Pieces

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A Million Little Pieces Summary

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A Million Little Pieces is a 2003 book by American writer James Frey, originally marketed as a memoir and subsequently relabeled a “semi-fictional novel” after Frey was found to have invented many details of his story. Set largely in a private rehabilitation clinic, A Million Little Pieces charts James’s journey to recovery and the relationships he forms with other patients in the clinic.

James wakes up on a plane. He has a broken nose and several broken teeth, and he doesn’t know where he’s going. When the plane lands—in Chicago—James’s parents are waiting for him. Horrified by his appearance, they arrange for him to be signed into a rehab clinic the next day.

At the dispensary, James meets and befriends a young woman named Lilly. Shortly afterwards, during a meal, he gets to know Leonard, a middle-aged mafia boss. These friendships sustain him as he begins to go through withdrawal, experiencing constant pain and vomiting. He needs root canal surgery to fix his teeth, but due to the drugs he is taking to manage his withdrawal, he must undergo this surgery without anesthetic.

Still struggling with withdrawal and the “Fury”—James’s name for the inner antagonist which drives him to alcohol and drugs—James walks out of the clinic. Leonard follows him and persuades him to return. Shortly afterward, James is touched to receive a visit from his brother Bob. James’s parents call and ask him to sign up for the Family Program, which would entail them joining him at the clinic for family counseling sessions. James refuses, wishing to take full responsibility for his own addiction, an attitude inspired in part by his reading of the Tao Te Ching. However, he is making very little progress in his recovery, finding himself unable to proceed with the Twelve Step program or complete any of the tasks his counselors recommend.

Leonard sits James down to tell him about his traumatic upbringing and his own slide into addiction. As he tells his story, Leonard begins to cry, and James realizes he respects the older man deeply. Lilly passes James a note asking him to meet her outside. They fall in love and begin a sexual relationship, which is against the rules of the clinic. Lilly tells James that she was sold into prostitution as a child.

Despite James’s refusal to join the Family Program, his parents arrive at the clinic. They overcome his objections, and during their counseling sessions, James learns that when he was a small child, he had an ear infection that his parents left untreated even though it was causing him great distress. He also learns for the first time that his grandfather was an alcoholic. James’s parents and the counselor suggest that these facts might offer a partial explanation for James’s addiction, but he continues to cling to the idea that his addiction is his personal responsibility. James’s parents leave before the program is over: his father has a business engagement. James is upset, but he parts with them on friendly terms.

Lilly learns that her grandmother is terminally ill and doesn’t have long to live. She leaves the clinic and James follows her. Two of the clinic’s staff, Hank and Lincoln, follow James, offering to help him. James finds Lilly in an abandoned building. It is clear that she has been selling sex to buy crack cocaine. James is tempted by the cocaine, but he chooses to bring Lilly back to the clinic instead. James is permitted to stay, but Lilly is required to pay for a new course of treatment, which she cannot afford.

James begins to accept his past by facing some longstanding criminal charges. He expects to be sentenced to three years in jail, but his sentence is mysteriously reduced. James concludes that Leonard has somehow pulled strings to achieve this, although he never confirms it. Leonard is due to check out of the clinic, but before he goes, he pays for Lilly’s second course of treatment and tells James that he sees him as a son.

Soon it is time for James to leave and begin his jail sentence. The day before he is due to be released, he confesses to a priest that a year earlier he violently beat—perhaps to death—a French priest who had propositioned him sexually.

Bob picks James up at the clinic, and James asks his brother to take him to a bar. Bob is upset, but he gives in at James’s insistence. At the bar, James takes forty dollars from Bob and orders a pint of whiskey. He smells it, examines his reflection in its surface, and asks the bartender to pour it away.

The book closes with a brief account of the lives of its characters: Lilly has committed suicide, Leonard has died of AIDS-related illness, but James is still sober.

On its initial publication, A Little Million Pieces was picked as an Oprah’s Book Club selection, helping it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. A sequel, My Friend Leonard (2005), was also a bestseller. However, when allegations that Frey had fabricated his story emerged, the author was forced to publically admit culpability on The Oprah Winfrey Show.