The Stanton Peele Addiction Website , 21 February, 2006.
Stanton Peele, Ph.D., J.D., and Amy McCarley
James Frey has received the ultimate penalty – expulsion from Oprah’s Book Club. After being invited into the club – resulting in best sellerdom for his memoir about his drug addiction/alcoholism and treatment, A Million Little Pieces – Frey was revealed to have fabricated significant incidents in the book.
Frey’s lying marks a real failure of integrity. But his fall from grace obscures what was most valuable in his story: he got better on his own terms. What is truly enlightening in Frey’s book was not his exaggerated claims about the damage he suffered-created while intoxicated. The value of his book was his search for a solution for his problems consistent with his own beliefs.
Frey was not religious. Yet he was force fed AA’s Twelve Step philosophy at every turn in his treatment. Frey rejected AA and its whole redemptive approach: “I’d rather have that (relapse and death) than spend my life in Church basements listening to People whine and bitch and complain. That’s not productivity to me, nor is it progress. It is the replacement of one addiction with another.”
The treatment he received actually impeded his efforts to recover: “I know I won’t ever believe in the Twelve Steps. People like you keep saying it’s the only way, so I’m thinking that I might as well just put myself out of my misery now and save myself and my Family the pain.”
Although American treatment programs (including the Betty Ford Center, Hazelden, and virtually every drug and alcohol treatment program in the U.S.) are all predicated on the Twelve Steps, this approach has never been demonstrated to be particularly effective. Among Frey’s true statements was his report that the success rate – “Patients who are sober for a year after they leave here” – was 17 percent at the hospital where he was treated.
AA acolytes and others who support the Twelve Steps argue that the steps are not really religiously-oriented. This, although “God,” “Him,” or a “higher power,” is mentioned in half of the Twelve Steps. The third step in particular: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him,” is often justified by the claim that God can be understood as being anything!
However, every state supreme and federal appeals court which has adjudicated the issue has concluded that AA and its Twelve Steps are religious. Thus, it is illegal – a violation of the First Amendment’s separation of church and state – for courts to “sentence” people to attend Twelve Step programs. This ruling is consistently violated around the United States, while rarely being challenged.
Frey was “not gonna believe in AA or the Twelve Steps. The whole thing is based on belief in God. I don’t have that, and I never will.” Being forced in a supposedly medical treatment to accept God would be a violation of a patient’s rights in anything other than American substance abuse treatment. Aside from violating the principle of informed consent, discounting people’s core beliefs does not enhance their motivation to change.
Frey rejected the entire disease theory of addiction on which the Twelve Steps are based: “Addiction is not a disease . . . Diseases are destructive Medical conditions that human beings do not control.” But, for Frey, “I don’t think it does me any good to accept anything other than myself and my own weakness as a root cause.”
Maybe you disagree with Frey. But forcing him to believe things he couldn’t accept was not the best approach to helping him achieve sobriety. The better approach is rather to build on the beliefs an individual actually holds. And, in fact, this is the way Frey found his own spiritual center, along with his own path to quitting alcohol and drugs. For Frey, “It is not God and it is not something Higher. This feeling of calm is of me, from me and created by me.”
Frey’s independent, iconoclastic approach to recovery has been slighted in the accounts of his book, and is in danger of being lost due to his prevarications. Yet, his reliance on his core values to recover from drug and alcohol addiction is the one truth that shines through in all that he wrote.
Stanton Peele is an addiction specialist, psychologist, and lawyer in New Jersey. He is the author of 7 Tools to Beat Addiction. Amy McCarley is a singer-songwriter in Alabama.