Chris Uggen's Blog: i'm not a real badass but i play one in my memoirs

Thursday, January 12, 2006

i'm not a real badass but i play one in my memoirs

james frey is under siege for fabricating big chunks of his monster-selling memoir, a million little pieces. the minneapolis strib had questioned his accounts of surgery without anesthesia and a northwest airlines flight in which he was bleeding, with a hole in his cheek, and covered with "a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood." as the smoking gun reports, frey represented the memoir as non-fiction but, to put it charitably, seems to have seriously exaggerated his experiences. here's the short version:

"When recalling criminal activities, looming prison sentences, and jailhouse rituals, Frey writes with a swaggering machismo and bravado that absolutely crackles. Which is truly impressive considering that, as TSG discovered, he made much of it up. The closest Frey has ever come to a jail cell was the few unshackled hours he once spent in a small Ohio police headquarters waiting for a buddy to post $733 cash bond."

i think we should give folks a little wiggle-room on their memoirs, so i feel bad for mr. frey. of course, misrepresenting one's criminal history probably seems like a pathetic way to do masculinity, at least for those over 25. still, i won't deny the seductions of embellishing such experiences. my juvenile delinquency students know that i'll sometimes refer to my experiences in the system. i've never hidden the fact that i was arrested several times at 16 and 17 (mostly for fighting and disorderly conduct) or that i had sleepovers in jails and other secure facilities. it can be useful in showing the discrepancy between the clean flow-chart picture of the system in textbooks and the messy experience of things like juvenile intake from a kid's perspective. but whenever i feel any semblance of "swaggering machismo" in telling such stories, i know i'm starting to embellish -- because it was never like that.

the first and most important reality checks are that i never did time (and certainly not hard time in a state penitentiary), that i've only seen prisons as a visitor or professor, and that i felt and was perceived as a nerd at the time or, more charitably, a hipster doofus or confused kid rather than a badass or tough guy. my guess is that frey has a similar history. this is important because the real badasses sniff out a phony in a second. when i interview men and women in prison, i represent myself as a dork professor rather than someone who has "been there." even if i wanted to sell myself as an ex-con, i couldn't pull it off. similarly, none of my publications on crime make any mention of my own history -- i'm not embarrassed, it is just way too "thin" to be of any use. it certainly affects the kinds of questions i ask and the perspectives i adopt, but it would be the height of phoniness to trade on it.

also, the memory plays tricks. for example, i think i was arrested at 17 for stupidly attacking a bouncer at the cabooze, right down cedar avenue from my current office in minneapolis. if i were writing an account of the evening for my memoirs (or blog, i suppose), it would be tempting to embellish this "fight" (which was probably over in 2.4 seconds) as some sort of gladiator-style struggle and half-remember all sorts of details from all sorts of sources. just like mr. frey, i could see myself writing about being covered with "a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood." after 24 years, though, all i can really remember is that the band was wilma and the wilburs. i think i was handcuffed for a long time that night/morning and that it hurt, but that could have been a different night altogether. if the smoking gun investigated my blogoirs, they might discover that it was bullwinkles rather than the cabooze or, worse, that i was not arrested in hennepin county that night (hmm. was it ryan's in ramsey county?).

i'm thinking about embellishment because my son is now a wrestler and musician -- two activities that i explored at 14 too. i thought i was a pretty scrappy wrestler, but had to ask my dad whether i was really any good at it (verdict: fought like hell, but lost as much as i won). i know that i was never a good guitar player ("scrappy" probably applies here as well), though i'm sometimes tempted to embellish my experiences or abilities here too. my delinquent history hasn't really been questioned, though those who knew me at 16 love my little joke about preparing a lifetime to "teach a course in juvenile delinquency."

so, even if mr. frey was never the badass of a million little pieces, he probably had some experiences that were something like the events described in the book. or maybe they were stories he heard in treatment. why do we embellish our deviance? hmmm. edwin lemert noted long ago (1951) that rewards as well as penalties derive from deviant roles. rw connell explains the general swagger and jack katz explicated the specific ways of the badass. now that he's apparently been busted, the arc of frey's story fits goffman's (1961) sad tale, and shadd maruna's redemption scripts might help us figure out his next move.

prediction: his next book is gonna be huge.

10 Comments:

At 3:46 PM, Blogger Kim said...

I've long thought that sociologists are prone to studying their demons, perhaps more so than any other academics (except, arguably, clinical psychologists). But, I had a hard time fitting you into my "model." Thanks for clarifying.

The next time I see That Sampson Guy, he's gonna have some 'splaining to do...

 
At 8:17 AM, Blogger Penn State Punk said...

Dude,
You are saying you took the bouncer at the the cabooze in 2.4 seconds..... amazing power and strength for a professor!

 
At 8:25 AM, Blogger Mike W. said...

Thinking of something to comment about Frey, my hyperactive imagination led me to envision an episode of Oprah that broke down into a screaming match about the role of privelege in society, and the racial boundaries that have a tendency to parallel that.

What irks me about what I've read of Frey's memoir (I've not read it) is the same thing that turned me off of Noah Levine's "Dharma Punx," a memoir of a drug-and-crime centered adolesence, followed by a spiritual journey into Buddhism. The latter book was not only not about how counterculture kids could find their own spiritual path (it was more a proud reflection of one's destructive past and even prouder embracing of his current state), but it also seemed to intentionally hide the privelege and opportunities the author had that so many others lack. Levine's father is a well-reputed Buddhist author (presumably also a Levine), and clearly Noah's frequent travels from coast to coast, as well as his philosophical trips to Asia were funded by somebody. The number of "do-overs" Levine had, I believe, far exceed those of the average person. (This, I state, not knowing, either from the side of the court or the family, how many opporunities drug/violent offenders are given; from the former side, considering the culture of the 1980's, I'd imagine it was very few).

At any rate, I can't help but think that Frey probably chose to enhance his self-reliance and masculinity by omitting the occasions on which his parents were willing to offer him solace; the amount of money he was able to either steal, or knowingly receive in the form of an allowance, that fed into his substance habits, or otherwise alleviated him of any need to work or pay bills while a young adult. I glimpsed the Smoking Gun documents (and is it ever *long*!), and they pointed out that his parents are, financially, members of the upper-class. I can't help but be bothered by how people will inevitably generalize the (embellished) accounts in this book to most or all substance abusers, and fail to take into account the privelege implicit in being white, and inherent in having substantial wealth.

 
At 8:27 AM, Anonymous ryan said...

I wouldn’t have much of a problem with Frey’s exaggeration/fabrication if that book were written for a general audience of non-addicts who want to read a good story, fiction or non. But this one runs deeper. I recently spoke with an addict who read that book right out of treatment. He heard about it while in treatment; he was inspired, talked about it endlessly, and earnestly tried to learn from it. The ‘truth about James’ was a blow to him, and I would presume others in similar situations. But I’m glad Chris blogged this, as I took it as a lesson in the importance of genuineness, especially for those in positions of influence (e.g,. teachers). I’ll regain respect for Frey when he writes ‘A Million Little Apologies,’ made available at the very same treatment facilities that circulate his account.

 
At 10:29 AM, Anonymous Shadd Maruna said...

if you're looking for insight on Frey's redemption narrative, forget Maruna, he's a moron. Instead check out Dan McAdams' masterful, new book

The Redemptive Self : Stories Americans Live By (APA Books, 2001)

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0195176936/qid=1137169664/sr=2-1/ref=pd_bbs_b_2_1/103-5491219-6276653?s=books&v=glance&n=283155

 
At 10:30 AM, Anonymous chris said...

hey kim, demons have their uses, eh? thanks, punk, for putting the best possible construction on the social facts in the story.

mike makes a great point about privilege. i know that showing up in court and elsewhere with two concerned, middle-class parents surely played some role in providing me with second chances. from all reports, frey was especially privileged.

i agree, ryan, that frey's explicit message (all about honesty and confronting one's demons head-on) implies some special responsibility to be truthful. it looks as though he really dropped the ball. if it were just a voyeuristic ripping yarn about an unreconstructed young party dude, i'd probably cut him some more slack.

the bottom line, that i surely should have mentioned, is that privilege often carries with it a sense of entitlement -- and a sense that rules are for other people.

 
At 10:33 AM, Anonymous shadd again said...

actually, that should be (APA, 2005). whoops.

 
At 2:38 PM, Anonymous chris said...

dang, nobody has ever been called a "moron" on this blog before (dork? sure. punk? all the time. but moron? that's just cruel). i might have to exert some social control if such defamatory statements continue.

i'll check out mcadams' book, but it won't change my high opinion of making good...

 
At 3:03 PM, Anonymous sarah said...

I don't know, Chris. I think that insults, when self-referrential, should be allowed. Surely they cause no harm, except possibly to the self, in which case there are some really good meds out there. I'd be happy to recommend the few I've tried! Whoops, there goes one of my demons...

 
At 8:05 PM, Blogger Mike W. said...

Well, y'know, the guy *was* 4 years off the publication date of that McAdam piece...

 

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