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James Frey is our narrator. He is a boozer, a user, and a loser, or in his words, "an Alcoholic […] a Drug Addict and […] a Criminal" (1.7.209).
At the beginning of the book, he's on a plane without knowing how he got there. His parents take him to rehab, and after he's told that if he uses drugs again he'll die, well… James decides to kill himself. Then he decides not to. Along the way, he meets and falls in love with a female patient named Lilly. They get caught, she escapes, James saves her from a crack house without doing any crack along the way, and voilà: he's magically rehabbed and gets to leave the clinic.
James's rehab is complicated process, because it takes him a long time to want to recover. His counselors tell him: "We can't help you until you're ready to help yourself" (1.4.256). They try to get him to follow AA's trusty Twelve-Step method, but James adamantly refuses. He spends most of his time at rehab complaining about AA and getting into fights with other patients. Sure, some of the other patients start it, and we do commend him for standing up for himself, even if he does get his lines from Reality TV 101: "If you've got something to say, come say it to my face" (1.7.148).
He's a cocky guy, and he makes every effort to show that his cockiness is an asset. Lesser memoirs might show their cocky protagonists learning a little humility over the course of the story, but James never does. "I have always dealt with pain alone. I will deal with it alone now" (1.7.337), he says after painful dental surgery without anesthesia. He doesn't even want to go to a halfway house after rehab, because he thinks that would be a safety net and safety nets are for losers (2.4.406).
Determined to suffer through his pain alone, James chucks his AA book out the window. But wait—this dude is totally not as alone as he wants us to believe. He finds solace in the Tao Te Ching, a book of Chinese philosophical poetry given to him by his brother. We guess it's less about doing things alone for James than it is about him doing things his own way and only his way. What is this, the Tao Te Fred Durst?
James might talk big, but he really doesn't want to be alone. He contradicts himself a lot, and this is one of those times. He even tells us flat out, "More than anything all I have ever wanted is to be close to someone" (1.8.21). So why does he push almost every single person in his life away from him?
Well, his life has been shaded by loss. He tells us one story about a girl named Michelle who died when her car got struck by a train: "She was my only friend. She got hit by a Train and killed. She got hit by a f***ing Train and killed" (1.8.27). Sounds traumatic, right? Maybe James is afraid to get close to anyone because he's afraid he might lose that person.
James is also trying to get over a relationship with an unnamed girl whom he "spent three years staring at her and thinking about her and waiting for her to talk to me" (3.1.241). Nope. That's not creepy at all.
James's relationship with Lilly follows this same pattern of latching on to girls he barely knows as if they will save him from a life of misery. She's like another drug. In fact, James himself realizes this when he says, "Drugs. Lilly. Get f***ed up. Lilly. They are independent of each other and they are intertwined" (3.4.591).
A guy in rehab shouldn't be replacing one addiction with another, should he? Especially when that other is a living, breathing human being? That's just irresponsible. Even Lilly thinks this is a bad idea, saying that it's a mistake "thinking love could solve your problems" (3.1.247). That sure doesn't stop them from barreling forward with their relationship as if love actually could solve their problems. Of course, Lilly's an addict with relationship issues of her own, so this isn't so surprising.
But the opportunity to be a hero to a damaged woman is too much for James and his cocky swagger to pass up. He's going to be so good to her that he'll just be the best person ever in the whole world: "I'm not going to hurt her. I'm not going to leave her. I'm not going to judge her. I hold her and she cries" (3.2.565). No, that doesn't sound like this. Nope, not at all.
Another issue that James has to deal with is his odd relationship with his parents. He hates them. We have no idea why, other than the fact that they're his parents, and he never seemed to grow out of that rebellious preteen phase. When he tells his parents about how he started drinking at ten, he admits, "I don't know why I did it" (3.2.123). James doesn't know why he does a lot of things.
James's parents never abused him; in fact, they pretty much bankrolled his addiction. When they tried to stop him, he'd get angry and threaten them. He tells his parents, "I don't blame you for this, and I don't think there's anything you could have done to stop it. I am what I am" (3.2.137). We're not totally sure about that; it sounds a little bit like his parents have been enabling him. It's hard to be sure, though, since James doesn't say much about it.
James continues to treat his parents like crap during family sessions, making his father angry and his mother cry. With a counselor looking on, his parents end up blaming the whole thing on a bad ear infection James had as a child. If you've ever had tubes in your ears, you're probably a heroin addict, we guess. James's mother actually apologizes to him (enabling, anyone?), even though this is a dude who acts like addiction is a voluntary choice that he made for his whole life: "People don't want to accept responsibility for their own weakness, so they place the blame on something that they're not responsible for," (3.3.399) he says.
And let's not forget that moment when James confesses to nearly beating a priest to death, and the priest he's confessing to ends up apologizing to James. James doesn't even seem to feel guilty about the incident. He seems to think it was justified because the priest touched him in his bathing suit area. Maybe the idea is supposed to be that the things that have happened to James are so bad that he's heroic for refusing to blame these things for his addiction.
James finally apologizes near the end of the family program, and he even stops letting his mother apologize for once. He touches his mother, and it's a big moment. "It is the first time in all of my memory that I have initiated contact with either my Mother or my Father" (3.3.161), and he gives them a genuine apology.
It's a nice change when people stop apologizing to James, and he starts apologizing to them. It sort of makes us overlook the fact that he's been one of the rudest, most self-destructive jerks we've read about in a long time.
After all these apologies (still more incoming than outgoing, unfortunately), James decides not to be an addict anymore. He just flicks a switch, saying, "I'm not going to be dependent on anything but myself" (4.3.163). So, wait. Does James get clean because he feels and guilty, or does he get clean as an act of stubbornness, just to stick it to everyone who said he couldn't do it? We're not sure, but we'll point out that Joanne says that James is "the single most stubborn Person" (3.3.422) she's ever met.
This is evident when James talks to Lincoln after Lilly runs away: "I'm gonna stay clean doing it, if for no other reason than to be able to come back here and show your self-righteous ass that your way isn't the only way" (3.4.229).
So has James actually made any progress, or is he an overgrown man-child who wants to be contrary just for the sake of being contrary? Is James's triumph over addiction something that should even be celebrated, if he chose addiction in the first place? Or is the most important thing that James got over his addiction at all?