Thursday, January 19, 2006


Spier: Manufactured Reality: A Phony Autobiography and Oprah and Bush Expose Us As Saps

By Bill Spier

I am not sure that Oprah Winfrey was a 1970’s closet admirer of Werner Erhart, but her show is a nonstop quest for finding just the right therapy for every personal crisis. Erhart’s nihilistic philosophy (like solipsism) spoke to those who did not know that in Erhart’s words: "We all create our own reality.” The 1970’s saw a plethora of competing fast therapy enterprises like est, Synanon, moonieism and myriad pseudosciences. (See Skeptic Report, The Etiology of a Social Epidemic, by Pat Crossman, LCSW). You may not have been to a est meeting in the 1970’s or suffered from (often brutal) Synanon rehabilitation, but their nihilistic philosophies helped build an empire of self help, fitness and women’s magazines. My take on all this was that if you had the power to market your delusions and mask any self serving ambitions, you could make others think that these tonics were a reality. The key was to convince people that what you had to offer had emotional veracity. Of course, there have always been tonic peddlers, but since the early 1970’s these manufactured realities have seeped into every corner of American culture. The result is that a goodly number of us have been played for saps.

This brings me to a smashing, must read article by Tom Scocca in the New York Observer , The Awful Untruth,You’ve Probably Had It on Phony Memoir—But Frey Fraud Was Worse Than You Know; Was Explosion Just Delayed W.M.D. Reaction?

James Frey, as you might know, wrote an autobiography “A Million Little Pieces” which turns out to be fiction. Since an autobiography must be true to facts, Mr. Frey is exposed as a liar, period. Oprah Winfrey propelled the book to riches and now claims that the redemptive message was what was important, not the facts. (But Oprah, how could the message be redemptive when the stated transgressions were fiction?)

From page 2 of the Tom Scocca article:

Mr. Frey is not the only person pouring this cocktail of lies and denial—of “emotional truth.” More than one critic quickly picked up on the link between Mr. Frey’s literary career and the fact-averse, spin-happy presidency of George W. Bush. The joint biography is easy. Both men are dry drunks with belligerent streaks, angry and cosseted children of money. Both claim to have turned their self-destructive lives around without formal 12-step treatment, through the power of mass-market personal spirituality—pop Taoism for Mr. Frey, evangelical Christianity for Mr. Bush. Both have awkward gaps in their paper trails.

But the real bond between them is conceptual. The argument for A Million Little Pieces is identical in structure to the argument for the Iraq War: Because of my project, countless [addicts/Iraqis] now know unimagined [inspiration/liberty]—what kind of person would want to take that away by niggling about details that don’t even matter anymore?

“Hold On,” says Mr. Frey, in his recovery mantra. “We’ll stay the course; we’ll complete the job,” says Mr. Bush.

“We support the book,” Oprah Winfrey told Larry King in a dramatic end-of-program phone call, “because we recognize that there have been thousands and hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have been changed by this book.”

That’s the game. Emotional truth is not a property of the story or the storyteller. Emotional truth works on the audience. Emotional truth is the name for the thing that sells.

“From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August,” said Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff, describing in 2002 how the administration rolled out its campaign for the war. It was emotionally true, at the time, that Iraq’s nuclear weapons were an unacceptable threat to the United States. “Threat” was the concept that the market was ready to hear. The mushroom cloud. Sept. 11. A new Sept. 11, but with a mushroom cloud.

Politics is commerce. Literature is commerce. Religion is commerce. Identity is commerce. The sales campaign keeps moving, without regard for internal consistency. JT LeRoy sold books because he was an authentic outsider voice, a damaged teen boy prostitute who could turn his real experience into powerful fiction. Then, as people began asking pointedly about who JT LeRoy was, he became a more ambiguous figure—a fragile transsexual for whom confusion was shelter. When he was revealed to be an outright hoax, “JT LeRoy” became a conceptual prank about celebrity and identity.

Weapons of mass destruction … weapons-of-mass-destruction-related program activities. Emotional truth doesn’t have to endure. It only has to last as long as it takes for the check to clear, for the ballots to be counted, for the money-back guarantee to expire.

If part of the millions who bought the Frey book makes an analogy between the hyping of the book and Bush's hyping of lies on WMD and the selling of the Iraq incursion, the implications could be substantial in 2006. Oprah watchers should be pissed at Oprah too. She is unapologetic about her peddling of phony redemption. I don't think Americans will end their quest for redemptive therapies anytime soon, but they may not take Bush's lies much longer.

D.H. editorial comment: For those of us who read Bill's article above and asked, "Shot who?", I'd remind us all that Bill is smarter than most of us put together, but he does have a point. I don't know anything about most of the "isms" he mentions above, except "nihilism," which is what some snot-nosed rich kids have when they've had nannies to dress 'em, cook for 'em, wash their clothes, and probably even wipe their butts all their lives, and finally come to realize that their cocktail banter doesn't mean diddly shit, and they arrive at the marvelous conclusion that life doesn't mean anything. The key is their lives don't mean diddly shit, but they don't realize that there is real life out there. The genius of Bill's piece is bringing the Scocca article to our attention, and the comparison between a fraudulent autobiography and the wasted life of George W. Bush.

Other links:

Media Matters for America.

Common Dreams * Breaking News & Views for the Progressive Community.

Buzzflash News.

Latest post to DemLog.


It was the Scocca article that made the analogy between the book and Bush. Not me. His objective was to explain the similarities the sale's pitch of Frey and Bush. I made a (clumsy) attempt to tie it to our obsession with phony therapies. Pat Robertson is an hier of the 70's therapy marketers like Erhart. Robertson, though, says Jesus loves you in one breath and promotes political asassination in the other. He, and others like him, primed Bush's base all during the 80's and 90's. Erhart, and others like him, worked their schtick on mainly over-indulged middle and upper class baby boomers. All work their therapy on people who love to self-loathe, and then rejoice in any revelation that masks their guilt, social failings, or lack of real faith.

Dave, thanks for adding the paragraph: But the real bond between them is conceptual. The argument for A Million Little Pieces is identical in structure to the argument for the Iraq War: Because of my project, countless [addicts/Iraqis] now know unimagined [inspiration/liberty]—what kind of person would want to take that away by niggling about details that don’t even matter anymore?
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