James Frey Protest: Mace, Hells Angels, and Leafleting
It's Friday evening and I'm standing outside Slim's with Jan Frel, his wife, Hadley, a can of mace and a stack of papers. The papers are stapled copies of John Dolan's essay "Whose Fault Is Frey?" a document that lambastes author James Frey, whose memoir of drug addiction and subsequent recovery, A Million Little Pieces, was exposed as a partial fabrication after it took the best-sellers lists by storm. Frel is an editor at progressive Web site Alternet.org, and the founder of Down With Frey, an organization that consists of himself, his wife and a blog where one can vote on whether or not Frey is a "hack writer," a "sad sack" or an "abomination." Inside Slim's, a metal band is gearing up to play a set before Frey takes the stage to read an excerpt from his new book, A Bright Shiny Morning, which will be sold in the fiction section and garnered a glowing review from the New York Times.
Right now they're talking strategy.
Frel thinks that maybe Hadley should take the mace into the club, as she's less likely to get the thorough search that a guy would be subjected to. They had read on Gawker that the Hells Angels might be in attendance to guard the author and Down With Frey is toting the mace for protection in the event of a scuffle. (Later in the night, someone does point out a formidable, broad-shouldered man who is rumored to be the former head of the New York Hells Angels and Frey's bodyguard.)
Frel issued a press release prior to his protest, which read in part, "James Frey is a disgrace, a sham, a fraud and a plagiarizer…He peddles the worst lies about society: that drugs are bad and the cause of addicts' problems, and that people can change. While most authors make a straight bee-line for the exit doors after being revealed as frauds, Frey is shamelessly sticking around, peddling his latest trash novel."
I ask Hadley, who's a writer, if she feels as strongly about Frey as her husband does.
"Yes," she says firmly, then adds, "But this was his idea."
We're admitted to the venue without incident and stand in the middle of the largely unoccupied floor. Frey's reading in New York pulled a crowd of hundreds, but it's a rare hot day in San Francisco so there's only a crowd of about sixty people at Slim's today.
There seems to be some confusion about what the next step will be.
"I guess we should wait until he starts reading, right?" Frel asks.
But it turns out that waiting isn't an option. Frey has been standing off near the edge of the bar, eying us and conversing with some people grouped around him. He crosses the floor and now we're all standing there with Frey and an extremely angry-looking guy with black hair and tattoos.
"Hey, you're here!" Frel exclaims, sounding genuinely excited and friendly.
Frey is wearing an unassuming white T-shirt, glasses, and an LA Dodgers baseball hat.
"I heard you had some essays; I was thinking of reading them out loud on stage," Frey returns.
It's obvious that Frel has thought out ahead of time what he would like to say to the author's face, but now that it's really happening, things just seem awkward. He tells Frey that he's a disgrace, that he's a fraud, and that his continuing popularity is symptomatic of the attitude that allows George Bush to retain office after committing war crimes. Frey is nodding in response to this and tells Frel that he's entitled to his opinion. The whole time, Black Hair Tattooed Guy, a member of the opening band, 3rdrail, is at Frey's side, mad-dogging Frel, fists clenched. The confrontation sputters out, and Frey walks away.
"You mess any shit up…." Black Hair Tattoed Guy hisses into Frel's face.
"And what?" Frel asks.
"Guess!" BHTG barks, and turns heel.
Unfortunately, we never get to find out what fate lies in store for Frel should he continue his campaign against literary fraud, as he and Hadley are unceremoniously ejected from the club by a man in a black leather vest and white ball cap. There's a short-lived smattering of clapping from bystanders.
I'm ready to follow them outside but first I talk to Frey. What does he think of Frel's protest?
"I think it's awesome!" He grins, but quickly adds that they should be conducting their protest outside, as they're being disruptive.
Outside, Frel is trying to hand copies of the essay to people who are standing in line. Confused, some accept the pieces of paper. Bouncers quickly descend on those with leaflets and confiscate them.
"We can't have a bunch of paper in the club," one bouncer tells Frel.
One woman who still has her essay gets out of line and hands it back. "I don't want to stand here and read this," she mumbles.
The bouncers then tell Frel and Hadley they have to stand at the end of the street if they want to keep handing out the papers.
Frel printed about thirty essays and says he's handed out ten. Well, maybe eleven if you count the one that was handed back. Frel chews Skoal, and he's got a paper cup jammed in the front pocket of shirt now, so that he can deposit his spit into it. I ask him if he thinks his protest was a success.
"No," he says. "Frey still has sucker fans showing up to talk to him."
Hadley adds, "It was bad atmosphere for a protest."
"That's the problem with writers," Frel says cryptically.
"It was such a sad little protest!" says Hadley.
"Well, what did you expect?" asks Frel. "Throngs? Hundreds?"
They decide to deposit the remaining essays in a convenience store across the street and go grab a bite to eat. They're calling it a night.
I get back in line to be re-searched by the bouncers and re-admitted so I can get a drink. The bouncer tells me that, obviously, I can't have anything on my person that Down With Frey may have given me, which I do. I tell her that I need the stapled essay because I'm a journalist and she looks doubtful. I ask her if I can just keep the last page, since I wrote some notes on the back of it. She consents, tearing off the first two pages and handing the last one back to me.
Frey's reading goes off without a hitch. Over music provided by 3rdrail, he reads a passage about a woman purchasing a gun after being raped. Photographs by Terry Richardson of glowering thugs and guns are projected on a screen behind him. Frey opens the floor to questions afterwards and one person asks how he really feels about Oprah. Nobody mentions the protest. It's a thing of the past, just like Frey's public undoing, and now fans are happily lining up to chat with the author and get their books signed. --Andy Wright