Did James Frey, on the night of Oct. 24, 1992, pull up outside a bar in Granville, Ohio, in a white Mercury? Was he both drunk and high on crack at the time? Did he jump the curb, bump a cop with said Mercury and then get dragged out of the car screaming by the police, who proceeded to beat him up?
Did he then go to rehab, write a book about it, inspire millions of readers and make a ton of money?
A lot of the stories Frey tells in his 2003 memoir, A Million Little Pieces, are currently in dispute, but that last tale isn't. To date A Million Little Pieces has sold about 3.5 million copies, helped not a little by the fact that Oprah Winfrey chose it as her book club's third nonfiction title. She proclaimed Frey the Man Who Kept Oprah Awake at Night. The only book that sold better than A Million Little Pieces last year was Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Frey's 2005 sequel, My Friend Leonard, didn't do too badly either.
But what exactly did those millions of readers buy? A Million Little Pieces is the gritty, graphic, bombastic story of an Angry Young Man who--despite his well-concealed heart of gold--manages to get himself addicted to drugs and booze. After a string of arrests and a lot of self-destructive behavior, he winds up in a Minnesota rehab clinic, where he befriends a scary-funny gangster (also with a heart of gold) and falls in love with a tragic recovering crack addict (ditto). Redemption ensues.
On Jan. 8, however, the Smoking Gun (www thesmokinggun.com) a website specializing in digging up public records, posted a lengthy report that challenges some of the facts in Frey's book. Among other things, the website's staff found a lack of evidence that Frey had a relationship with a girl who died in a train accident when he was in high school--Frey even wrote that he was blamed for the accident, which did much to stoke his dark-star mojo. The Smoking Gun found Frey's claim that he engaged in a melee with police officers in 1992 to have been fabricated. What is most disturbing, in a way (since a major plot point hangs thereon), is that the report questions the book's claim that Frey spent three months in an Ohio jail after rehab. The site even quotes Frey as having said in an interview, "I was in for a significantly shorter period of time than three months."
What's going on here? Did Frey lie to boost his story's drama and his own street cred? TIME was able to check some of the Smoking Gun's findings, and came to the same conclusion. For example, Marianne Sanders, 62, the mother of the girl who died, says that she and her husband recognize Frey but that he was not a good friend of their daughter's and that he wasn't even remotely blamed for the accident that killed her in 1986 (another girl, whom Frey doesn't mention, also died in the accident). "We knew the name," Sanders says. "We didn't know him personally. His name was never mentioned in any connection with the accident at all." (Sanders isn't nearly as upset about the book as a lot of other people. "I don't wish him bad," she says. "He seems like he's a good writer. He should've been a little more careful, I guess.")