Issue 4: Subjectivity vs. Objectivity
A Publication of the USF MFA in Writing Program

Inter-Views

Marie Fiala


"As awful as it can be, the truth is what matters.
It is what I should be remembered by. . . ."

James Frey, A Million Little Pieces


THE WRITER: I wanted to use my experiences to tell my story about addiction and alcoholism, about recovery, about family and friends. . . . I wrote about the events in the book truly and honestly and accurately. All of the events depicted in the book are factually accurate. . . . The only things I changed were aspects of people that might reveal their true identities. Otherwise, it's all true. I wrote the book for a number of reasons . . . the reason most important to me was so I could create a tribute and a memorial to my Friends . . . who are now dead. Most of them have been forgotten. I haven't forgotten them and I never will.1

MOTHER: She used to sit here [pointing to kitchen table] in the evenings, doing her homework while I was starting dinner. I'd fix her a cup of tea and we'd talk about her day. What was going on at school, with her friends. She wasn't like a lot of teenagers, always shut up in their rooms. Michelle really liked being at home, she enjoyed her family time. You should have seen her with her brother, Matt. They were so good together. They'd joke, kid around. She'd help him with homework, take him shopping for new clothes before school started. She was excited about it being her senior year in high school, and a bit scared, too. We'd talk about what she would do after she graduated. She'd lived here in St. Joseph all her life and she wasn't sure whether she wanted to stay in Michigan for college. I think part of her wasn't ready to leave home yet.

THE WRITER: Honesty is essential to any discussion of addiction. . . . Avoiding it, prettying it up, bragging about it, intellectualizing it, it's all bullshit pure and simple, and harmful, often fatal, bullshit. My hope is that my book, my often painful honesty, can cut through some of that and grab at least one person and make them look at who they are and what they're doing and change.2

FATHER: She was a terrific athlete, a natural. Even when she was little, she liked playing with her T-ball more than her dolls. When she got older, we'd go down to the park after I came home from work and throw a ball around, her and Matt and me. She had a good arm, for a girl. She'd throw that ball as hard as she could, trying to make it sting. In school, she played baseball, tennis, volleyball. She made the varsity team in every sport. What do I remember? [closes eyes] I think about her on the tennis court, running to make a net shot. Totally focused on the ball. Then wham! She'd hit it home. She was fearless out there. Fearless.

MOTHER: Here's her picture.

Michelle

This was her senior yearbook portrait. She's so beautiful, so beautiful. Look at all that curly hair. It used to get all snarled when she was little and she had to sit still while I combed the tangles out. She never complained, she'd say, "Don't worry, Mommy, it's ok, you're not hurting me," even though I know it must have hurt. She had huge brown eyes. She'd look at you so deep, like she could see who you really were. She was a happy girl, always smiling. I loved to hear her on the phone with her friends, laughing. She was the light at the center of our house.

THE WRITER: I met Michelle . . . when my Family had just moved to a small Town. I didn't relate to any of the Kids in the Town, they didn't relate to me. I didn't lift weights, I hated heavy metal, I thought working on cars was a waste of fucking time. . . . I am who I am and they could either like me or hate me. They hated me with a fucking vengeance. I started getting taunted, pushed around and beat up. I taunted back, matched every push with a push, every punch thrown with one of my own. Within a month or two I had a reputation. Teachers talked about me, Parents talked about me, the local Cops talked about me. They did not say pleasant things. . . . I responded by declaring War on them and their Town with everything inside of me. I didn't care whether I won or lost, I just wanted to fight. Bring it on you Motherfuckers, bring everything you've got. Six months into my time there I became friends with a Girl named Michelle. She was popular, beautiful and smart. She played sports and she was a Cheerleader and she got straight A's. I don't know why she wanted to be my friend but she did.3

MOTHER: That night, the night it happened. . . . [voice trails off]

FATHER: [Quietly] We were watching TV, probably the Tonight Show. We used to love Johnny Carson. When the doorbell rang, I was startled because it was late, so I looked out the side window in the living room. There was a policeman standing on the front porch. Standing there looking down at his shoes. Right away, I got a bad feeling. . . .

MOTHER: She'd gone to a party at a friend's house not far from here. I was there when her best friend Jeannie stopped by and picked her up. Michelle said she'd be home by twelve or twelve thirty. I remember the last words I said to her as she was going out the door. Don't forget your jacket. Stay warm! The silly things you say when you think there'll be a next time. . . . She never gave us cause to worry. She didn't run around. She didn't drink because she was involved on the sports teams and she wanted to play her best. Still, I always worried a bit when she was out. I didn't sleep right until I heard the front door open and knew she was home. You always worry about them no matter how old they are.

THE WRITER: Michelle got asked out on a date by this Guy in High School. She knew her Parents wouldn't let her go, so she told them she was going to the movies with me. I had never done anything to them and I had always been pleasant and polite in their presence, so they agreed and they drove us to the Theater. I went inside and I watched the movie with a pint of whiskey and I walked Home by myself when it was over. Michelle got picked up and went on her date. She and the Guy parked and drank beer and as he was driving her back to the Theater, he tried to beat a Train across a set of tracks4

MOTHER: When he told us, the policeman, he said there'd been an accident. That Michelle had been in an accident. All I could think was, she's hurt, she's in the hospital, I have to get my shoes on, I have to get to the hospital. I kept thinking that over and over. I had a hard time taking in what he was saying. Then I realized he was saying he was really sorry, it was a very bad accident. . . .

BERRIEN COUNTY, MICHIGAN SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT DEPUTY: I was the first officer on the scene. I was dispatched to investigate a reported car/train accident in St. Joseph. Upon arrival I noted a C&O train stopped on the track north of the Maiden Lane intersection. The car involved was a 1976 2-door Oldsmobile Toronado, grey in color. The vehicle had been struck by the train in the right passenger door and bent in a U-shape. The vehicle came to rest 626 feet 4 inches from the point of impact, with the left front tire of the car 15 feet 11 inches away from the track. The damage to the vehicle was extensive.

TRAIN FIREMAN: We'd started our run about 2:00 that afternoon, from Benton Harbor to Watervliet to drop off some cars and then back to Benton Harbor to pick up some more cars and take 'em down to New Buffalo. It was just past 9:00 at night and we were northbound back to Benton Harbor. We were running light, just the engine and a caboose, doing 'bout 50 miles an hour. I was up front with the engineer. We were coming up on the crossing in St. Joseph. I saw the signal lights flashing up ahead, and the engineer blew the whistle at the whistle post, oh, 'bout 1200 feet before the crossing. Then I saw a car coming down the road from the left, fast. It just kept on coming, didn't stop at the signal, didn't slow down, drove right across the tracks. I felt the shock when we hit it and there were a lot of sparks and flashes from the metal scrapin' against metal. It was several hundred feet before we could bring the train to a complete stop.

SHERIFF'S DEPUTY: Upon approaching the vehicle, I saw three occupants trapped inside. I was unable to open the driver's side door, so I broke the windshield and climbed up on the car to reach the victims. There were two white female passengers and a white male driver. I checked the female passengers. Neither of them was breathing or had a pulse and it was obvious that they were both deceased. The driver of the vehicle had a pulse but was not breathing on account of the victim had swallowed his tongue. I pulled his head back and cleared his airway, and at that point the victim started to breathe. I remained with him and kept his airway open until medical personnel arrived on the scene. The male victim and driver of the vehicle was identified as Duane Spaulding. He was transported to the Mercy Memorial ER. Upon his arrival he was treated by the emergency room staff and taken into emergency surgery for numerous injuries received in the accident. Once out of surgery he was placed in intensive care and listed in critical condition. At my request the Berrien County dispatcher contacted the Medical Examiner, who approved removal of the two white female victims to Mercy Memorial Hospital. The two female victims were identified as Michelle Sanford and Jean Hunt.

THE WRITER: His car got hit and Michelle was killed. She was popular, beautiful and smart. She played sports and she was a Cheerleader and she got straight A's. She was my only friend. She got hit by a Train and killed. She got hit by a fucking Train and killed.5

TRAIN FIREMAN: I'd been working for Chessie [the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad] for twenty-six years at that time, and I'd never hit a car before. Lots of times there'd be debris on the tracks, or once in a while an animal, a cow or something, but never a car. It stayed with me a long time, the sound it made when we hit and the flashing sparks, and the long time it took for the train to stop. And then, when we did stop, the silence. No sound at all, just dead silence. It's hard to put it out of your mind, you know? Just a bunch of kids ridin' around on a Saturday night one minute and the next minute it's all over for 'em.

THE WRITER: I don't believe she's in Heaven and I don't believe she's in a better place. She's dead, and when we're dead, we're gone. There are no blinding lights, there is no happy music, there are no Angels waiting to greet us. St. Peter is not at the Pearly Gates with a big fat fucking book, our friends and Relatives are not holding a seat for us at some divine dinner table, we do not get a tour of Heaven. We are dead and that is it. No more.6

SHERIFF'S DEPUTY: I interviewed a number of witnesses who had attended St. Joseph High School with the victims. One of the witnesses stated that Duane Spaulding had invited approximately 10-12 students to a party at a house which was located off Maiden Lane. At approximately 9:00 p.m., Duane Spaulding along with Michelle Sanford and Jean Hunt left the party to go to the Smiley's Station located at Red Arrow and Glenlord to purchase beverages. The witness waited at the house and upon the three subjects not returning, got worried at which time he and another student went out looking for them. It was at this time he went past the accident scene on Maiden Lane and went up to the car and realized the car involved was that of Duane Spaulding. He then went down to the hospital to check on the conditions of the occupants of the vehicle.

NURSE: I was working the night shift at Mercy Memorial when the parents of that poor girl came in with a police officer to identify the body. I was asked to take them down to the morgue to witness the identification. No matter how many times I've had to do that, it never gets any easier, especially when it's a child involved. They were both quiet, real pale, obviously in shock. The father had his arm around the mother, was supporting her as they walked down the hall and into the elevator. When we got to the morgue, they paused just inside the door. They were holding on to each other real tight. Then they walked in and stood a little ways away from the table. The policeman folded down the sheet covering her face and asked the father, was this his daughter? He walked over and looked down at her, and then just crumpled over sobbing. Then the mother walked over. . . .

MOTHER: She was wearing the new pink sweater she'd bought to wear to the party. Her hair was matted with blood and there was blood on her face, but it was still her, my baby girl. I reached down and stroked her hair back from her forehead. I wanted to stay with her, wash her face and hair and sit next to her and hold her hand, but they told us we needed to go. I couldn't bear to leave her like that, in that cold room, dirty and alone. [Long pause] That was the worst moment of my life, having to walk away from her and leave her there, all alone.

POSTMORTEM REPORT: After clothing was removed an exterior check of the deceased was made by Dr. Jamison. It found severe skull laceration and skull damage to the right side of the cranium behind the ear, with portions of the cranium penetrating into the brain. An area 3" x 1" in depth protruding into the brain. Also, a large laceration was found to the upper right outside thigh, 2" x 1" x " deep. Upon checking the internal organs it was found the deceased received multiple lacerations to the right lung, contusions to the left lung. The 6th, 8th and 9th ribs on the right side were fractured and the 1st rib on the left side was fractured. A check of the internal cavity found 300 ml. blood in each side of the chest. Also found were massive spleen lacerations; 100 ml. of blood found in abdomen; massive lacerations to the liver; fractured pelvis; lacerations to the right side of the kidney; and contusions of the pancreas. Test of blood serum was taken with a finding of .00% alcohol in the blood stream. A viscular fluid test was taken from the eyes which also indicated .00%. Results of the tests indicated zero alcohol content in the victim's body. Cause of death was determined as massive head and internal injuries.

THE WRITER: I found out the next day. I got blamed by her Parents and by their friends and by everyone else in that fucking hellhole. If she hadn't lied and if I hadn't helped her, it would not have happened. If we hadn't gone to the Theater, she would not have gone on the date. The Guy was unhurt and was a local football Hero and everyone felt sorry for him. I got taken down to the local Police Station and questioned. That was the way it worked there. Blame the fuck-up, feel sorry for the football Hero. Vilify one forever, forget the other had anything to do with it. I took a lot of punches for that bullshit, and every time I threw a punch back, and I threw one back every single time. . . . I threw it back as hard as I fucking could.7

MOTHER: The accident happened about a mile from our house, close to the lake. A day or two after the funeral I drove over there and parked the car just this side of the train crossing. This is the last place where she was alive, I thought. I drive over there every so often. It's the place that connects me to her last moments in the world. Even now, years later, I still measure everything by her absence. Every once in a while I'm caught up by something and I want to say to her, isn't that beautiful, the bright new leaves in spring or look at the sunlight reflecting off the water. So many things she missed. So many things were taken away from her. From me.

SHERIFF'S DEPUTY: A blood alcohol level taken from the driver, Duane Spaulding, upon his arrival at Mercy Memorial prior to his emergency surgery showed an alcohol level of .106%. A warrant was issued approximately one month after the accident and Mr. Spaulding was arrested on a charge of vehicular manslaughter. He pleaded no contest to a negligent homicide charge and was sentenced to a six-month term in jail and two years probation.

ST. JOSEPH WOMAN: Michelle was my cousin. We grew up together, went to school together from kindergarten on. She was so graceful and beautiful. She seemed golden, you know? Like nothing could ever go wrong in her life. One of those girls everybody likes. I could talk to her about anything and she would listen. I couldn't believe it when it happened, when she died, I mean. I couldn't believe she was gone. When you're that age you think you're going to live forever. When someone your own age dies, it makes you question everything you think you're sure about. Suddenly my life had this big hole in it. I'll never forget her, ever.

THE WRITER: Welcome to Big Jim Industries. Site is up and fully operational. All the world is rejoicing. I was extremely honored, thrilled and humbled by the announcement . . . that Oprah chose A Million Little Pieces as the latest book for her book club. Thank you, Oprah, thank you. A Million Little Pieces is #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, USA Today bestseller list, Publisher's Weekly bestseller list, Booksense bestseller list, LA Times bestseller list. Thanks again to Oprah Winfrey and the folks at Harpo for including me in the Book Club and making this a crazy dream come true. Event at the new Borders in the Time/Warner Center, which is a beautiful store. Oprah's crew was there was fun and cool. Doing a signing today . . . Crew from the Oprah will be there shooting it. Come if you can, come if you can. Taping Oprah tomorrow. Very excited.8

ST. JOSEPH WOMAN: Sure, I've read the book. Everybody that I know has read that book. When it came out, everybody was talking in town, saying how wrong it was. There were only two girls in town who'd been killed in a train accident, so I knew that it had to be Michelle and Jeannie, but what he wrote about the train accident, none of that was accurate at all. . . . He was a grade behind us in school, they weren't friends or anything. They weren't together that night. He didn't even describe her right. Michelle wasn't a cheerleader, it was Jeannie who was the cheerleader and who got straight A's. Anybody in our school knew that he didn't have anything to do with that train accident.

SHERIFF'S DEPUTY. Nope, I don't remember him at all. I interviewed all of the witnesses to the accident, including 9 or 10 students who went to school with the victims. Yeah, I'm sure. If he'd been involved, someone would have mentioned him. He wasn't picked up or questioned. He wasn't mentioned in the official traffic accident report. I don't even recognize his name.

MOTHER: Some friends of ours told us about the book. That he had written about a girl who must have been Michelle, about how he supposedly had caused her death in a train accident. It's hard to re-live it all again, even though it's been a long time. He wasn't close with Michelle. I would have known if he was. I knew her friends, they were at our house all the time. He was never even questioned in regard to the accident because he had nothing to do with it. Even so, when I first heard about what he had written, I thought, is this possible? Did she lie to us? The terrible thing is how he could make me doubt what I know and whether what I remember is true.

FATHER: I never met him and I never drove him anywhere. I sure as hell never drove them to any movie. Michelle wasn't dating any football player. We knew where she was that night. She went to the party with her best friend Jeannie, and they died together in that car.

ST. JOSEPH WOMAN: St. Joseph is one of the highest per capita income areas in the whole county, so it's unlikely that he would've run into many "metal heads" or "motor heads" when he moved here. And him saying that everyone in school hated him, nothing coculd be further from the truth. Oh my gosh, he was well-liked. He had lots of friends. He was part of the popular group and on the soccer team. He was a good player. Our team won the district championship that year. It's sad that he perceives himself as a tortured character. That's not how we saw him. He always seemed happy-go-lucky. He was voted "Class Clown" in our high school yearbook. I can't imagine why he would say all those things.

THE WRITER'S ATTORNEY: We are litigation counsel to James Frey, author of the book A Million Little Pieces. . . . I am informed that you questioned my client's veracity concerning his statement about his friendship with a girl in high school whose name was identified in the book as Michelle. You identified a woman and claimed that you spoke with the parents of Michelle, who allegedly claimed that my client was not close friends with the girl who was killed in the train accident. . . . Be advised that to the extent [you] falsely state or imply that my client is a liar and/or that he fabricated or falsified his background as reflected in A Million Little Pieces, such conduct will expose you and all involved . . . to substantial liability.9

THE WRITER: Let the haters hate, let the doubters doubt, I stand by my book, and my life, and I won't dignify this bullshit with any sort of further response.10

THE WRITER'S ATTORNEY: My client has lucrative book and movie deals in place, as well as having an expectation of prospective economic benefits. Publication of a false Story about Mr. Frey - particularly one falsely attacking his credibility - would imperil both his existing and anticipated economic benefits, resulting in substantial damages to my client.11

MOTHER: Everything that he wrote about my daughter was flat-out lies. I'm glad the truth finally came out. Michelle deserves to be remembered for who she was, not who he made her out to be.

THE WRITER: During the process of writing the book I embellished many details about my past experiences, and altered others in order to serve what I felt was the greater purpose of the book. . . . I wanted the stories in the book to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require. I altered events and details all the way through the book. Some of those include my role in a train accident that killed a girl from my school. While I was not, in real-life, directly involved in the train accident, I was profoundly affected by it.12

MOTHER: He's a writer, you know, they don't tell everything that's factual and true. He used the accident to sell his book. It feels like he's stolen something that belonged to us. What really happened, what it meant. What it still means.

THE WRITER: I believe . . . that memoir allows the writer to work from memory instead of from a strict journalistic or historical standard. It is about impression and feeling, about individual recollection. This memoir is a combination of facts about my life and certain embellishments. It is a subjective truth. . . . Ultimately, it's a story.13

MOTHER: It's very hard to lose a child. You never get over it. It's something you carry around with you always, like a stone in your pocket. Sometimes you can go for a while not thinking about the stone, but it's always there, heavy, its weight pulling at you. Once in a while you reach into your pocket to touch it, remind yourself that it's there. Because the worst thing that could happen, the very worst thing, would be to forget and to start to feel normal again. Because then it would be as if you'd never had a child, as if she had never existed. And you can't let that happen. You carry that stone with you the rest of your life because you need to remember, even when nobody else does.

THE WRITER: I am an Alcoholic and I am a drug Addict and I am a Criminal. That is what I am and who I am and that is how I should be remembered. No happy lies, no invented memories, no fake sentimentality, no tears. . . . I deserve to be portrayed honestly and I deserve nothing more.14

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NOTE TO READERS: The words attributed to "The Writer" and "The Writer's Attorney" are actual quotations from James Frey and his counsel. The other characters are based on real people who participated in the events described, and the material facts incorporated into this piece are based on the factual research cited below. However, all of the "interviews" are entirely imaginary.

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