To Oprah Winfrey, the power of James Frey's memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," lay not in whether the author really spent three months in jail, as he claimed, or whether he lost a lover to suicide.
Rather, she said in her now-famous call to CNN's "Larry King Live" on Jan. 11, where Mr. Frey defended himself against accusations that he falsified significant parts of his life story, it was the author's story of recovery, a rebirth that took place within the walls of an addiction treatment center, that provided "the underlying message of redemption" that resonated with her.
But more than three months before questions were raised about Mr. Frey's memoir by the Smoking Gun Web site (www.thesmokinggun.com) - before, in fact, Ms. Winfrey first had Mr. Frey as a guest on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" - producers at the program were told by a former counselor at the foundation that runs the Minnesota treatment center reportedly used by Mr. Frey that his portrayal of his experience there grossly distorted reality.
Several other addiction counselors who formerly worked for the organization, the Hazelden Foundation, which runs the Hazelden rehabilitation center in Center City, Minn., have also come forward to dispute Mr. Frey's claims about Hazelden. The accusations call into question what Mr. Frey has labeled the "essential truth" of his book, the "420 of the 432 pages" that take place during treatment. It was Mr. Frey's story of redemption that led Ms. Winfrey to make "A Million Little Pieces" a selection for her television book club and propelled it to sales of more than two million copies.
After receiving the information from Debra Jay, a Michigan addiction counselor who herself has been a frequent guest on Ms. Winfrey's program, a senior producer for the "The Oprah Winfrey Show" conducted an extensive interview with Ms. Jay. It is not known if Ms. Winfrey was apprised of the concerns, but she made no mention of the potential discrepancies in her many on-the-air comments about "A Million Little Pieces," including when she called the book "all completely true" on her program and told Mr. Frey, "I don't doubt you."
In response to questions last week about the early warning given to the program, a spokeswoman for Ms. Winfrey, Angela DePaul, said, "We have no comment."
In a statement, Mr. Frey said he was not acquainted with any of the people who were disputing his account. "It's quite possible that different people have different experiences," he said. "There are situations that patients experience that staff know nothing about and which are deliberately kept from them."
Since "A Million Little Pieces" was published in 2003, it has been widely reported that the center described in the book is Hazelden, assertions that neither Mr. Frey nor Hazelden has disputed. Hazelden officials, citing medical confidentiality regulations, say they can neither confirm nor deny that Mr. Frey was there. But Mr. Frey's descriptions of the center in his book, which say that it is a lakeside retreat in rural Minnesota that opened in 1949, leave little doubt that he is talking about Hazelden.
"His description of treatment at Hazelden is almost entirely false," said Ms. Jay, who trained as an addiction counselor at Hazelden's operations in Minnesota and who is the co-author of two guides to treating addiction published by the Hazelden Foundation. She has appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" at least six times to discuss issues related to alcohol and drug addiction.
Ms. Jay said she voiced her objections about "A Million Little Pieces" to a senior producer for Ms. Winfrey's program on Oct. 1, nearly a month before Ms. Winfrey's interview with Mr. Frey was broadcast. "I'm coming forward because his descriptions of treatment are so damaging," Ms. Jay said. "These are things that could not happen to anybody at Hazelden or at any reputable licensed treatment center."
Among the episodes she and the other former counselors have called into question are Mr. Frey's claims of being physically abused by other residents of the treatment center, of being left to sleep on the floor of a common room overnight after an altercation, of regularly vomiting blood and of having his nose rebroken and set by a doctor. "He describes a level of medical care that would not occur at Hazelden," Ms. Jay said. "He would have been taken to an emergency room, and any violent behavior would have been met with a discharge."
"I can surely confirm there were disputes between patients and no one remembers better than I do vomiting blood," Mr. Frey said.
In interviews over the last week, Ms. Jay and the other counselors said they had decided to speak publicly because they feared that Mr. Frey's portrayal of rehabilitation was more likely to scare people away than lead them to seek help. While questions have been raised about the book's depiction of rehab by some critics and in online chatter, this is the first time treatment professionals who have worked inside Hazelden have spoken publicly at length.
None of the former Hazelden employees who have decided to speak out ever met Mr. Frey during his stay at Hazelden; nor could they talk about it if they had. But each of them said the regulations and procedures at Hazelden were subject to rigorous review by groups of counselors, so that the many breaches of protocol described by Mr. Frey would have been unlikely to go unnoticed.
Carol Colleran, who worked for 17 years in the Hazelden system, including two years at the Minnesota locations, said that unlike Mr. Frey's contention on "Larry King Live" that only about 5 percent of his book is in dispute, "98 percent of that book is false" in its descriptions of how Hazelden works.
Ms. Colleran, now a certified addiction professional in West Palm Beach, Fla., said she sent her complaints about the book to the Winfrey program by e-mail in November. Ms. Colleran also posted questions about the book on Amazon.com that month.
"I have had young people say to me that if they had a child who was having problems, they would never send them to treatment after reading that book," Ms. Colleran said.
John H. Curtiss, the president of the Retreat, another inpatient treatment center in Minnesota, worked at Hazelden for more than 19 years, including during the early 1990's, the period that Mr. Frey has said he was in treatment. Though he never met Mr. Frey at Hazelden, Mr. Curtiss did meet the author when Mr. Frey traveled to the Retreat last fall along with Ms. Winfrey's producers to film a segment for the program.
The segment had Mr. Frey greet and talk with a client at the Retreat who had written to Ms. Winfrey saying that his book had convinced her to seek help for her addiction.
Mr. Curtiss spoke to Ms. Winfrey's producers about the book during their visit to the Retreat, but he declined to provide details about the conversation. He also said he spoke to Mr. Frey.
"I told James that I've been there, that I worked there and I've never seen any of those things happen at Hazelden," Mr. Curtiss said. "In a million years those things would not happen at Hazelden. He said that was his recollection, but that he changed the names."
Mic Hunter, a psychologist who worked for four years at Hazelden-related treatment centers in Minnesota, said Mr. Frey's book made him angry. "It's hard enough for people to get accurate information about treatment because of all the confidentiality rules," he said. "So many people have negative feelings about treatment to begin with. Why would anybody want to send anyone to a treatment program where they would be treated like this? He is claiming it is true, but it's not."