The Wind Beneath James Frey’s Wings

The past month’s James Frey scandal seemed to shock the nation, but not me. Why was I able to withstand the horror of being LIED IN MY FACE? Because this has happened before. With murder! 2002:

The Talented Mr. Lerner
Published: March 31, 2002

Last January, New York publishing houses received a pitch for an unusual “fictionalized” memoir. It was a prison book, written by an inmate serving a 2-to-12-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter in a Nevada jail. But what made this prison book different was its author, Jimmy A. Lerner: a middle-class, middle-aged former marketing executive at Pacific Bell. Lerner was a “sharp, regular guy,” his agent, Brian DeFiore, asserted in the pitch letter — one “with a wife, two kids and a mortgage payment” who had ”never before gotten into any sort of trouble with the law.”
(New York Times)

Fictionalized memoir! But wait, it gets better: 

[Gerald] Howard decided he wanted the manuscript. “The book was strong and the writing believable,” he recalled recently. He paid about $100,000 for it, on the condition that Lerner recast his mostly true story as genuine nonfiction.

A condition to turn a fictionalized account into non-fiction! But wait, it gets better:

Before the book was finished, Lerner sent Random House a long list noting which facts had been altered. He said that he had disguised some identities and places but otherwise removed the fiction. Howard only occasionally wondered. If Lerner was slightly built, for example, how did he manage to strangle a large attacker armed with a belt and a knife? Howard never asked directly. He decided that a stint Lerner did in the Army explained it. “His military service helped make that scene more plausible to me,” he said.

An editor only momentarily pauses in considering the veracity of the memoir, but publishes it with great enthusiasm despite apparent discrepancies! But wait, it gets better:

Over dinner in Reno, Lerner told me that his book may have neglected Hassleman’s more attractive qualities, but mostly he attributed their friendship to his own impaired judgment. “I was moving into a serious relapse of drinking and popping mind-altering pills,” Lerner said. But if the friendship seemed unreal, Lerner said his account of the killing was accurate. “I was having the hell beaten out of me, pounded with a belt,” he said, looking me in the eye. “It was a very extreme situation. I mean, I was terrified. I was getting the hell beat out of me. My children were being threatened. I killed him. And I regret it.”

Still, why didn’t he flee the hotel room? “That’s a very good question,” Lerner said, graciously complimenting my insight. ”It is the ultimate question. It really gets to the heart of the crime and to the heart of my guilt. I had the opportunity — did I not? — to walk away at a certain point. And that’s a decision I made that I will regret for the rest of my life.” Still, Lerner said, killers came far worse than him. In prison, some murderers bragged about the bodies that never turned up.

It was not hard to come up with a different account of what happened that night. In court papers, I found that his victim’s real name was Mark Slavin. He was a medical-equipment salesman whose wife died of cancer in 1993. What’s more, the Monster was in reality a shrimp. He was 5-foot-4 and 133 pounds, eight inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than Lerner was at the time.

Huge gaping holes when the memoir is compared against the factual record! But wait, it gets better:

Lerner himself told police a different version of events the day after the killing — which took place in Reno, not Las Vegas. Lerner called Slavin “a very nice guy” and “practically my best friend.” He said that on that November weekend, he and Slavin drove to Reno to play blackjack and “see a show.” Lerner was wearing a polyester shirt and a dark Beatles-style toupee.

The fight started late Sunday night in their suite in the Sundowner Hotel. Slavin wanted money for drugs, Lerner told police. “He attacked me, in bizarre ways,” Lerner said, chuckling. “Then outta nowhere, I gotta give him credit for this, he gave me a good shot, he broke my nose, I was just amazed.” He continued, “I shot back except, uh, I didn’t punch him, cause he’s small, I just grappled him down and sat on him.”

Lerner sat on him off and on for quite a while. Somehow, Lerner told the police, Slavin eventually managed to wriggle free, steal Lerner’s Swiss Army knife and come back swinging a leather belt. Lerner quickly disarmed Slavin and sat on him again. Then he had an idea. “I put the belt around his neck,” he said. “I said, ‘Mark, let’s try this.’ I’m sorta sitting on him. ‘I’m going to cut your air off for a while, O.K.? When you get tired of that, you shake your head and let’s call an end to this stupid thing ’cause this is ridiculous.’”

But Slavin remained conscious; Lerner told police that Slavin began reaching again for that knife. So, Lerner said, he put a plastic laundry bag over his friend’s head for a while. And he tightened the belt: “I was finally able to get the belt to where it could work, you know, put some pressure?” Slavin soon ceased to struggle.

The forensic evidence suggested an even darker end. Detectives concluded that Lerner, who like Slavin had taken an assortment of cocaine and prescription drugs, had in effect tortured his friend. Slavin had been beaten badly: his eyes were swollen shut and bones protruded through his face. The shapes of a turtle and a steer’s head — decorations from Slavin’s belt — were imprinted on his neck. Lerner’s main injuries, by contrast, were badly swollen hands. His jeans were covered with blood.

Detectives also doubted the Swiss Army knife was involved. There was no blood on it and, although Slavin was left-handed, the knife was found near his right hand — suggesting that it had been planted.


At first, Lerner calmly denied there was any major discrepancy between his book and his statement to police. “It jibes,” he said, slowly listing the details that did match up, like his claims about the belt. And he noted that an expert hired by his lawyer supported his claim about the knife.

But in a subsequent phone conversation, he changed tack. “I saw what I was doing not as a journalistic piece, he explained genially. “What I was doing was a literary genre known as a memoir.” Lerner said he had told Random House’s lawyers that he disguised the man he killed, but he did not tell them that he’d altered key dynamics of the fight. But the result was still nonfiction, he insisted. “It is 90 percent accurate,” he concluded.

The published liar is confronted with the discrepancies in his book. He is unrepentant. Then slightly a little bit more repentant. But wait:

Howard was surprised to learn, however, that Lerner had misrepresented his crime. “I don’t know what to say,” he said, stunned. But after reviewing the facts of the case, Howard stuck by his friend. He read a statement prepared with Random House’s lawyers: “Although the author took liberties in both the details of the struggle and their arrangement, the book represents the essential nature of the fight.” He said that the book’s “main aim” had been to document not Lerner’s crime but the ”essential quality of prison life.” 

Not only does the editor of the book stick by his author’s story despite mounting evidence that it is a fraud, but he uses the now classic “essential point of the book represents an emotional truth” defense. The same defense Oprah would use almost four years later. 

I think that this Jimmy Lerner character should have to go on Oprah and apologize for what he has done. And then I think him and James Frey should have to make out. Because they are homos.

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