The Economy of Feeling

In 2003 John Nolan wrote a review of the popular memoir "A Million Little Pieces" by James Frey. The memoir, which outlined Frey's time in jail and rehab during a troubled time in his life, soon saw a meteoric rise. Amazon named it their book of the year, and in 2005 it received the Oprah treatment. Frey's mainstream praise ended abruptly in 2006, when The Smoking Gun released their exposé on the memoir's more extraordinary claims. Frey had lied about some of the events and circumstances portrayed in the book. The consequences were swift and grave.

But before Frey's public shaming fully took form, there were plenty of skeptics and detractors. Chief among them was John Nolan, who wrote his scathing review entitled "A Million Pieces of Shit". The tone of the piece can be captured by the opening remarks:

This is the worst thing I’ve ever read.

A Million Little Pieces is the dregs of a degraded genre, the rehab memoir. Rehab stories provide a way for pampered trust-fund brats like Frey to claim victim status. These swine already have money, security and position and now want to corner the market in suffering and scars, the consolation prizes of the truly lost. It’s a fitting literary metonymy for the Bush era: the rich have decided to steal it all, even the tears of the losers.

What follows is one of the most thorough and merciless reviews I have ever read. Even three years before the truth came out about Frey's love of blending fiction and reality, Nolan was wholly unconvinced and uncaring. What's of particular interest is his staunch defence of the status of the victim. Even on mere suspicion of exaggeration, Nolan is quick to note Frey's attempt to "...corner the market in suffering and scars". One is tempted to think that even if the events of 2006 had not taken place, that Nolan would feel equally vindicated in his contempt. When I read Nolan's review, there was one aspect of the piece I couldn't quite forget. It involved the assumption that Frey was somehow misguided in feeling emotional barren at a low point in his life. It's clear that Nolan thinks that there are some feelings that are earned. What exactly is the market of suffering?

I think the connection between suffering and consolation is a strong one. Everyone has suffered a loss, or misfortune, and entered into a state of suffering. There is a feeling that we have when we are suffering that acts to sooth us. It is the acceptance of the things we can't change; the loss of a loved one, coming to terms with our failures, entering into another 'mode' of living. We all have these 'modes', where routine is suspended and life is different for a little while. It makes us special, or at the very least it makes us feel special. It's that feeling when you get to stay home from school because of illness. Entering into suffering, finally accepting it, absolves us of the stress of pretending everything is okay. We can give in and admit that something is wrong. 

The defence of our suffering begins at an early age. Our classmates in school question our sickness - were we really sick, or were we faking, perhaps for attention? Were we really heart-broken over that break-up, or were exaggerating to fill the void of a lost relationship with the concern of our peers and family?

"It seems like we learn to navigate a calculus of suffering"

The tricky part comes when we encounter the suffering of others, whom we deem unworthy. When little Timmy complains about getting a Snickers, not a Mars Bar, in his lunch, and our family has barely managed to afford a plain sandwich for your lunch, it is easy to become negative. Little Timmy doesn't deserve to complain, does he? We have it worse.  It seems like we learn to navigate a calculus of suffering, to determine when it is deserved (by others, rarely ourselves) which involves some combination of Privilege, Circumstance, and Culpability. Timmy comes from wealth, and is complaining about a small temporary problem, and so we judge him as underserving of his suffering. 

What makes matters more complicated is when we begin to discuss life-altering events. Things which can shake any person to their core. Death, serious illness, addiction. When Nolan calculates James Frey's suffering, and comes to the conclusion that the math does not support his reaction, is that math any different than in Timmy's case? Is it possible that we want to reserve true suffering for those who are the worst off? Are we speaking on their behalf?

When we look at Frey, what are we seeing? Nolan here seems to summarize his existing by his privilege and circumstance, a "pampered trust-fund brat". Ask yourself this: If we were to stand beside James Frey at the moment when he finally faced his addiction, a total breakdown, how would we feel? If instead we were standing beside a person living in poverty at the same moment, how would we feel then? Is there any discernible difference between the two? If there is, is that difference reflective of our outside perspective, or are we able to judge the personal experiences of others?

To me it seems like the suffering can be analyzed in several different ways. We could describe societal level suffering, which could touch on topics such as the refugee and immigration crisis that is sweeping across Syria and parts of Europe. We could discuss racism, sexism, or agism. In this way, suffering is described in an institutional way, pertaining to a person's circumstances as a member of an identifiable group. We can describe high level inequalities and make comparative statements about suffering. 

"Is this a way for us to take power away from people who face less societal problems or prejudices?"

We could also describe suffering on a personal level, which I take to be James Frey's intention. It is the story of his struggle, albeit an allegedly 'improved' story. Nolan's comparative remarks that Frey should somehow feel less because of his circumstances seems less a comment about suffering or feeling, and more an attempt to describe his situation on a societal level. I'm not sure how to feel about that. There comes a point where you just feel bad about life events and circumstances. While comparing your situation to others can mitigate that to some extent, does that change how you feel? And is using the suffering of others to limit your own reflective of a well adjusted life? You can make a case that downward comparison is just another level of privilege belonging to the well-off, limiting the feelings that we deem them to deserve. Is this a way for us to take power away from people who face less societal problems or prejudices? If so, then is this really a discussion about emotion or suffering, or rather privilege? On a personal level, why do we have to deserve our feelings of suffering? If we are concerned with being sympathetic towards others, these are questions that raise concerns. 

These concerns are difficult to address. What I do know is that Nolan's comments reflect a presumption that there are feelings that are deserved on a personal level. This is a presumption that leads to an incredible lack of empathy. Our judgement on the validity of the feelings of others places much of our consideration towards others in the hands of a social calculus. This is a dangerous game for a few reasons. It presumes that we are able to make accurate judgements about not only the feelings of others, but their total circumstances. Even if James Frey is a "pampered trust-fund brat", are we comfortable with using that label? I don't personally know anyone who's circumstances could be summarized with such efficiency. Different people also place different values on privileges, which may or may not reflect their upbringing or present circumstances. A person currently experiencing homelessness may value shelter more than a struggling single parent who can afford rent, but cannot afford luxuries. This is because over time we begin to take things for granted, or give less consideration to things we already have, and problems that are behind us. So if we're comfortable making judgements of others, are we considering our values, or the values of the person we are judging? Perhaps we're supposed to use objective societal standards, but even those are complicated because we live in a diverse society. 

"To confuse the validity of a person's feelings with the storytelling value of their experience is to shun empathy and human connection"

The truth is, I really don't know the answers to any of these questions. Yet I can't stop thinking that these are valuable questions to ask, because they force us to examine our ability to empathize and sympathize with others who are hurting. Maybe Nolan's judgement of Frey's character is correct - I've never met either of them. If that's the case, maybe it makes Frey's experience less compelling as a story. I don't really want to read a story about a someone who is spoiled and unaware, because I don't often find those stories interesting. But to confuse the validity of a person's feelings with the storytelling value of their experience is to shun empathy and human connection. Each person we write off as undeserving and needy is one less person that we feel compelled to help and be considerate of. From my perspective, it seems like this approach is the approach of the reviewer and the news, where people are reduced to statistics and circumstances. Attempting to answer the question of whether emotions are deserved will force us to look at others less fortunate than us, to consider outside perspectives, and to maybe change. Yes, we need to adjust our view of the world by looking to others, and yes we need to care for those who are less fortunate. But this method of tearing people down seems opposed to  caring and compassion.

And of course, there is a grand irony to all of this. In asking whether we are right to judge the emotions and suffering of others, we are judging the emotions of the people who judge others. I think this is inescapable. All it means is that we need to have a discussion - so let's talk.

Duncan FieldComment