The Middlebrow

Amber Frey

The mistress America loves.

Illustration by Charlie Powell.

The Scott Peterson trial has finally shaken loose a hero: Amber Frey, the mistress with the heart of gold. Frey’s sleuthing and court testimony helped convict Peterson, and now the Fresno, Calif., massage therapist is taking a much-deserved victory lap. Her memoir, Witness, sits atop the New York Times’hardcover best-seller list. The interview she gave to Dateline NBC on Jan. 4 attracted 16 million viewers—the show’s largest audience in three years. CBS plans to honor Amber with a lavish made-for-TV movie.

Frey isn’t the first Other Woman to turn a profit. Monica Lewinsky collected a windfall for her confessional memoir. Other noted paramours, like Jessica Hahn and Gennifer Flowers, used their infamy to land in the pages of Playboy and Penthouse. But Frey is the only Other Woman whose tell-all book actually burnished her reputation. Frey has made adultery seem like something noble, even heroic. “[Y]ou have a wonderful legacy to pass on to your children,” reads one of the dozens of fan letters Frey reprints in Witness. Another admirer gushes, “She has proven to be the kind of human being we should all strive to be.” How did Amber become the mistress America loves?

As you read Witness—which Frey dictated to a ghostwriter—you realize that part of Frey’s appeal is her inveterate cluelessness. She wandered into Scott Peterson’s life as a dupe. Single with a baby daughter, Ayiana, Frey was living in a tiny guest house and dreamed of a whirlwind romance. She begins her bookby chronicling her giddy first date with Scott. It’s a November night in Fresno. Scott—who says he’s single and looking to settle down—wears a blue shirt and black dress slacks. He presents himself as a dashing, globetrotting playboy. He says he owns a condo in San Diego and vacations in Kennebunkport. He regales Amber with extravagant stories about his career as a fertilizer salesman, peddling his wares from “Cairo to Paris.” The two share secrets. Amber confides that she took two years of Swahili in junior college; Scott replies, “I think that’s very cool.” For dinner, they eat Japanese food. Scott rests his hand on Amber’s back. He kisses her. The evening grows more passionate. At a karaoke lounge, Scott and Amber perform a duet of “Islands in the Stream.” They buy a bottle of gin at Food Maxx and slip back to Scott’s room at the Radisson. They spend the night together.

Witness describes how, for the next few weeks, Peterson flitted between Frey and his wife, Laci, who was eight months pregnant. Peterson’s relationship with Frey was surprisingly brittle. Though Frey considered Peterson her boyfriend, their courtship amounted to about a half-dozen dates. Peterson was always out of town and often forgot to call. After a string of failed romances, Amber describes the relationship, pitifully, as a “10.” “It was a long time since I’d been genuinely interested in a man,” she writes, “and I was genuinely interested in Scott.”

Frey discovered Peterson’s deceits when a friend performed a Web search and found that someone named “Scott Peterson” had a wife who had gone missing. According to Frey, she immediately called the Modesto police and volunteered to help snare Peterson. He proved a willing and easy mark. While greater Modesto was searching for Laci, Peterson continued to call Frey, pretending to be vacationing in exotic European capitals. When he finally copped to his true identity, he assured her he had nothing to do with Laci’s disappearance. Frey secretly recorded Peterson’s telephone calls. The tapes, which showed Peterson to be a duplicitous fool, helped to bury him at his criminal trial.

Amber’s amateur detective work required more than a bit of bravery. But it shouldn’t necessarily have won her the adulation of the masses. Her role in the Peterson affair was decidedly unheroic, and she may have unwittingly provided impetus for Laci’s demise. Even if Scott Peterson represents the great suburban nightmare—the murderous husband—Frey represents the second-greatest suburban nightmare—the blond, lithe mistress. How did Amber come out on top? By reversing every rule of philandering.

For one thing, Frey’s salacious confessions—unlike, say, Monica Lewinsky’s or Jessica Hahn’s—serve a noble purpose. Other Women rarely convict cheating husbands of anything more than sexual harassment or soliciting a prostitute. Yet Frey was the star witness in a capital murder trial and, by almost every account, a dazzling one: Prosecutors say her excellent testimony was crucial to Peterson’s conviction. She carries none of the religio-political baggage of Lewinsky, Hahn, or Donna Rice. And whatever its scant value as literature, Witness is the best chronicle we’ll ever read of Peterson’s gruesome manner. During the search for Laci’s and her unborn son’s bodies, Peterson confided to Amber that his favorite movies included Warren Beatty’s Love Affair and—gulp—The Shining. Another time, in an apparent burst of happiness, Peterson told Amber he was wearing a “rigor mortis smile.”

The most memorable part of Witness isn’t Peterson’s boorishness, though. It’s Amber’s charm, which is another key to her canonization. You might loathe the impulse behind Witness,but you will never loathe the author, who’s a daydreamer and a sweetheart. Amber has a disarmingly childlike manner. Before she meets Scott, she asks God to supply her with a boyfriend. Later, she records God’s reply: “You do need someone, Amber. And you’ll find someone.” For a hobby, Amber collects meaningful wine corks—scribbling down the date and the name of person with whom she shared the bottle. She’s a hopeless devotee of numerology. In a chapter titled, “Oh my God! Laci’s baby is due on my birthday!” Amber breathlessly confides that, oh my God, Laci’s baby’s due date fell on my birthday! Another coincidence: Amber’s second child, Justin, who was born before the Peterson trial, had a due date that fell on Laci’s birthday! Amber isn’t a scheming adulteress—she’s too naive, too hopeful.

There’s a creepier reason for Amber worship: She has become a stand-in for the case’s real saint, Laci Peterson. Frey has done what Laci would have done had she managed to live past her 27th birthday. Frey took the stand to tell the wretched truth about Scott Peterson; she consoled Laci’s mother and her friends. Moreover, Frey and her team of super-lawyers feel they are channeling Laci. Frey’s lead counsel, Gloria Allred, told her during the trial, “The day you went to the police, you became Laci’s voice.” And it’s true: Amber is the only living evidence of Peterson’s dastardly ways, a brief glimpse at what might have been. “I was thankful that there was me for Laci,” Frey told NBC. “Because if there wasn’t me, then there wouldn’t be a way to find her.”