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Home » Go Ask Alice, the haunting diary of an anonymous teenager, was a bestseller and effective tool in the war on drugs. But was it real? – ABC News

Go Ask Alice, the haunting diary of an anonymous teenager, was a bestseller and effective tool in the war on drugs. But was it real? – ABC News

Go Ask Alice, the haunting diary of an anonymous teenager, was a bestseller and effective tool in the war on drugs. But was it real?
When Go Ask Alice was first released in 1971, one of its biggest mysteries — and perhaps its bestselling point — was its author.
Or rather, it was the absence of an author. Instead, listed beneath the title on the book's cover was one word that sparked all kinds of questions: Anonymous.
Who were they? Why did they choose to be anonymous? And what happened to them?
An editor's note, included within the first few pages of the diary, only revealed the pages were "based on the actual diary of a fifteen-year-old drug user".
Unsurprisingly, it became an instant bestseller, with more than 3 million copies flying off shelves within the first three years alone. In the five decades since, the book has never once gone out of print.
The book became a TV movie starring William Shatner as the diarist's father, was adapted for the stage, and won countless awards and accolades.
It began as so many tales of teenage woe do; with a devastating crush and a secret journal whose pages could contain all the angst of adolescence.
Yesterday when he asked me out I thought I'd literally and completely die with happiness. I really did! And now the whole world is cold and gray and unfeeling and my mother is nagging me to clean up my room. 
But this story quickly spiralled into something far more sinister, ensnaring its teenage readers and striking fear into the hearts of parents around the world.
Alice is plunged into a world of drug peddling, addiction, hallucinations and sexual assault and it all begins with just one acid-laced drink at a party.
And the clincher? It was all based on a true story. Or so readers thought.
From the front page, this book promised readers an almost irresistibly tragic tale.
"I just saw this cover … it was this girl with this sort of half-shadowed face and then it had these eight words, which have been luring people to that book for 50 years: 'Go Ask Alice, a real diary by Anonymous,'" author and journalist Rick Emerson says.
The book opens in an undisclosed American town in 1968, where the central character (who most readers refer to as Alice, though her name is never actually revealed) is grappling with the standard trials and tribulations of being a teenager.
She struggles to adjust to a new school and make friends after her family relocates for her father's job. But on a trip back to her hometown for the holidays, a "cool" girl invites Alice to a party that changes the trajectory of the rest of her life. 
After her first accidental acid trip — Alice unknowingly accepts a glass of Coke that is spiked with LSD — she starts hanging with the hip crowd and experimenting with more drugs and dabbling in risky sex.
Things escalate when she and her new friend start dating college boys who convince them to start selling drugs to school kids, and the girls soon find themselves running away together.
In big bad San Francisco, Alice and her friend try to put their past behind them and dream of opening a store together.
But soon Alice is hooked on heroin and is brutally raped, entering a vicious cycle of relapse and recovery, with bouts of homelessness and trouble with the law.
A priest eventually reunites Alice with her family, but her former friends drug the teen against her will, sending her into a horror-fuelled hallucination that lands her in a psychiatric hospital.
After a tumultuous recovery, Alice ends her diary finally free of drugs, and hopeful for the future. But the epilogue was a gut punch:
The subject of this book died three weeks after her decision not to keep another diary. Her parents came home from a movie and found her dead. They called the police and the hospital but there was nothing anyone could do.
Go Ask Alice has long been criticised for its extreme depiction of drug use, which many say often verges on aspirational. 
The book's title was apparently inspired by the lyrics of Jefferson Airplane's psychedelic song, White Rabbit.
The diary's content outraged parents in the 1970s and divided opinion. Some believed its shocking depictions would act as a cautionary tale for teenagers, while others argued the book was "obscene" and should be banned in schools
One mother was so disgusted by it she founded a group to get the book barred from her children's school and expressed doubts to a reporter in 1975 on whether the diary was written by a 15-year-old.
But all the hype only added to the allure, according to Emerson, who recently released his own book, Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World's Most Notorious Diaries, on the mystery surrounding the diary's author.
"There's few things you can do to make something more appealing to teenagers than to tell them adults hate it," he says.
There were other factors that made the book a success: the idea that it was someone's diary made it "tantalising", as if the reader were committing "one of the ultimate taboos" by delving into the mind of a complete stranger, Mr Emerson says.
It was also one of the first books of its kind, written by a teenager and marketed to young adults, a genre in its infancy in the 1970s. 
A US television crew was dispatched to Zambia to film the story of a young American couple on a mission to protect African wildlife from poachers but, instead, they ended up recording a murder. 
And then there was the protagonist, 15-year-old Alice, whose diary confessions contained snippets of authenticity despite the far-fetched plot.
"It really kind of captures the feeling of what it's like to go through adolescence, you just have this crazy surge of emotions and contradictory feelings," Emerson says. 
"Every day is either the best day of your life, or it's the end of the world — sometimes in the same day."
Alice could have been describing the growing pains of teenagers anywhere. She could have been anybody.
Perhaps that's part of why it took decades for the book to be exposed as a fabrication and for its author to be identified as a fraud.
Timing also likely helped.
US historian David Farber says Go Ask Alice came at the perfect moment to tap into an undercurrent of uncertainty and fear in the American public — and not just about drugs. 
In the late 60s, Americans had been grappling with the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Robert F Kennedy and Martin Luther King, as well as shocking, violent crimes like the Manson Family killings.
"The US was also in the midst of a huge student revolt against many of the ways the United States was organised — it was a racist society, it was a sexist society," Professor Farber says.
"And young people were looking for new answers to old problems."
Thousands of those young people went searching for answers further afield, leading to a surge in teenage runaways towards the end of the decade.
At the same time that the United States' disastrous involvement in the Vietnam War was drawing to a close, a new war was beginning. 
A heroin epidemic was ravaging inner-city communities, mostly affecting poor and ethnic minority groups, while marijuana use was on the up among white middle-class high school and college kids
"Many Americans were trying to make sense of the fast-growing appeal of some illegal drugs, in particular marijuana, but other drugs as well," Professor Farber says.
He says there was a kind of "chaotic uncertainty" around drug use during this time. 
In 1969, a Gallup survey showed only 4 per cent of Americans had tried marijuana. Today it's closer to 50 per cent. 
"So the book Go Ask Alice was really a direct response to this fear among many parents that illegal drug use was exploding," Professor Farber says. 
Congress passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act in 1970, which deemed everything from marijuana and LSD to heroin as a Schedule 1 drug. 
The following summer, US president Richard Nixon gave the famous speech that launched a decades-long war on drugs.
Alongside fear, there was a sense that the culture was shifting. 
"The presumption that white middle-class people had that their values, their cultural conventions, their moral imperatives ruled American society was clearly being contested in the 60s and 70s," Professor Farber says.
"And that really threw a lot of people off."
For one woman, this presented a long-awaited opportunity. 
Beatrice Sparks, a 50-something-year-old homemaker and aspiring author, had been chasing her big break for decades.
Gigs were few and far between for a Mormon wife managing the household and three children — even in California, the land of opportunity. 
But Sparks got by writing for local papers and church newsletters. She wrote advice columns, children's stories, scripts, and everything in between. 
Sparks wrote mostly for free, or even paid for the privilege, using the wealth she and her husband had accrued in oil and real estate booms.
By the mid-60s, the family had settled in a sprawling mansion in Provo, Utah — home of the Mormon Church's largest missionary training centre, Brigham Young University, and buzzing with business opportunities.
It was here she struck a life-changing deal that came about thanks to an unlikely connection through a company called Family Achievement Institute (FAI). 
Sparks had penned dozens of essays on parenting advice and spiritual wisdom for FAI, to be voiced by wholesome celebrity types and released on vinyl as a kind of self-help record. 
FAI's business model operated more like a multi-level marketing scheme, relying on people buying up stacks of records to sell to their friends and family. 
The business soon fizzled out, but it put Sparks in touch with the man known as America's dad, Art Linkletter. 
Linkletter, a mainstay of TV and radio through the 40s and 50s, was something of a household name, known for originating the concept behind Kids Say The Darndest Things.
Then in 1969, his 20-year-old daughter Diane died after jumping out of a sixth-storey window.
Utterly grief-stricken, the family went searching for reason, or something that could explain the tragic death. Linkletter pointed the finger of blame at LSD.
Toxicology reports found no traces of drugs in Diane's system, but Linkletter became convinced she'd been experiencing "LSD flashback" — a rare phenomenon where months or years after taking acid, users suddenly find themselves hallucinating again. 
Linkletter became part of the crusade against dangerous drugs.
He even spent a night at the White House with Mr Nixon, comparing notes on their shared nemesis Timothy Leary, a psychologist who described psychedelics as "God's greatest gift to man".
So when Sparks pitched her new project, telling the heartbreaking tale of a good girl whose life is destroyed by drugs, it was a story he was already invested in believing.
The idea that it would be based on an actual diary, belonging to a teenager she'd met at a Mormon youth conference, made it all the more convincing.
Many parts of Sparks's story, about how she'd found this supposed diary and the real person who wrote it, didn't make sense. The journal entries, for a start, were written on random scraps of paper and shoved into a grocery bag.
But within days, Linkletter's team had found Sparks a publisher. She'd receive a modest advance and be entitled to royalties if the book was a success.
There was just one condition: The publisher thought the book would sell better if the author was anonymous.
Beatrice Sparks watched as her book, Go Ask Alice, smashed publishing sales and seethed.
After years spent trying to "make it" in the publishing world, Sparks had written a bestseller.
But nobody knew who she was.
"As you already know, Mrs Sparks is dedicated to assisting young people and is willing to remain anonymous in order to get the message before the public," her lawyer wrote as the book contract was being finalised.
Her publishers believed it might seem unauthentic if the diary of a 15-year-old girl was published under the name of a Mormon housewife from Utah.
It turned out to be one of the great ironies of the book, Emerson says. Its success was largely accomplished because Sparks was "erased from it".
So Sparks worked on dozens of other pitches, only to be knocked back repeatedly. Eventually she signed a deal for two books and came to the conclusion there was nothing stopping her from taking credit for Go Ask Alice in the press.
"While working in drug abuse I came across this little girl, who gave me her diaries. After her death, I prepared them for publication," Sparks told Provo's Daily Herald of Go Ask Alice's origin, according to an excerpt from Emerson's book.
Psychedelics form a new frontier of scientific research, particularly in the area of mental health – but the religious use of psychedelics stretches back thousands of years.
Records of Sparks's qualifications are difficult to come by. She claimed to be a psychologist, a youth counsellor and a PhD. But Emerson writes he was unable to confirm if she had even graduated from the universities she said she attended.
He also found no evidence Sparks had been a practising psychologist or therapist. When she was asked about it in 1979, an interviewer wrote that Sparks gave "no evidence of formal training or professional affiliation".
But at the time, none of this seemed to prevent Sparks from pursuing her publishing career. 
Her star was rising and the publicity around her soon caught the attention of a grieving mother in Utah who had lost her teenage son to suicide.
Alden Barrett was an intelligent 16-year-old who kept a diary about the last six months of his life before his tragic death.
His mother, Marcella, asked to meet with Sparks before handing over her son's diaries, hoping their publication would help her find some peace.
Two years later, Alden's diary entries appeared in Jay's Journal. But the book wasn't what Ms Barrett had expected.
It was sold as the haunting diary of a 16-year-old "wrapped up in the world of witchcraft".
Jay's Journal follows the story of a "sweet, bright high school student" who falls in with the wrong crowd and starts dating a "dangerous girl", dabbling in drugs and experimenting with devil worship.
But according to Alden's brother Scott, it only drew on only about 21 of his brother's diary entries despite 212 being included in the book. Alden's mother told a journalist that her son's journal never mentioned anything about the occult.
Sparks claimed she got the additional information from Alden's personal letters and interviews with his friends.
Some of those new details included late-night orgies, a graveyard wedding and a demon named Raul.
Alden, who was still identifiable despite the name change, was painted as a sinful demon worshipper. The book fuelled another panic, this time over Satanism and the game Dungeons & Dragons.
"Jay's Journal really marked a distinct turn on the path, and not just because it involved an actual real, identifiable person, but because [of] the fallout for his memory, his family, the people who knew him and his town," Emerson says.
Alden's family and his hometown were blindsided by the publication. The Barretts divorced, left Pleasant Grove and regularly visited to clean up their son's grave after it was repeatedly defaced.
"Beatrice Sparks is certainly a complex and fascinating person who has a lot to answer for, and a lot of it is bad," Emerson says.
"At the same time, it is undeniable … the enormity of [Go Ask Alice] and its legacy and what she accomplished."
Sparks continued writing, publishing six more diaries that covered topics such as teen pregnancy, eating disorders, AIDS, and homelessness before she died in 2012.
By then, questions had been circulating for some time over the origin of her first book.
For the first decade after its publication, Go Ask Alice was treated as authentic by most people, Emerson says, though there were outliers as some libraries classified the book as fiction or refused to give it a designation.
"By the time we get to 2000-2005, that is starting to shift. The internet helped to accelerate that [because] people who had doubts found other people who had doubts," Emerson says.
But even if the diaries were mostly fabrications as Emerson claimed, it's clear that Sparks's impact is enduring.
Her subjects may not have existed but the themes she covered in her books — including drugs, teen pregnancy and HIV — were real issues that had a significant impact on young people.
As for the question of whether Alice is real or not, it really depends on who you ask.
"What I learned was that [there are] two ideas: one that Go Ask Alice is entirely fake and entirely fictional, and the other that it's entirely authentic," Emerson says.
"Neither of those are really correct. The truth of what happened is sort of somewhere in the middle."
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