In 1971, Go Ask Alice became an instant sensation...The anonymous diary detailed the life of a teen girl who tries LSD and is seduced into the fatal world of addiction...Emerson unveils the woman responsible for the book, Beatrice Sparks...Sparks, a 'psychologist,' claimed to have met Alice at a convention and published the diary as a cautionary tale at the request of Alice’s parents...This story has never been corroborated...Go Ask Alice’s success inspired suicide victim Alden Barrett’s mother to send his journal to Sparks with hopes that she would raise awareness about mental health...The fictional work, published and marketed as fact, tore apart the Barrett family and ignited the Satanic panic, ruining countless lives...An absorbing and unnerving read about how one conniving con artist’s unquenchable thirst for acclaim fooled the publishing world and fed two cultural panics with lasting fallout, this book demands to be finished in one sitting.
There’s a perverse pleasure in reading another person’s diary...It might be the violation against this writing act itself—diaries are not meant to be read by anyone but the author...Whenever readers do get access to a person’s private diaries, like those of Sylvia Plath or Virginia Woolf, there’s naturally an intoxicating pleasure in pouring over entries that give unguarded, seemingly authentic access to these mythologized people and their inner thoughts...Now a new book, Unmask Alice, explores how so many of us were tricked by a false promise of true tragedy and trauma when reading teen 'diary' Go Ask Alice (1971)...Unmask Alice provides a propulsive reckoning on Go Ask Alice and its author’s lifelong obsession with self-mythologizing her own involvement with it...While there’s more widespread knowledge today about Go Ask Alice’s fiction, what makes Emerson’s efforts so compelling is how he neatly peels back the many complex deceptions by Sparks made across her lifetime...These includes fabricating 'real' teen depression and suicide across many best-selling books, exploiting various cultural panics about drugs and witchcraft for monetary gain, and even elevating her own stature to that of 'leading psychologist' in youth mental health...Unmask Alice is a noble project that singularly synthesizes the many strange, contradictory, and mostly scattered fictions that surround both Go Ask Alice and Beatrice Sparks herself...Emerson’s writing is smart throughout, with various tricks—including clipped, staccato chapters that come to mirror slim diary entries—keeping readers engaged across an otherwise complex web of deceit, exploitation, and even sad folly that form this wider backstory.
'Go Ask Alice' soon became a cultural phenomenon of such enduring power and popularity that millions of readers have sped through its pages, many testifying to its influence over their lives...But where did this diary come from?...That’s the mystery—or one of the mysteries—that Rick Emerson attempts to unravel in Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World’s Most Notorious Diaries...The trail Mr. Emerson, a longtime talk-radio host and producer, followed via documents and interviews led him deep into the life of a woman named Beatrice Sparks, a struggling writer from Provo, Utah, credited as 'author' on the copyright application for 'Go Ask Alice'...Beatrice Sparks 'discovered' and 'edited' a half-dozen more such journals before her death at 95 in 2012...Her biographer makes her into something of a villain whose presence seems almost oppressive in these pages...That’s not just because Mr. Emerson is scrupulous in nailing down the details of her dissemblings, her contradictory stories about her sources and her past, or her flat-out lies; it’s also because at moments Unmasking Alice turns from an investigation into an enduring publishing mystery into a trial more overheated than if the Queen of Hearts were presiding...It’s to the author’s credit that the trip, in the end, remains worth taking.
The grim idea that innocent kids may become addicts without ever taking a drug on purpose, victims of a cruel and unforgiving youth culture, has been embedded in American life for decades, and Go Ask Alice was foundational to it...It was also all made up...Rick Emerson’s new book Unmask Alice is a dogged unearthing, and attempted undoing, of all the falsehoods that went into the production of Alice and the other teen journals 'edited' by Beatrice Sparks, a housewife and devout Latter-day Saint from Provo, Utah...When Alice hit it big, Sparks, an ambitious fiftysomething, had tried and failed to get published for years, living off her husband’s earnings in the oil industry while she churned out book proposals, advice columns, and pitches to agents...In one of the many interesting side stories packed into this book, Emerson explains that Go Ask Alice made it to market because of talk-show host Art Linkletter...Linkletter’s daughter Diane, barely 21, died by suicide in 1969, and Linkletter came to think this happened because she had been taking LSD...Sparks, hearing the story, pitched him on her idea of a diary of a lost girl, and it fit his priors. 'It was the perfect pitch at the perfect time. It was, after all, a story Art Linkletter already believed,' Emerson writes...That’s why Unmask Alice is more than the story of a (frankly) somewhat deranged older lady who let her imagination and ambition and self-righteousness run away with her...I was struck, reading it, by the fact that the talk-show host Art Linkletter was (besides Diane’s father) the originator of Kids Say the Dardnest Things!, an interview segment on his show that became a compilation that sold more than 5 million copies in 1957...Kids between the ages of about 3 and 8, as anyone who’s had one (or been around one) knows, blurt forth random sentences that are like glimpses into another world...Parents treasure those moments, because they suggest so much more lies behind the curtain; they also come from children who are young enough to still be willing to share.
The diary and movie told the story of a white, middle-class teen who was overtaken by drugs and eventually killed herself in confusion and despair...The poignant emotional saga was seized upon by high-powered people ranging from Art Linkletter (who was seeking to understand his own daughter’s apparent suicide) to President Richard Nixon, who leveraged it to fuel his so-called War on Drugs...There was just one problem: The diary was a hoax...In fact, the diary had been penned not by a troubled girl but by a middle-aged, wannabe author named Beatrice Sparks...Although partly an account of Sparks’ nefariousness, Unmask Alice is just as much a biting commentary on the legions of others who either knew the book was a fraud or else had their suspicions but didn’t care to investigate as long as its incendiary content advanced their own agendas...Incredibly, Sparks published another fraudulent diary later in the decade, Jay’s Journal, which set off a different panic across the nation: this time, over satanic cults supposedly preying on our vulnerable youth...While it’s hard to find something that doesn’t exist, it’s easy to leverage the search for that 'something' into a straw man to use to one’s own cynical, greedy advantage...Emerson skillfully demonstrates how so many people did just that in this thorough, engaging, and at times distressing work.
If you had twenty dollars and a few hours to spare during the fall of 1970, you could learn about 'The Art of Womanhood' from Mrs. Beatrice Sparks. A Mormon housewife, Sparks was the author of a book called 'Key to Happiness,' which offered advice on grooming, comportment, voice, and self-discipline for high-school and college-aged girls; her seminar dispensed that same advice on Wednesdays on the campus of Brigham Young University, a school from which she’d later claim to have earned a doctorate, sometimes in psychiatry, other times in psychology or human behavior...Such an understanding seems to have been elusive for Sparks, who was then calling herself a lecturer, although she would soon enough identify as a therapist and occasionally as a counsellor or a social worker or even an adolescent psychologist, substituting the University of Utah or the University of California, Los Angeles, for her alma mater, or declining to say where she had trained...Although her book on womanhood was a flop, she went on to sell millions of copies of another book, one that even today does not acknowledge her authorship, going into printing after printing without so much as a pseudonym for its author...'Go Ask Alice,' the supposedly real diary of a teen-age drug addict, was really the work of a straitlaced stay-at-home mom...Emerson unfortunately mimics some of Sparks’s tics, compulsively dating chapters and sections as if history itself were a diary, dramatizing scenes and what he calls 'inner monologues' without clear editorial markers or consistent sourcing...Most unsettlingly, in the final, hurried chapters of 'Unmask Alice' he insists that he has found the girl who inspired the diary, a teen-ager whom Sparks met while working as a counsellor at a Mormon summer camp—and then, for privacy reasons, declines to identify her...'I know how that sounds, especially after three hundred pages explaining why truth is fiction, war is peace, there is no spoon, etc. If you choose to doubt, I won’t blame you,' he writes, in a tone representative of the book over all, somehow simultaneously too serious and too unserious to be taken seriously.