Citation info: Goldberg, Lina. ""Curiouser and Curiouser": Fact, Fiction, and the Anonymous Author of Go Ask Alice" linagoldberg.com Oct 02 linagoldberg.com

"Curiouser and Curiouser": Fact, Fiction, and the Anonymous Author of Go Ask Alice

by Lina Goldberg

Every September, libraries around the country prepare for "Banned Books Week" by dusting off their copies of Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous. Since its publication in 1971, Go Ask Alice has sold millions of copies, been translated into 16 languages, made into a television movie, and assigned as required reading by so many schools that it has become one of the most-often challenged books in the country.1 Go Ask Alice is being banned for discussing such racy topics as sex and drugs even though it is about why they are terribly, terribly wrong. The more compelling reason that it should be assigned with caution is that it, and its "editor," Beatrice Sparks are a fraud.

Go Ask Alice is widely assigned classroom reading for high school students, and is regularly included on summer reading lists as well. The book's back cover reads, "The actual story of a desperate girl on drugs and on the run who almost made it."2 The novel is shelved in bookstores and many libraries in the non-fiction section, and millions of teenagers and their English teachers believe that it is a true-life account of a young girl.

Go Ask Alice was originally published in 1971 with the authorship credited to Anonymous. There is noindication that any one besides "Alice," herself had contributed to the text, save for a four sentence introduction signed, "The Editors." Seven years later, however, Beatrice Sparks unveiled herself as the editor of Go Ask Alice, when she published her second book. In the thirty years since the publication of Go Ask Alice, Sparks' connection to the title has been used to market eight other books for which she is credited as editor, including: Kim: Empty Inside: The Diary of an Anonymous Teenager, Almost Lost: The True Story of an Anonymous Teenager's Life on the Streets, Jay's Journal, Annie's Baby: The Diary of Anonymous, a Pregnant Teenager.

Clearly, Sparks, who is now in her eighties, found a winning combination with the unprecedented success of Go Ask Alice, and has continued to follow it into the current era. But why is there so much conflicting information about her books' accuracy? And why are they still being sold to teens as fact?

Go Ask Alice is the narrative of "Alice,"3 and her inadvertent plunge into the terrifying world of drugs and sex. In the book, 15 year old Alice unknowingly is dosed with LSD at a party, and within ten days is shooting speed intravenously. This trend continues, when Alice smokes marijuana for the first time, and 20 pages later is shooting heroin and being "brutally and sadistically raped."4 Alice's story only gets more horrifying. After trying to stay off drugs for a period of time, the pressure of her peers becomes too much for her. A classmate gives her two amphetamine pills and she wakes up an unknown amount of time later in another city, in another state, where her only means of survival is prostitution.

Alice makes many astute observations over the course of the novel about the relationship between herself and her parents, such as, "They keep saying that they know I am a good, sweet girl, but I'm beginning to act like a hippie and they're afraid the wrong kind of people will be drawn to me."5

She doesn't limit her analysis to the troubles of her own family--she seems concerned with the plight of the relationship between teenagers and their parents in general--leading her to make the observation about another runaway, "She didn't know whether she was running away from something or running to something, but she admitted that deep in her heart she wanted to go home."6

As it turns out, the parents are always right. The wrong people were being drawn to Alice because she was ironing her hair and wearing vests with fringe. And using marijuana once will lead you down a road that ends in numerous sexual assaults and ultimately, death.

The front cover says it is, "A Real Diary" but the heavy-handed, moralistic tone suggests that Beatrice Sparks, a Utah resident and member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had more to do with the book than the marketing implies.7

In 1979, eight years after its publication, in an interview in School Library Journal with Alleen Pace Nilsen, Sparks admitted that although there was a real "Alice," Sparks had added other incidents and ideas inspired from similar case studies. In the interview, Nilsen also questions Sparks' qualifications to be working with teens. Sparks presents herself as a youth counselor or social worker, and in later books as a youth therapist and PhD, but Nilsen found no evidence to validate Sparks' claims, and said that Sparks herself was "vague about specifics" when describing her past experiences in the substance abuse treatment field. She also admitted that Alice had not died of a drug overdose as the book reports, but of unknown causes. In addition, Sparks claims that Prentice-Hall, the first publisher, has the original copy of the diary, but that after transcribing them, she threw away the attached entries that were written on scraps of paper while Alice was on the run.8 Coincidentally, these scraps of paper were where the raciest lines of the book were found, such as, "Another day, another blowjob."9 One has to question whether these titillating portions of the book came from the diary of the 15 year old, or from the 53 year old editor, speculating on what life as a runaway teenager must be like.

The follow-up to Go Ask Alice, was titled Jay's Journal by Anonymous, and was, if possible, even more unbelievable than its predecessor. The book details 15 year old Jay's decline from a successful student with a genius level IQ, to a kitten-slaying, devil-worshipping suicide victim.

Jay's Journal dishes out a hearty serving of morals as well. Although the focus is on witchcraft and the occult, drug use and pre-marital sex are condemned as well. After murdering a bull and drinking its blood, Jay laments, "How did I ever get sucked into this weirdo sick kind of thinking. It doesn't have anything to do with mind control and expansion, it was just the old fashioned, superstitious, stupid, childish kind of stupid thing the world hates and suspects about cults, and rightly so. We were just four asshole kids looking for excitement-any kookie, hair-brained thing to explode the boring, boring, boring every-dayness of average life."10 The Satanic rituals detailed within Jay's Journal are clearly fictional, and, "the cult Beatrice Sparks has invented resembles nothing in the real world…"11

The book is allegedly based on the true life story of Alden Barrett, a teenager from Utah whose depression and girl problems ultimately lead him to commit suicide. The basis of the novel is Jay's descent into the terrifying world of the occult which Barrett had no connection to whatsoever and was never mentioned in his writing according to his parents, who gave his journals to Sparks. Barrett's family alleges that Sparks used only roughly 25 of Barrett's actual journal entries, and added 60 of her own, including the entire occult angle. It is their contention that Sparks made up these entries, while Sparks is understood to have said that they were based on the case histories of other teenagers she had worked with. A rock opera based on Barrett's life and death was produced in Utah in 1997 for the purpose of showing "Sparks' exploitation of their story and of their pain, and her success, her celebrity and fame."12

Go Ask Alice and Jay's Journal are the only books of Sparks' that have any proof of "real" people behind them, and are based on actual diaries, and yet only Go Ask Alice is listed as fiction by the publisher (ever since Sparks admitted that it was not entirely true), although it is still sold as non-fiction in many bookstores, and generally taught in schools as non-fiction. It does seem interesting, however that all of Sparks' subsequent books are listed by the publisher as non-fiction, possibly because there are no actual family members to refute Sparks' claims, primarily because the books are entirely created by Sparks, and not based on real teenagers at all.

In Almost Lost: The True Story of an Anonymous Teenager's Life on the Streets, published in 1996, Sparks presents the story of Sammy in the format of transcribed therapy sessions. Sparks faithfully recounts her thirteen sessions with Sammy, and how they turned a gang member and runaway who dabbled in drugs, the occult and "gangsta" rap, into an optimistic, healthy teen.13 Reviews of the book summed up its shortcomings, specifically, that although it had a positive message, it seemed unrealistic. A primarily positive review in School Library Journal stated, "It is hard to imagine that the troubled teenager described in the beginning could change so dramatically so quickly and cure his father's cocaine habit, recover from depression, and restore his parents' marriage."14

Annie's Baby: The Diary of Anonymous, a Pregnant Teenager, follows the same format as Go Ask Alice, but to a weakening and more skeptical audience. A book review in Publisher's Weekly said, "Sparks (It Happened to Nancy) shares another slice of a troubled teen's life… The book carries a strong anti-abortion sentiment and has an aura of soap opera as well."15 The same year that Annie's Baby was released, Lauren Adams wrote,

"Totally implausible, however, are the diary entries of Sparks's latest book, Annie's Baby, featuring a voice that sounds remarkably similar to Alice's...Even if we were to believe in the new incarnation of Alice (and while I assume that Sparks is attempting to simulate the "real" teenage voice of her greatest publishing success, the similarities do again raise the question of how much of the original Alice was Sparks's fabrication), the book's overt didacticism precludes and aesthetic claims."16

In the book, Annie, who is raped by her boyfriend and becomes pregnant, comes to the realization that it will be better for everyone if she gives up her baby for adoption. Like many of Sparks' prior books, Sparks herself figures in as the main character's non-judgmental therapist who helps her come around from troubled teen to responsible young person.

In her interview with Sparks, Nilsen tells of the publishing world rumor that Go Ask Alice was published anonymously because Alice's parents had threatened to initiate legal action against the publisher. Sparks neither confirms, nor denies this rumor, saying only, "Oh, there were many reasons for publishing it anonymously, but my reason was for the kids."17 The motivation to list an anonymous author seems clear-it lends validity to the work, while at the same time rendering the childish prose and improbable plot immune to literary criticism, primarily because it is presented as the work of a deceased 15 year old.

There is plenty of evidence, both internal and external, that these books are fraudulent, but they continue to be taught in schools as truth, and Go Ask Alice is still devoured by teens voraciously every year. Sparks' books have many common elements: parents are always loving and caring, and most importantly, always right. If you do drugs, even once, it can kill you. Premarital sex is wrong and will have lifelong repercussions, and might kill you. Hanging around with the wrong crowd, even for a little while (because once you do, they will never let you go), can kill you. And most importantly, the main characters are generally good kids, who love Jesus, and are by and large blameless for the situations they are in. For example, in Go Ask Alice, Alice was slipped LSD in her soda and this was the catalyst that started her in the downward spiral the ultimately led to her death. In Annie's Baby, the main character's pregnancy at the age of 14 occurs because her abusive boyfriend raped her.

Clearly, these books have struck a chord with teenagers. Perhaps in the age of the more realistic "problem novel" teens embraced these books, because they may have found it uplifting to read stories where there weren't so many shades of gray-here, the parents are always loving, drugs and premarital sex are always wrong, and you should never hang out with the "bad" crowd.

It is possibly for this reason--that these books have such a strong message of traditional morals--that there has been so little effort to expose them as fraud. Why would adults want to discredit a book that would ostensibly have a positive affect on teenagers? The only available references to Beatrice Sparks are found in primarily obscure and out of date journals and periodicals, and most reviews of her books either do not mention the claims against them, or say that although they are unrealistic, they carry such positive meaning that they should be read nonetheless. The fact is, if these books were equally popular but had a subversive message, they would have been exposed as fraudulent immediately.

Had Sparks openly admitted at the time of publication that Go Ask Alice was not non-fiction, and was, rather, a loosely fictionalized account of a girl that Sparks claims to have known, it would not have reached the literary popularity that it did. One of the reasons the didactic tone was accepted by teenagers was that they believed it to be a true story coming from one of their peers. Had they known that the morals, in fact, had been inserted by a middle-aged Mormon author with no actual drug experience to speak of, they would have been less inclined to accept its message of total abstinence, and Sparks would not have been able to carve a literary career out of the body of a dead girl.

Footnotes

   

 

1. American Library Association. "The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000." American Library Association. <http://www.ala.org/bbooks/top100bannedbooks.html> Go Ask Alice is listed as the 23rd most challenged book for the decade.


2. Anonymous. Go Ask Alice. New York: Avon Books, 1982.


3. "Alice" remains unnamed in the text, but for the sake ofconvenience she is referred to as Alice.
4. Ibid. p. 73.


5. Ibid. p. 52.


6. Ibid. p. 107.


7. __. "Beatrice Mathews Sparks" Contemporary Authors Online. The Gale Group, 2000.


8. Nilsen, Alleen Pace. "The House that Alice Built: An Interview With the Author That Brought You 'Go Ask Alice'" School Library Journal (October 1979): 109-112.


9. Anonymous. Go Ask Alice. New York: Avon Books, 1982. p. 102


10. Anonymous. Jay's Journal. New York: Pocket Books, Simon and Schuster, 1989. 9. 161.


11. Melton, J. Gordan. "Books, News and Reviews" Fate Magazine. (August 1980) p. 104 Fate Magazine was the first periodical in the US to dedicate itself entirely to the paranormal and supernatural; it is commonly used as a reference for writers looking to "flesh out" their stories.


12. Samuelsen, Eric. "A Place in the Sun, by Grain" (Review) Association For Mormon Letters. <http://www.aml-online.org/reviews/b/B199734.html>


13. Sparks, Beatrice (Editor). Almost Lost: The True Story of an Anonymous Teenager's Life on the Streets New York: Avon Books, 1996.


14. __. Book Review. Publishers Weekly (June 1998): p. 93.


15. Doggett, Sandra. Book Review. School Library Journal (July 1996): p. 105.


16. Adams, Lauren. "Go Ask Alice: A Second Look" The Horn Book Magazine (Sept-Oct 1998): p. 587


17.Nilsen, Alleen Pace. "The House that Alice Built: An Interview With the Author That Brought You 'Go Ask Alice'" School Library Journal (October 1979): pp

Copyright Lina Goldberg. All Rights Reserved.

Citation info: Goldberg, Lina. ""Curiouser and Curiouser": Fact, Fiction, and the Anonymous Author of Go Ask Alice" linagoldberg.com Oct 02 linagoldberg.com

lina goldberg

Buy the movie!