In 1971, a frustrated 54-year-old writer named Beatrice Sparks spoke directly to teens by masquerading as one of them. Her disguise came in the form of a book, Go Ask Alice, which was marketed as the “real diary” of a 15-year-old drug user. Alice is as hardcore as any book carrying the “young adult” label ever has been, and its contents were almost entirely invented by Sparks. As such, it is rife with misrepresentations of drug effects that could reasonably be described as disinformation. To have read Go Ask Alice is to be duped. Now, more than 50 years after its release, nearly 6 million copies of the pulp classic have been sold—that’s a lot of fooled kids.
The story behind the grift is spelled out in detail in Rick Emerson’s new book Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World’s Most Notorious Diaries. “One of the taglines for the book is ‘truth is stranger than nonfiction,’ because if this was just written from scratch, you would never believe it,” said Emerson during a recent Zoom conversation with Jezebel; nothing invented out of thin air could rival this tale.
Emerson said he started writing his book in 2015, and the themes he uncovered are startlingly contemporary. The gateway drug of the book’s narrator (who is unnamed but, because of the Jefferson Airplane-referencing title of the book, most readers refer to as Alice) is not the typical marijuana but LSD, and the book vilifies it to a nearly unrecognizable extent, perpetuating myths of Richard Nixon’s war on drugs that only recent research into psychedelics has started to change minds about. Additionally, Emerson’s narrative manages to weave in contemporary obsessions with scammers, multi-level marketing schemes, and fame. It might not seem like it at the offset, but it turns out that now is the perfect time to revisit Go Ask Alice.
Go Ask Alice details its narrator’s descent into addiction and exploitation. She runs away from home and becomes a strung-out teen sex worker before landing in a mental institution. She resolves to get clean, but the book ends with a tragic postscript stating that three weeks after her final entry, the narrator relapsed and died. The imprecise descriptions of drug use and hokey verbiage in the book, as well as varying descriptions of the book itself (at times it was referred to as “fiction” on its copyright page), aroused suspicions that the diary was not a real document. So did the behavior of Sparks, a Mormon writer who, it turns out, wrote Go Ask Alice based primarily, according to Emerson, on observations and subsequent friend reports of a teen girl Sparks worked with in some capacity as a volunteer at the Utah State Hospital’s Youth Center. (Emerson points out that while Sparks claimed to have performed “professional counseling of troubled children,” her volunteer duties were more likely clerical in nature.)
Despite presenting her book as a sort of found object she had “assembled” from a dead girl’s journals, Sparks pushed to receive some kind of credit for Alice. Her publisher denied her this, insisting that “Anonymous” was a far more compelling attribution. Sparks pressed on. In 1978, she released VOICES, marketed as a collection of as-told-to accounts from four more troubled teens, gathered by the person who “edited” Go Ask Alice. She would go on to “edit” Jay’s Journal, an account of teen suicide and Satanism that sold a fraction of Alice’s haul but was nonetheless widely read. According to author and religious studies professor Joseph Laycock, Jay’s Journal “helped trigger the Satanic Panic” of the 1980s that accused heavy metal and Dungeons and Dragons of turning teens murderous and suicidal.
Emerson writes in his Author’s Note that the idea to write the true story behind Go Ask Alice arrived one day in a flash as he was driving. “I came home and my first thought was like, ‘Well, somebody must have written this. This must already exist,’” he recalled. Upon investigating, however, he discovered that “the most in-depth thing” written about Sparks and her books was still Alleen Pace Nilsen’s “The House That Alice Built,” which ran in the October 1979 issue of School Library Journal. Nilsen’s article questioned Sparks’ stated credentials, noting that though the author frequently claimed to be a youth counselor or social worker, during an interview with Nislen she gave “no evidence of formal training or professional affiliation.” In response, Sparks blasted off a letter to the Journal, claiming Nilsen’s article was “not only incorrect, but in places openly hostile,” and that she had graduated from UCLA as a psychology major. (No record of this supposed graduation exists.)
Emerson said he conducted dozens of interviews for Unmask Alice, including those with family and friends of Alden Barrett, a Utah resident who killed himself at age 16. Barrett’s mother read about Sparks’ work turning real teenagers’ accounts into young-adult literature and gave Sparks her son’s actual journal. Barrett was alienated and had experimented with substances, but nothing in his journal suggested he had engaged in ritual sacrifice or otherwise pledged his allegiance to Satan. Jay’s Journal, in which Sparks grafted entries from Barrett’s onto a cautionary tale about the deadliness of occult dabbling, blindsided the Barretts. Sparks left in certain details that made Barrett identifiable, so that when Jay’s Journal was published in 1978, his surviving family was routinely harassed and his gravesite repeatedly defaced. Sparks’ inventions sent heaps of more grief to an already grieving family.
“I think that it’s a case where both of those real-life people [the inspirations for Go Ask Alice and Jay’s Journal], they effectively just get used as literary mannequins or paper dolls,” said Emerson on Sparks’ blending of fact and fiction. “She needed a placeholder to hang all of this stuff, all of these moral lessons that she wanted to teach, and all of these things that she gathered like a lint roller and then fashioned into place. It was definitely much more pronounced with Jay’s Journal. And it may have just been a weird part of the process on some level: the idea of having this real-life person that I can then paint with all of these garish, unbelievable colors.”
Many details Sparks shared about her life were unverifiable, and often the stories she told about her subjects changed. She was sloppy, but the full extent of her transgressions was never fully called out while she was alive. (She died at age 95 in 2012.) As with many modern scammers, there’s a temptation to look beyond her ethical breaches and the pain she inflicted and just admire her hustle. Emerson doesn’t go that far in Unmask Alice, but he does acknowledge the complexity of the biography at hand: Sparks came from an unstable family background, dug herself out of destitution, and toiled as a writer for years before reaching her goal of hitting it big...with a book that her publisher refused to credit to her.
“Whatever one thinks of Beatrice Sparks—and there are certainly ample reasons to view her with disapproval, to put it mildly—you have to acknowledge what she accomplished,” said Emerson. “The idea that you would write a book, much less get it published, much less have it be successful, much less have it still be in print 50 years later, it creates this gigantic cultural imprint that is still with us. There’s no denying the enormity.”
But was Sparks a pure opportunist who struck gold with fabricated youth journals, or was she a propagandist on a mission to set kids straight after the drug-laced cultural revolution of the ‘60s? Perhaps a little bit from Column A and a little from Column B.
“I think that she did have this sort of strange dichotomy of simultaneously craving and hungering for success—this idea to prove that, ‘I am somebody, I matter. I am not just this dropout from a broken home,’” said Emerson. He tried to resist diagnosing or psychoanalyzing her, but he allowed: “I think there absolutely was a part of her that was moralizing and, whether she followed that morality herself is, of course, a different issue. It’s not a big surprise that a lot of people who are very, very eager to lecture others about morality are sometimes not the best role models for that.”
Still, Emerson says, to blame this all on Sparks would be a mistake. “One of the many surprising parts of this is that it’s not one decision by one person or one publisher turning a blind eye,” he explained. “It’s this long, 40-year chain of agents and editors and publishers and journalists and whoever either not noticing or not caring that something was deeply, deeply amiss.”
Just as Sparks’s story isn’t exactly cut and dried, neither is the ensuing appeal of Alice. The book received rave reviews from adults upon its release and was touted as a way to keep kids off drugs. Kids, meanwhile, were fascinated by this lurid tale of drugs and sex. It was regarded in my middle school as something like porn that we were actually allowed to access: grown-up and a little scary, but in the most exhilarating way. Even if it was factually dubious and ultimately as useful a depiction of your brain on drugs as an egg in a frying pan, Emerson admits that Go Ask Alice “does capture on some level that frazzled, joyous, awful, hyperkinetic, ‘It’s the best day of my life, the worst day of my life,’ feeling of adolescence.”
“When you’re a teenager, at least for me, you simultaneously feel like you’re going crazy and that you are the only sane person on the planet, and often at the same time,” he said. As a result of harnessing this and Alice’s continued reach, he predicts the book “will outlive us all.”
One person Go Ask Alice failed to reach, though, is Alice herself—that is, the teen Sparks supposedly worked with at the youth center. Emerson writes about tracking her down to interview her; she’s referred to by the pseudonym Brenda March in Unmask Alice. Emerson said that when he approached March, he assumed she had read Go Ask Alice, because he assumed that everyone has. But she didn’t even know about the book, according to the writer.
“She was seemingly oblivious, not just to her unwitting participation, but to the book and what it was about, which was astonishing,” he said. “I’d thought through how the conversation might go. I was really not prepared for, ‘Go Ask Alice? I’m not familiar with that.’ Then it was like, ‘All right, we’ve got to stop everything. Let me give you the background here...’” He had quite the tale to share.