Like every other teenager in mid-1970s America, I read Go Ask Alice, the lurid diary of a 15-year-old girl who is swept into a world of drug abuse and (spoiler) dies of an overdose. I learned recently that the whole thing was completely fabricated by Beatrice Sparks, a 50something Mormon housewife with burning literary ambitions:
Sparks 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. Linkletter’s literary agency got the manuscript—which came in the form of a stack of loose sheets and scribbled-over receipts shoved into a paper bag—to Prentice-Hall, where editor Kathryn Fitzgerald took it. Fitzgerald, overhearing a whistling colleague in the hallway, was the one who came up with the idea of pulling the lyric “go ask Alice” from the Jefferson Airplane song “White Rabbit,” and using it as the title. (The diarist goes unnamed throughout the book, adding to the mystery.)
Because Sparks had sold the manuscript as a “real diary,” which Fitzgerald then did the work of putting together, she couldn’t get her name onto the book. The publishing company, quite rightly, thought that teenagers might be less likely to read something with an adult’s name on the cover, and since Sparks didn’t claim to have written the diary, she couldn’t complain. Emerson surmises that this must have driven Sparks wild with frustration. As Emerson finds when surveying reviews, newspapers across the country took Alice as fact—with some exceptions. Even so, screenwriter Ellen Violett, who adapted Alice for TV in 1972, remembered hearing all around Hollywood that Alice was fake.
After Alice, Sparks pitched a series of follow-ups, which she hoped would have her name on them, including self-help books and her story of fostering a Navajo teen. They went nowhere. “Everything read like a first draft, with lots of flailing and repetition,” Emerson writes. “Worst of all was Sparks’ tone, which clucked and scolded like an angry bluebird, equal parts cheer and fury.”
What worked was going back to the “found diary” trick. The middle section of Emerson’s book is about Jay’s Journal, a less popular but still respectable-selling follow-up to Alice, which was based on the life of Alden Barrett, the teenage son of another LDS family living in Utah. Alden died just as Alice was taking off. A sensitive and bright teenager who suffered from depression, he had been at constant odds with his family—questioning the doctrines of the LDS church, stealing pills, briefly running away. After a bad breakup with a girl who loved him but whose parents blocked their relationship, he died by suicide in his parents’ home. He left behind a diary.
Alden’s mother, Marcella Barrett, gave that diary to Beatrice Sparks, against her husband’s wishes, thinking that she could publicize Alden’s life so that other people could see warning signs in their own children. Sparks made it into something totally different: a story of “Jay,” who, over the span of 18 months, drinks and takes pills, then starts using a Ouija board, then moves on to serious Satanism. He has a midnight cemetery wedding ceremony with his girlfriend, where they slash their tongues before kissing, so that their blood mingles together, and then kill a kitten. He’s later possessed by a demon named Raul. Sparks used two dozen entries from Alden’s diary and then added 190, “including all of the violent and occult material,” Emerson notes. The result of this audacious fabrication was, for Alden’s family, catastrophic. They were ostracized in their town, and Alden’s gravestone was desecrated and stolen; the parents divorced, and the rest of the family scattered, leaving their community behind.
There is a gothic quality to all of Sparks’ stories of teen ruin. If Sparks, who died in 2000, were alive today, she would find a welcome home in the QAnon-adjacent online community, producing some of its best underground-tunnel fan fiction. Some of Alice is incredibly lurid: When “Alice” is having her psychological breakdown, she sees her grandpa’s worm-infested corpse trying to embrace her, and then she feels flies and worms all over her body—eating parts of her that include, as the book is careful to detail, her vagina. “Alice was brutal, shoving your face in shit,” Emerson writes. In the early ’90s, Avon Books published Sparks’ It Happened to Nancy, a book about a girl who falls in love, has sex with an older man, and dies of AIDS, moving from diagnosis to death in a lightning-quick 23 months. In Sparks’ world, teenagers—especially girls—are so fragile, they can basically implode upon contact with the world.
Most reviews of Unmask Alice focus on Go Ask Alice, which is fair; it’s the most iconic of Sparks’ oeuvre. But Sparks was eventually to publish a shelf full of books of this kind, and I find their massed ranks equally fascinating. Besides Voices, Nancy, and Jay’s Journal, there’s Treacherous Love (about a teen seduced by a teacher); Annie’s Baby (a teen mom); Almost Lost: The True Story of an Anonymous Teenager’s Life on the Streets (a runaway); and more. By the end of her career, Sparks had figured out that she should say, when asked about where she got these tales, that these were stories from her “patients.” But “there were no case studies. There were no patients. There was no clinical practice,” Emerson writes indignantly. “Beatrice Sparks was no more a psychologist than she was a Sasquatch, and even a lazy editor could have unraveled the lies with a single phone call.”
Of course nobody made that phone call, because there was money to made, so who had time to ask awkward questions?
As Emerson’s study makes clear, the general pattern of fabulists fabricating narratives that resonate with and intensify whatever moral panics are coursing through the broader culture is a recurring one in recent American culture, from satanic ritual abuse in preschools in the 1980s through the current QAnon madness.