Unmask Alice, by Rick Emerson

Right after racing through the audiobook of Tim Miller’s Why We Did It, I started listening to the very different, but equally compelling Unmask Alice, which I came to by way of the podcast You’re Wrong About, which did a three-part series on Go Ask Alice, part 3 of which featured Rick Emerson with an interview and a recommendation to read his book for the rest of the story.

I’m not sure why I found this so compelling, apart from the usual reason with great non-fiction: I didn’t know I was interested in the subject until someone wrote about it in such an engaging way that I couldn’t put it down (or turn it off, in the case of an audiobook).

I’ve never actually read Go Ask Alice, though the book has been around almost my entire life (published in 1971). I was always aware of it in a vague way as part of the culture: the anonymous diary of a teenager who died as a result of drug use (mostly LSD). I also had a sense that it might be a fake diary, and learned a bit more about it from episodes of the podcasts Worst Bestsellers and the above-mentioned You’re Wrong About. But with Unmask Alice I took a very, very deep dive into the world of author Beatrice Sparks and her best-known books, Go Ask Alice and Jay’s Journal (about a teenaged boy who dies by suicide after becoming involved with satanism and the occult).

Long story short: after some incredibly exhaustive and detailed research, Emerson concludes that Beatrice Sparks was pretty much a fraud through and through. She didn’t have the psychology degree (much less the PhD) that she claimed to have; she may have done some volunteer work in hospitals or programs that worked with troubled youth but she certainly was not a therapist or counsellor, which she represented herself as being. What, then, of her claims that Alice’s, Jay’s, and other diaries came her way as part of her work as a youth counsellor, or that other books were based on her case notes? Sketchy at best — especially in the case of Jay’s Journal, which was very loosely based on the real diary of a sixteen-year-old boy who died by suicide and whose mother gave the diary to Sparks, only to feel horribly betrayed by what she made of it. The true story that may have provided the germ of the original Alice book is not explored in nearly as much detail here as the “Jay” story is, because the author had permission to speak to and write about “Jay”‘s family and friends, whereas the people involved in “Alice”‘s story wished to have their privacy protected. But the broad outlines of that story are sketched here too, and it is indeed a very different story than the one that became famous and is still selling millions of copies today.

This is a great, well researched and engagingly written story of an author who pulled off an amazing scam — but what adds a layer of interest is how Sparks’s two most famous books tie into the political and social story of America during the years they were published. The timing of Alice was fortuitous — the book got a big bump in visibility from Art Linkletter, who Sparks already knew from some previous writing gigs, during the time that Linkletter was grieving the death of his daughter from a possibly drug-related suicide. The book became part of the hysteria that led to Nixon’s “War on Drugs,” and, well, we all know how well that worked out.

As for Jay’s Journal, the parts that were complete made up and unconnected to the real story of the boy behind the diary – the occult explorations, the bizarre satanic rituals — proved to be the most interesting to readers, and fed into (possibly even helped kick-start) the 1980s “Satanic panic.” So Beatrice Sparks was far more than just an unsuccessful writer who conned her way into becoming a successful one — she was an influencer whose contributions to American society led to untold harm to a lot of innocent people. Which makes Unmask Alice not only an incredibly interesting and engaging book, but maybe an important one too.

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