If you’re of a certain age like me, you likely read Go Ask Alice when you were a teenager. This book purported to be the real diary of a real teenager who fell victim to drugs and who ultimately died due to her addiction. This book used to be everywhere (and still is; I actually saw a copy of it at a used book sale this weekend!). I’m not sure I knew of many people who didn’t read it. I was probably around 12 when I first read it; I don’t remember too much of my reactions to it, but I’ve always been aware of its prevalence in American literary and pop culture. So when I saw Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World’s Most Notorious Diaries by Rick Emerson (BenBella Books, 2022) up for offer on NetGalley, I. Was. IN. As someone who had looked into the story of the woman behind Alice before, I knew this book was going make some waves. And now, having read it, I’m even more certain that this book is going to be huge.
In the 1970s, the war on drugs began to rage, and parents were terrified. What could they do? How could they even begin to talk to their children about the dangers of drugs and how easily their lives could be ruined? Suddenly, a book appeared on the scene that answered all their questions: a diary, written by a real-life teenager, whose life was destroyed and ultimately ended by drugs. Teenagers saw themselves in it. Adults saw their children in it. Go Ask Alice was impossible to keep on the shelves (whether due to selling out or due to panicked legislators banning it), but it opened pathways to communication between parents and children.
The only problem: it wasn’t true. None of it was. Go Ask Alice was the creation of a con artist, a Utah housewife named Beatrice Sparks who claimed to be a psychotherapist who worked with teenagers, but who, in reality, had been desperately trying to reinvent herself for years. And while her lies about young Alice may have lead to some positives, her next offering, Jay’s Journal, quite literally destroyed lives in a multitude of ways.
Rick Emerson has penned a well-researched eye-opener about a cultural icon whose effects are still being felt today, both the positives and the negatives. Beatrice Sparks was a scammer of the highest order, in multitudes of ways that would be much easier to verify these days, but back in the 70s, information wasn’t quite so easy to come by. Her religious housewife façade allowed her to ooze through the cracks and cause incredible harm to grieving families, along with setting the stage for what would eventually become the Satanic Panic of the 80s (and which would ultimately lead to people wrongfully convicted of various crimes and spending decades of their lives in prison). With humor, pathos, and empathy, Rick Emerson tells the story of a book that so many of us grew up with, but about which we never really knew the truth.
Whew. This is an absolute page-turner, and an incredible story. I absolutely flew through this book, because the story spreads so far and wide, and I was absolutely incredulous that one woman’s scamming had so many devastating consequences. I hadn’t known that Art Linkletter’s daughter’s suicide had set the stage for Alice to be published in the first place; I had no idea that Jay’s Journal (which I read in 2005 and immediately pinpointed as a whole entire load of horse dung) set the Satanic Panic into motion (the story behind this book is absolutely heartbreaking). It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Beatrice Sparks had some sort of diagnosable condition, such as narcissism or sociopathy; she had absolutely zero empathy and hurt people with wild abandon. Monsters come in all shapes and sizes.
I hope to see more from Rick Emerson in the future. Beatrice Sparks’s story is both horrifying and fascinating, and his voice absolutely added to my enjoyment of this book. And this is the third book I’ve read in the past few years from BenBella Books that I’ve really enjoyed. They’re definitely a publisher I’m going to have to keep my eye on!