MAY 2006 – NO. 6
LSD-laced soda, PCP-laced peanuts, and PSA-laced young adult fiction.
When I was 12 years old, my mother sent a note to the school library asking that the librarian prevent me from renewing Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. Discovered during a routine under-the-bed/back-of-the-closet shakedown, the book's presence nearly brought my mother to tears. She feared this classic of depressive-schoolgirl lit would lead her only child down the dark and winding road to teen suicide, bad free verse poetry, and god knew what other horrors she just did not have time to deal with. I acted suitably contrite and returned the book the next day with little protest. My mother shouldn't have been worried; I thought Plath's heroine, Esther Greenwood, was a pill, and I mostly carried the book around in an attempt to catch the eyes of my budding-intellectual male schoolmates. There was another book my mother should have been much more worried about — one that we had been assigned in school, that was below my reading level, that I even found a bit corny but nevertheless loved. If my mother had really wanted to spare herself the agony of a rebellious adolescent she should have confiscated Go Ask Alice.
Go Ask Alice was first published in 1971 and became an immediate bestseller. The book was initially presented as the real diary of an unnamed middle-class teenage girl from an unnamed middle-class suburb, whose diaries had been obtained after her death by youth therapist Beatrice Sparks. The anonymous girl (who had so far been primarily concerned with her waistline, school dances, and achieving the perfect hair flip) unwittingly ingests an LSD-laced soda at a party thrown by her school's popular crowd and soon becomes a proselytizer for hippie drug culture. She goes on to quickly indulge in every available form of self-destruction short of joining the Manson Family: dating a drug dealer, selling acid to grade-schoolers, getting involved with hard drugs, running away to live on the street in San Francisco (twice), turning to prostitution, and, in one confusing entry, apparently becoming ordained as a Satanic priestess while high. She reforms, thanks to a "rap session" with a clergyman, but our heroine finds her return home no easier than her journey into Haight-Ashbury: scorned by the cool crowd suspicious of her new "straight" outlook on life, she is slipped some PCP-laced chocolate-covered peanuts and ends up trying to claw off her own face. After a brief internment at a psychiatric hospital, she gets a new, PG-rated lease on life, and becomes interested in prayer, her family, and boys who don't push for second base on the first date.
Until she dies, that is. Readers learn in a postscript that, three weeks after the diary's final entry, the girl died from a drug overdose. Taking a sharp step away from the chatty, all-over-the-place tone that almost made it feel like the authentic musings of a teenage girl, the postscript flatly declares that it is not known whether the girl's death was a suicide or accident, but that was not the real issue — "what must be of concern is that she died, and was one of thousands of drug deaths that year."
It was the postscript that really bothered me. Whether she had wanted to die or had died by accident was the concern. I cared. How could I not? I had just been presented — in school, no less — with a heroine I could finally relate to. It wasn't the drugs or the crime or the counterculture that intrigued me. It was the way that the narrator was a mess, an exciting, bubbly, rebellious teenage basket case like I had never seen before.
A lot of people think Go Ask Alice is only about drugs, but there are 184 pages to cover. The diary's entries went on at length about the protagonist's thoughts, her feelings, and her childish philosophical revelations, which matched the childish philosophical revelations I was also having at the time. The entries were cheesy, poorly written, and seemed like the product of a dull personality, but they felt real to me. I had no idea that any other girl had ever had the same odd dissatisfactions, the same petty grievances, the same inchoate lust for pushing boundaries — and I had never read about it in the first person anywhere but my own diary.
Alice's heroine wasn't like a Judy Blume protagonist, just sitting around praying for her period to arrive. She wasn't one of the selfless teenaged geniuses of past eras littering young adult literature, fighting mutinies on pirate ships or solving mysteries in haunted mines. She was a breath of fresh air. She did anti-social things, but she wasn't like one of the honest-to-god bad girls in my hometown, who went to an alternative high school called "Second Chances" and gave each other tattoos of their boyfriends' names with India ink and safety pins. Go Ask Alice's heroine's bad behavior was more intellectual, born of a desire for self-expression. Pretty standard middle-class rebellion, but it was a revelation to me at the time. I didn't get that we were reading about "Alice" because she was supposed to be a warning. I thought we were reading about "Alice" because people like her mattered.
One caveat about a life lived by Alice's rules — it did not last very long. She had enjoyed some freedom but paid a price that readers were meant to decide was too high. But I hadn't. I was the child of flower-children and had logged enough hours listening to my parents' records to know that a woman who decided to exist outside of society had two options. You could be a mushy Earth mother, like the one paid tribute to in the Grateful Dead's "Sugar Magnolia" ("Takes the wheel when I'm seeing double/ Pays my ticket when I speed"), essentially replicating a traditional wife-and-mother role in Earth Shoes and no bra. Or, you could try to embrace freedom like a man, flaming out and dying young — not for any particular reason, just because that was the way things were for girls. You could be a little girl lost, experiencing freedom from your womanly responsibilities only through your own ultimate victimhood. Go Ask Alice just drove this point home further. You could be Sugar Magnolia or you could be Janis Joplin. The choice seemed fairly obvious.
In the early 1970s, Go Ask Alice's popularity prompted the parents of a Utah teen suicide to turn their son's diary over to Sparks, so that it too could be published as a cautionary tale. The product, 1979's Jay's Journal, went down a little less smoothly than either party would have hoped. The boy's family claimed Sparks misrepresented and exploited their son in the book, fabricating the vast majority of the entries, portraying their sensitive, troubled kid as a full-tilt, kitten-murdering Satan worshipper. Scandal, acrimony, and lawsuits soon followed, as well as questions regarding exactly how much "editing" had gone on in Go Ask Alice. Sparks' credibility never recovered. In a rare interview, printed in School Library Journal in 1979, Sparks claimed that portions of Go Ask Alice were taken from an actual patient's diary but much of it was fictionalized, a composite based on her years of working with troubled youth. Subsequent "discovered" diaries bearing the "edited by Beatrice Sparks" imprint, such as 1994's It Happened to Nancy and 1998's Annie's Baby, were never perceived as anything but fiction. Go Ask Alice is still attributed to "Anonymous" but is often filed in libraries under "Fiction — G."
So where does that leave those of us who took "Alice" at her word and planned our wild, abbreviated lives accordingly? My love affair with Alice didn't last very long — soon after that it was punk music, then socialism, then feminism, all embraced with the same dizzying adolescent fervor. I dismissed Go Ask Alice as sexist claptrap and was a bit ashamed that it had ever inspired me. But if not for Alice, I'm not sure I would have ever traveled down the roads that eventually led me to condemn it. Reading the book after learning the truth deflates it; if it doesn't succeed in scaring you straight, it can only be taken as kitsch, a piece of cultural trash from the 1970s. Without the gravity of human tragedy, it lacks the substance to be anything but a joke.
I can't help feeling a little bit emptier for having lost my faith in "Alice". Go Ask Alice is supposed to be about a total loss of innocence, and one had to be pretty innocent to believe in it in the first place. It's been a long time since the book felt pregnant with possibility to me — since I felt, when reading closely enough, I could find the key to my whole entire future.
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