by Rick Emerson
“It was a marketer’s wet dream. Alice was vile and vital. Immoral and important. Alice was grubby, and sleazy, and might save your life.”
In 1971, a surprise best seller took the youth literary scene by storm. Marketed by publisher Prentice-Hall as the real diary of an anonymous fifteen-year-old girl who becomes addicted to drugs before her early death, Go Ask Alice sold out print runs and was recognized as one of the best new books for young readers by the American Library Association. In reality, the book had been “edited” by an aspiring writer who had spent years looking for her big break, trying her hand at scriptwriting, newspapers, and more before hitting on the idea that would make her (in)famous. But the story about where and how she got the diary was constantly shifting, and her publisher and agent agreed it would better to publish the book anonymously. In 1978 she would try to recreate that success with Jay’s Journal, a cautionary tale of drug use and the occult that tied neatly into satanic panic. In Unmask Alice, radio host Rick Emerson investigates the origins of these best-selling books, and the deceptions of the woman who “discovered” them.
I found Alice on the shelf of the library at my Catholic K-7 elementary school circa 1998. A dark paperback with stark white lettering on a minimalist cover, I believe that it was, by that time, shelved in the fiction section, not far from the Judy Blume books I had already voraciously consumed. I remember being surprised to discover it; after reading only a small part of the contents, I wondered if the librarian and the school knew it was there. It was catalogued, so of course they knew on some level, but did they know what it contained? It was significantly more graphic than the Judy Blume books I knew some of my classmates had been forbidden by their parents to read. On the one hand, I wasn’t wrong to be surprised; Go Ask Alice was still appearing on the American Library Association’s most banned books list in the 1990s, more than two decades after its publication. On the other, it was a scared straight story, precisely the sort of book that has its moralizing agenda well-served by some lurid details. If my library possessed any of the other pseudo-diaries produced by the same author/editor, I never came across them.
In a compulsively readable narrative non-fiction style, Rick Emerson introduces us to the woman behind the books. After a hard-knock childhood, she had long aspired to be a famous writer, but had enjoyed little success. Yet she persisted for decades, while also raising a family and remaining active in her church. After the smash success of Alice, she would go on to produce a laundry list of diaries, case studies, and interviews that touched on other hot button youth issues, from hippie runaways, to satanic panic, to HIV/AIDs and teen pregnancy. As her back catalogue grew, so too did her supposed credentials and experiences, until eventually she was appending PhD after her name on the covers of all her books. She seemed to grow increasingly determined that her name never be erased again the way it was removed from Alice. The BYU library, which holds her papers, cites these supposed credentials in her biography, but the Emerson was unable to verify any of them, or find any evidence that she ever had an adolescent psychology practice. For all that her name is easily discoverable, I’m reluctant to give her the fame of her stolen glory, much of which came at the expense of a real family that had lost a child to suicide.
In some ways, Emerson mimics the style of the very books he is investigating, presenting each short section with a date header, not unlike the manner of a diary. Mid-book, Emerson switches to the story of Alden Barrett, a young man living in a small community near Provo, Utah in the 1970s. If you aren’t familiar with Jay’s Journal, this is a rather abrupt switch without an evident connection to Alice. It is a sad story that ends in suicide, but not a terribly sensational one. When Alden’s mother learned that the editor of the famous Go Ask Alice was a near neighbour and fellow member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she approached her with her son’s diary. But the book eventually published as Jay’s Journal took enough real details from Alden’s life for him to be publically recognizable to his community, while also adding a gory occult subplot that turned him into gruesome urban legend that persists to this day.
As Emerson impresses upon the reader early on, publishers do not typically take responsibility for fact checking books; their contracts typically indemnify them. Indeed, Emerson shares that portion from his very own contract. So it is quite the surprise to find Emerson arguing that because most of the facts in Unmask Alice are a matter of public record that can be checked by anyone, citations are unnecessary. Be that as it may, citations make it significantly easier to perform such verification, rather than trying to reverse engineer the author’s research process. The lack of explicit sourcing adds a note of caution to what was otherwise and intriguing and readable account of a very long con. Instead, Emerson asks the reader to trust where he is going. And it turns out that the destination is a short section towards the very end of the book that reveals he may have discovered a real girl who might have been part of the inspiration for Alice. Not a real diary this time, but another real adolescent like Alden Barrett nevertheless. This speculation about a tiny seed of possible truth at the heart of Alice adds little to the overall narrative and brings the book to a weak conclusion.
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