Aug. 3, 2022 – If you grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, chances are high you’re familiar with Go Ask Alice.
What was then said to be the real diary of a 15-year-old promising teen turned drug addict was released in 1971 as a cautionary tale and has since sold over 5 million copies. The diary was harrowing against the backdrop of the war on drugs and soon became both acclaimed and banned from classrooms across the country.
Schools citied “inappropriate” language that “borders on pornography” as grounds to prohibit teenagers from reading Alice’s story. But as much as the book’s vivid writing offended readers, it drew millions in with its profanity and graphic descriptions of sex, drugs, and mental health struggles.
At the time, TheNew York Times reviewed the book as “a strong, painfully honest, nakedly candid and true story … a document of horrifying reality,” but the popular diary was later found to be a ploy – a fake story written by a 54-year-old Mormon youth counselor named Beatrice Sparks.
Now, Sparks, who died in 2012, has been further exposed in radio personality Rick Emerson’s new book, Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World’s Most Notorious Diaries. Emerson published the exposé in July, years after he had the idea to investigate Sparks’s work in 2015. The book details Sparks’s background, her journey in creating Alice, and her quest to be recognized for the teen diary she had published as “Anonymous.”
“After 30 years of trying, Beatrice Sparks had changed the world. And nobody knew it,” Emerson told the New York Post.
In his work, Emerson also dives into the profound impact of the diary at a time when not as much research existed on teen mental health.
When the teenager whose diary inspired Sparks’s writing “died in March 1971, the very first true study of adolescent psychology had just barely come out,” Emerson said to Rolling Stone. “Mental health, especially for young people, was still very much on training wheels.”
According to Emerson, a lack of insight into mental health issues allowed Sparks’s description to go relatively unchallenged and for the book’s influence to spread despite its misinformation.
“It’s indisputable that large sections of ‘Go Ask Alice’ are just embellished and/or false,” he told the Post.
Then vs. Now
When Go Ask Alice was published, child psychiatry and psychology literature contained relatively few references to depression, confirming a 2021 analysis of academic literature on childhood and adolescent depression from 1970 to 2019.
This landscape is in stark contrast to today, where thousands of studies on the topic have been done, compared to the mere dozens in the 1970s.
Anxiety and depression in minors have increased over time, a trend worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the CDC. Studies have shown that reported drug use in teens has decreased over time, proving significant during the pandemic, according to the National Institutes of Health.
While Alice from Go Ask Alice has not existed in either, comparing the two periods can offer insight into teens’ struggles in the 1970s vs. today and sheds light on how literature – fiction or faked fiction – can transform a nation.