If you read Go Ask Alice as a teenager or at any point in your life, please leave your thoughts and comments at the bottom of the post! I really want to hear from you.
Two diaries. Two social panics. One incredible fraud. In 1971, Go Ask Alice reinvented the young adult genre with a blistering portrayal of sex, psychosis, and teenage self-destruction.
The supposed diary of a middle-class addict, Go Ask Alice terrified adults and cemented LSD’s fearsome reputation, fueling support for the War on Drugs.
Five million copies later, Go Ask Alice remains a divisive bestseller, outraging censors and earning new fans, all of them drawn by the book’s mythic premise: A Real Diary, by Anonymous. But Alice was only the beginning. In 1979, another diary rattled the culture, setting the stage for a national meltdown.
The posthumous memoir of an alleged teenage Satanist, Jay’s Journal merged with a frightening new crisis-adolescent suicide-to create a literal witch hunt, shattering countless lives and poisoning whole communities. In reality, Go Ask Alice and Jay’s Journal came from the same dark place: Beatrice Sparks, a serial con artist who betrayed a grieving family, stole a dead boy’s memory, and lied her way to the National Book Awards. Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World’s Most Notorious Diaries is a true story of contagious deception.
It stretches from Hollywood to Quantico, and passes through a tiny patch of Utah nicknamed “the fraud capital of America.” It’s the story of a doomed romance and a vengeful celebrity.
Of a lazy press and a public mob. Of two suicidal teenagers, and their exploitation by a literary vampire. Unmask Alice . . . where truth is stranger than nonfiction.
I feel that I have to start this post with how I ended up reading Unmask Alice. I have a good friend who has read endlessly about satanic panic and knows I’m interested in learning more. She sent me this book and I had a “WHAT?” moment.
I read Go Ask Alice as a teenager. I still have my extremely well-read original copy, published in 1997. It purports to be the diary of a teenage runaway, who finds herself taking drugs, leaving home, and trying to get clean again. And then she dies. I still remember the first time I ever read the book and reached the final page:
I felt like the wind had been taken out of me. I was so shocked and kept flicking through the pages, trying to find out for sure if the book was real or not.
It was a pivotal book of my teenage years, along with Smack by Melvin Burgess (now published as Junk) and Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel. And the thing is, even if I had considered in the past that the diaries of ‘Alice’ were not real, I didn’t know. Until my friend sent the link to Unmask Alice and then I had to reevaluate everything teenage me had thought and known.
Whilst I waited for my copy of Unmask Alice to arrive, I retrieved my copy of Go Ask Alice and started to read it again, the first time in many, many years and my first thought was: “Of course, this isn’t real”. But hindsight is 20/20 and millions and millions of copies of Go Ask Alice were sold to the public, and only a few thought to question it.
What Unmask Alice uncovers is the butterfly effect Beatrice Sparks, the real author of the diaries (very much a middle-class woman in her 50s and not a teenage runaway) and, as it turns out, wreaker of havoc. Emerson reveals through his research the devastating impact Sparks had on a family who had truly suffered a loss, Nixon’s ‘war on drugs’, and the lives destroyed by the myth of satanic panic, which saw dozens of people falsely imprisoned – some serving twenty years before they were released.
What’s more, Go Ask Alice is still published as being a real diary. The rights holders, Simon & Schuster, continue to publish it as a real diary without any thought to the damage Sparks did to so many in her quest to be a famous author (even if people didn’t know who she was).
The more I go back and flick through this book the more blown away I am by its revelations. It’s well-researched, sometimes funny, and highly readable. If you read Go Ask Alice as a teenager as I did, you need to read this book. If you’ve never read Go Ask Alice, read this anyway. My copy is going on the shelf of fame (the books I’ll never get rid of!) and will be a definite re-read.
I purchased Unmask Alice myself and was not asked to provide a review.
You can support your local bookshop by buying Unmask Alice through them directly, or via Hive or Bookshop.org*.
Wishing you a wonderfully bookish week,
One thought on “Book Review – Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World’s Most Notorious Diaries – Rick Emerson”
I never read Go Ask Alice (although I’d heard of it) but this book sounds so interesting. I read Junk (Smack is the US title) quite young and Prozac Nation too.
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