A Phenomenon, A Grift, And How Lies Turned One Family’s World Upside Down
In the double-edged sword of book sales, they say not to judge a book by its cover, all the while making the effort to put forth the kind of cover designed to reach out and speak directly to the audience who needs it most. While it’s true judging books solely on covers is an exercise in cheating yourself out of potentially great stories, there is no denying the powerful allure an effective cover holds. All the best and most impactful cover-finds are seared into my memory. I can tell you exactly what time of my life I was in when I found it, and why it felt like I had discovered exactly the kind of book I needed in those moments when I circled back to shelves that gave me pause. So it was with Go Ask Alice and Jay’s Journal in my teenage years, when I was reading books of their ilk with reckless abandon and wallowing in the usual teenage ennui of a time in my life that felt transformative and like nothingness in one sweep.
I did not, at the time of my first encountering Go Ask Alice or its follow up, Jay’s Journal, realize that either was anything other than what they presented themselves as: journals written and collected by anonymous authors within whose pages ran tragedy. I was in my early teens, maybe 14 at most, when I found them while wandering the aisles of my local Barnes and Noble one day, and the faces staring out from the covers called to me. The draw of an “Anonymous” author enough to pique my interest into ensuring I brought them both home. The stories they told were bleak and propulsive in equal measure, not shying from descriptions of drug use, desperation, or assault.
I devoured them, and felt changed after closing their pages, thanks in part to their bleak, abrupt endings. I’ve never had any interest in experimenting with drugs, and had little to no interest in drinking prior to adulthood. I was not at risk and looking for help in that way; what spoke the most to me was the palpable longing at the core of these people’s lives. False or not, when you picked up Alice and Jay they lingered with you like ghosts, carving space into your brain for themselves forever. Naturally, they were both challenged and banned almost immediately. Alice in particular felt the heat even as it was being lauded as a book all parents and children should read in an effort to understand and save themselves from a life like the one led by the girl in the diary.
Originally published in 1971 as a “discovered” diary, Go Ask Alice has been banned and challenged with vitriol in schools and libraries almost as soon as it hit shelves, thanks to its graphic language and descriptions of sex. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the challenges came from adults who worked in or regularly attended church and thought works like Alice were dangerous and blasphemous. Rick Emerson’s explosive dive into the controversy of Alice and Jay and their suspect origins, Unmask Alice, offers some insight into the minds of its most vocal critics — and a scathing peek into what even today remains the litmus test for permissible vs scandalous consumption:
“Our permissive parents (especially mothers) who do not want to say ‘no’ to anything are dragging a once-pure country into a low, filthy, diseased sexual gutter, where public acts of sex will be their final achievement… It was the old double standard: ‘Bring on the violence, but please, no cursing. (Or, as [Webber] Borchers [an anti-pornography activist], puts it, ‘The ending, where she dies, is good, but the scenes regarding sex are too vivid.’) Virtually no one argued with the truth of Go Ask Alice, only the language.”
- Unmask Alice, pg 86
None of the other books I have previously covered in this annual series are necessarily designed to shock. Mostly they have been either harmless children’s tales or indictments of the time and society in which they were created, either wildly popular or scandalous for their respective eras. The thing about Alice, though, is that even though it changed so many people’s lives and opened new and vulnerable conversations even as it was under fire for the very things that made it useful, it seems to have been constructed for attention.
Unmask Alice tears away the curtain of anonymity that shrouds books like Alice and Jay and reveals at the controls Beatrice Sparks, a woman so hungry for validation she was willing to construct almost an entire world of her own to get it, and burn any relationship she had with others to the ground to do it. Despite — or perhaps in part because of — its continued notoriety, Go Ask Alice was a wild commercial success for decades. At the time of its paperback publication it had sold millions upon millions of copies, but Sparks, the original “editor” of the “discovered diary” was left by the spotlight wayside thanks to the “Anonymous” emblazoned on the cover. Despite the money it got her, it did not grant recognition — so next time she would push the boundaries of her literary deals to ensure her name was right there on the cover.
Enter Jay’s Journal, a book conceived in part from a good faith gesture on the part of a mourning mother looking to help other families in the way she had seen Alice do, and Beatrice Sparks, a woman hungry not just for recognition but, judging by the rest of her published work, also for the exploitation of real or imagined young adult trauma. What makes Jay’s Journal more tragic than Alice is that, while the latter may be a full fabrication, Jay’s uses pieces of a real child’s actual journal and plants those pieces among completely fabricated instances of Satanic Panic scenarios. Worse than being challenged and banned and spreading like wildfire among the Barrett family’s — who’s son Alden Jay’s Journal exploits — tight-knit Mormon community, its position at a time when cultural and national anxiety was already heightened combined with its wildly constructed imaginings of Satanic offerings and sexual exploits in graveyards, proved incendiary. There is no surer way to start any kind of panic, after all, than planting seeds in the minds of parents. Plant enough to the right people, and you have a full-blown hysteria on your hands before you can say Boo. Such was the case with Jay’s. According to a religious studies professor who studied 1980s social hysteria interviewed for Unmask Alice:
“Many Americans truly did feel an invisible force that seemed to be all around them, corrupting their children and undermining the values of the family…Jay’s Journal exploited these fears, and connected them to larger concerns about adolescents. Jay [also] established the narrative of teenagers as ‘brilliant victims’ who are vulnerable because they are geniuses…These hybrid anxieties were ‘expressed in symbolic terms…and the symbols were then mistaken for reality…Jay’s Journal helped trigger the Satanic Panic”
-Unmask Alice, pg 222–223
The impact of these books could not be more different. Where Alice still has people touting its life-saving impact to this day as evidenced by the comments section of the ALA’s 1993 banning timeline, Jay’s Journal did little more than ravage the lives of the Barrett family — to whom Sparks never apologized or offered recompense — and instigate a baseless panic whose waves were felt literally nationwide. The investigative work to bring the truth of these two books in particular to light feels necessary, but in part because it examines the double-edged nature of all media consumption and the societal narratives that are pushed on us culturally. Word of mouth is a powerful thing — responsible for any number of book sales, especially for things like banned, challenged, or otherwise scandalized books — but just as it can do good, so too can it condemn us to believe baseless hysterics.
Our society feels even in this moment primed to believe anything we are told by enough people in the right conditions. Make it look and/or sound professional enough and you’ve got a wildfire of misinformation and false credibility on your hands. Beatrice Sparks knew it — not only touting herself as a qualified psychiatric doctor despite having no degree or schooling but also creating wholly other people out of thin air to sing the review-praises of Alice and Jay — and Internet culture knows it too. We may be able to recognize the nonsensical folly at the heart of book banning, but that doesn’t stop the incendiary crowd from looking for reasons to do it, no matter what story they have to tell to make it happen.
Regardless of its origins, Go Ask Alice was formative for its time, successfully touching the lives of any number of struggling souls looking for understanding and scandalizing all the right people. That both books in particular incensed the very community Sparks, a Mormon, was a part of, is a delightful bit of irony in an otherwise markedly grim saga. To read it now may remove some of its impact — or not. The fact Go Ask Alice remained for decades a wildfire of a seller, surging into the millions at multiple points in time proves that whether the story is a real, lurid diary is not nearly as important as the truth of it you can feel. All stories are lies with truth mixed in, and while Beatrice Sparks was one of the most unapologetic and unforgiveable grifters we may ever know, her creation of Alice left its impact on artists we know and love today — like Laurie Halse Anderson and Gillian Jacobs — who would later credit its vulnerable narrator as helping them come to terms with some of the most traumatic things about their own lives and find hope where there had been none.
Checkered though it may be, Go Ask Alice is a perfect distillation of why reading banned books is necessary. If there is something within its pages authority figures do not want you to see, nine times out of ten the “something” is a facet of life that should be discussed rather than shut away, and the best way to start those discussions is to consume the media. We just have to remember to do it critically.