In 1971, the YA book Go Ask Alice hit shelves and almost immediately set off a firestorm. Purportedly the real-life diary of a straitlaced teen girl who lost her life to drugs, it was an instant hit, touted by critics across the country as a must-read for parents and teenagers alike. Over the ensuing decades, it sold tens of millions of copies — beloved by teens for its frenetic entries about taboo subjects, and by adults because it was a text they could point to as proof of the ills of drugs. But by the early 21st century, questions had arisen about the book’s veracity, as well as the true identity of its “anonymous” author — something only known by the book’s editor, a supposed child psychologist named Beatrice Sparks.
It was Sparks who captured Rick Emerson’s imagination one day back in 2015. Driving home from lunch, Emerson — who wasn’t born when the book came out, but lived through the Reagan-Era D.A.R.E. classes and War on Drugs it helped to fuel — began wondering about the mysterious author. Who was she, really? Where could he find out more about her? When he got home, he realized that the book he wanted to read didn’t exist, so he set out to write it himself. What he discovered was more shocking than he could have imagined. “Go Ask Alice was the bright, shiny object that started the story,” he tells Rolling Stone. “But then it got much bigger, much faster.”
In short, Emerson found something that one of her follow-up YA books, Jay’s Journal, an equally suspicious “diary” of a teen boy’s descent into occultism and suicide, may have helped ignite that other late-20th-century moral freak-out: the Satanic Panic, a two-decade span of Americans blaming the devil and occultists for everything from depression to suicide and murder. “As I worked my way from the outside in, [I realized] the shadow and the scope and the scale that these books had, especially combined,” he says. “It went literally from Hollywood to the Oval Office to Quantico, and then into high schools in small towns throughout America.”
Seven years since that idea popped into his head, Emerson has finally published Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter behind the World’s Most Notorious Diaries, out this month from BenBella Books. Based on intensive research — scouring Sparks’ personal letters; conducting dozens of interviews with those who knew the real families who lost children, and with the families themselves; meticulously picking through Sparks’ other books, as well as their source material — he’s created a portrait of a fabulist so intent on spinning her legend that she stole the stories of others for her own gain. But in telling the real stories, he also brings a sort of justice for the kids and their families whose experiences had been exploited for profit.
One of the more helpful documents Emerson found was Sparks’ first book, a 1967 self-help volume called Key to Happiness that offered advice on things like how to properly pluck one’s eyebrows or primp for a date. “A lot of that book is not germane to anything I was working on,” Emerson says. “But there’s a lot of anecdotes and stories — a lot about her own life, and a lot about her own background. In a strange way she was more reflective in that first book than I think she may have intended or realized.” From that he was able to glean a sense of her values, as well as details about her early life. He also traveled to Brigham Young University, where he paged through nine boxes of her writings and correspondences, to construct her story.
Emerson’s research indicated that Sparks was a Mormon from a broken home, who had spent time in Utah and San Francisco. She didn’t have much, but she had gumption in spades — raising her two younger siblings and two children with her husband while sending unrequested columns and poems to publications every chance she got.
Sparks’ fate changed in 1970, when 20-year-old Dianne Linkletter, daughter of beloved television personality Art Linkletter, jumped out a window to her death. Though it was by most accounts probably a suicide, at the time, the Linkletters blamed her death on LSD. Sparks knew Art a little — she’d been pitching him TV ideas for years, to no avail — and she approached him to say she had a diary of another dead teen with a shockingly similar story: The girl had been a straitlaced student, the story went, until some bad kids turned her onto drugs. She cleaned herself up, but that didn’t save her; the girl was soon found dead.
Linkletter appreciated the story, and despite some questions about where that diary actually came from, he signed her to his literary agency and found her a publisher. After years of trying to break out as a writer, Sparks was ready to finally reap her rewards. There was only one problem: Alice had been printed without her name on it — publishers thought teens would trust it more if there were no adult’s name on the cover, and it was simply credited to “Anonymous.”
Six years later, Sparks was floundering. Sales were so good that the publishers didn’t want to give her any attention for being behind the work, though she was starting to take credit for it in the press. Then a grieving mother sent her a copy of her late son’s diary, and Sparks knew she had something good on her hands — the beginning of a new book. Alden Barrett’s mother Marcella, a fellow Mormon, had no agenda for sharing her son’s diary with the author. “Marcella didn’t want money,” Emerson writes in Unmask Alice. “She didn’t want fame or attention. She just wanted Alden’s life to mean something, or his death would be unbearable.”
The truth of Alden’s story was simple, yet tragic: He grew up in Pleasant Grove, Utah. He was a star of the debate team, a quiet, emotional kid who fell deeply in love and died by suicide in March 1971, after that relationship fizzled. He was 16. His death began to break the family. His father grew distant. His younger brother Scott, who had found the body, tortured himself with what-ifs and turned to alcohol, eventually landing himself at the now-notorious Provo Canyon School. Marcella turned to prayer, trying to figure out what was next. Then, in 1977, after a local newspaper identified Sparks as the editor of Go Ask Alice, Marcella met with her, trusted her, and gave her a copy of Alden’s diary. Sparks said she would take a look and be in touch.
Two years later, without any warning, Jay’s Journal was on shelves everywhere. As Emerson notes in his book, Marcella found out about its publication when a neighbor asked her about it in the store. The name had been changed from Alden to Jay, but details of his life and town were given such cursory modifications that his identity was clear. Now, though, it included accounts of cattle mutilation, levitation, and conversing with the devil. Marcella was crushed.
By the 1990s, Dungeons & Dragons had become wrapped up in the Satanic Panic — railed against by the religious right and seen to be a gateway drug of sorts into occultism. But in early 1980, it was just a game that helped shy kids learn to socialize. In his book, Emerson recounts how Jay’s Journal may have been the catalyst for that change: It was one school, not far from Pleasant Grove, where parents first linked the fantasy game with Satanic influence. “What I did not know going into the story was how closely linked the D&D aspect of this was to Jay’s Journal,” he says. “While there had been some concerns and rumblings about Dungeons & Dragons before that, it wasn’t until 1980 when that really exploded in earnest. And it started in Heber City, which is just like 30 minutes outside of Pleasant Grove. It’s not a coincidence that came directly after Jay’s Journal was published.”
Throughout the various tragedies presented in Unmask Alice, the most heartbreaking is the running theme that we are simply unwilling to have hard conversations about adolescent mental health; we’d rather blame boogeymen than address the issues at the center of a crisis. “Americans love simple answers and quick solutions, whether or not they’re accurate or effective. It’s a lot easier to just say, ‘Well, it was caused by the devil,’” Emerson says. “When Alden Barrett died in March 1971, the very first true study of adolescent psychology had just barely come out. Mental health, especially for young people, was still very much on training wheels. When suicide is not just explained away, but denied, that actually is not just unhelpful — it actually pushes things in the wrong direction.”
As for Alice, the identity of the protagonist is still shrouded in mystery — if she even existed at all. Emerson is hesitant to talk about it, requesting that the surprise be left to his readers, but he will admit he was able to tie together more strings than anyone else has so far. “My pet theory had been that it was this dual creation of the Nixon White House and a Madison Avenue advertising agency,” he says. “That ended up being, I’d say, 20 percent correct. The rest was not at all what I expected.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also reach out to the Crisis Text Line, a free, 24/7 confidential text messaging service that provides support to people in crisis when they text 741741.