Jul 13, 2022 - News

A new book shows the Utah roots beneath 'Go Ask Alice'

A book cover reads: Unmask Alice: LSD, satanic panic, and the imposter behind the world's most notorious diaries.
Cover of Unmask Alice, courtesy of Rick Emerson and BenBella Books.

A new book explores the deception behind the infamous anti-drug propaganda "diary" Go Ask Alice — and the Utah author, Beatrice Sparks, who sold it as truth to generations.

Driving the news: In the nonfiction Unmask Alice, released last week, writer Rick Emerson links the 1971 faux-diary and Sparks to Utah's history of fraud, moral panic and purity culture.

Catch up quick: Go Ask Alice is a bestselling young adult book that purports to be the diary of a teenage runaway who died from a drug overdose after the last entry.

  • Emerson found that Sparks rose to prominence "editing" (or fabricating) diaries of at-risk teens — under apparently-falsified professional credentials in youth mental health.
  • Alice — which is Sparks' most famous work by far — has been scrutinized for a number of false claims about drugs and addiction.
  • But its depiction of the teenage emotional experience has endeared it to young readers for generations.

A book about Utah was not what Emerson intended to write when he began exploring Sparks' literary dishonesty, he tells Axios Salt Lake City — but that's what Unmask Alice is.

Details: His book traces Sparks' career through an epic trek connecting some of Utah's most distressing cultural distinctions, including:

Unmask Alice has church gossip. It has an MLM. It has worthiness interviews. It has someone crying on cue.

What they're saying: "You could almost play a Utah drinking game" with the book, Emerson told us, admitting, "this is an inappropriate metaphor on several levels."

Zoom in (spoiler alert): The most devastating account in Unmask Alice is that of a Pleasant Grove family whose teenage son died from suicide in 1971 and left behind an Alice-like diary.

  • Hoping the diary would be used for suicide prevention, the boy's grieving mother gave it to Sparks, who reportedly promised to let the mom read the edited book before it was published.
  • Instead, the mother was blindsided in 1979, when the resulting book, Jay's Journal, depicted the diarist — widely recognized as her son — as an animal-abusing satanist who lured innocent kids into the occult.
  • The boy's headstone was vandalized and briefly stolen from the cemetery as Utah's satanic panic escalated.

And the panic did escalate, Emerson found.

  • A mob of angry parents in Heber City shut down a middle school Dungeons & Dragons club.
  • A clown was reportedly giving stamps with LSD in the glue at elementary schools — but the clown was just "Cinderbritches," the Provo fire department's safety mascot.
  • The Provo Daily Herald ran a five-day series called "Satan Worship in Zion," in which mostly-unnamed sources claimed teens were sacrificing animals and levitating.

Of note: The biographical note in BYU's collection of Beatrice Sparks papers still claims she had a PhD in "human behavior" — but none of the universities she claimed to attend had any record of her graduating, Emerson wrote.

Worth your time: Unmask Alice ends by exposing the likely inspiration for Spark's "Alice."

  • We won't spoil it, but it's centered around BYU.
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