Monday, August 29, 2022

Unmasking Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World's Most Notorious Diaries by Rick Emerson

"And there lay the crux of Alice’s undying appeal ... Alice acted the way you sometimes felt. If you kept a journal, or filled endless pages with dark, haunted poetry, or felt the stab of a singer speaking directly to you, so sweet and sad your heart could barely take it, you had a kindred spirit in Alice. Fiction or not, she was real. And she understood". - Rick Emerson, Unmasking Alice

When I was in high school in the 1970's there wasn't as large a young adult book market as there is today.  But one book that was certainly making the rounds was Go Ask Alice  published in 1971.  The book I assumed at the time (we all did) was the real life diary of a teenage girl who got caught up in the drug culture of the late 1960's and died from an overdose at age seventeen.  

In later years we would discover that Go Ask Alice was fiction.  The author, Beatrice Sparks and her publishers had presented the diary as real but in reality it was a novel.  But I never felt conned because I loved the book and so what was the big deal if the diary was marketed as real but wasn't?  Well, in Unmasking Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic and the Imposter Behind the World's Most Notorious Diaries (2022), Rick Emerson explains why it was a big deal.  But first he tells us about the author.

Beatrice Sparks was born in Idaho in 1917.  Her childhood was a difficult one.  Her father abandoned the family and Beatrice at 15 had to quit school and go to work.  She married young and her husband LaVorn Sparks had come from a childhood equally as difficult.  But Beatrice and LaVorn were a couple who despite the setbacks life had dealt them were determined to persevere and they did.   LaVorn would go on to be a wealthy business man and Beatrice raised her children and worked as a Mormon youth counselor.  

Beatrice also wrote and her job as a counselor gave her the inspiration for Go Ask Alice.  After the tremendous success of the book Beatrice in 1978 published Jay's Journal and as with Go Ask Alice it was marketed as a real diary this time written by a teenage boy who descends into a world of devil worship and animal sacrifice which ends in tragedy.

As Rick Emerson tells us, unlike Go Ask Alice the Jay of Jay's Journal is based very loosely on the life of an actual teenager, Alden Barrett, who committed suicide at age sixteen.  Alden's mother, sought out Beatrice Sparks after reading Go Ask Alice and she was hoping Sparks would tell Alden's story which could help others.  She gave Beatrice her son's diary and Sparks did include a number of Alden's diary entry's but the bulk of Jay's Journal is filled with fictional entry's presenting a very unflattering and false picture who everyone back in the Barrett's hometown of Pleasant Grove, Utah assumed was Alden's real diary.

In reality Alden, unlike the fictional Jay, was not into Satanism at all.  Alden suffered from depression and it eventually killed him.  That's the story Beatrice should have told and the publication of Jay's Journal with the made up nonsense caused the Barrett family alot of pain.  Beatrice would go on to write other fictional teen diaries which were presented as real.  She aso began referring to herself in print and in interviews as Beatrice Sparks PhD even though she never earned a PhD.  Rick Emerson does a good job of tracking all this down and he talks about how the publishing industry who knew this was all a hoax let it slide.  Interviewers over the years went along with Beatrice's inaccurate view of herself and her books as well.

Unmasking Alice is an interesting read, an important piece of investigative journalism about a very popular author and where we have been as a culture.  Did reading Unmasking Alice change my feelings about Go Ask Alice?  Not really.  I still like the novel and if we only read books by authors whose behavior we admire we would miss out on alot of great reads.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Mystical Paths by Susan Howatch

Mystical Paths by Susan Howatch (1992) is the fifth book in her wonderful series of Starbridge novels.  There are six books in this series set in the fictional town of Starbridge, England and dealing with the changes that took place in the Church of England from the 1930's to the 1960's.  Each novel, with one exception, is narrated by a different Anglican cleric who has risen high in the Church of England but is now encountering a troubling period in his life. 

In Mystical Paths for example the narrator is Nicholas Darrow who is training for the priesthood.  Nicholas is the son of Father Jonathan Darrow who is featured prominently in books one and two of the series.  Nicholas like his father has psychic abilities which his father has warned him to be careful with.  But Nicholas decides to perform a seance as a way to help his friend Katie Aysgarth get over the drowning death of her husband Christian.

Katie feels guilt about Christian's death due to the fact that she feels he committed suicide.  But the seance only makes matters worse for Katie and so Nicholas as a way to repair the mess with the seance decides to investigate what really happened to Christian.  Was it an accident or suicide?  Nicholas hopes he can prove it was an accident and bring Katie some closure.   

Getting to the truth will be difficult and Nicholas Darrow becomes an amateur detective as he talks with Christian's friends and family to find out what really happened and why.  Nicholas also talks with Christian's father, Dr. Neville Aysgarth, the retired Dean at Starbridge.  We learn a great deal about Neville Aysgarth's younger years in book three of the Starbridge series and he's a man with issues.  But in Mystical Paths Dr. Aysgarth is now much older and he shares with Nicholas the concerns he had about his son Christian:   

This is the truth, Nicholas; this is the truth your father and I worked out together: Christian was sick. It was a spiritual sickness. It arose because he’d turned away from God after his mother died and he’d never filled the vacuum satisfactorily. Of course there are many admirable people in this world who don’t believe in God and yet lead moral, meaningful lives, but they’ve succeeded in filling the spiritual vacuum with sound humanist principles. For a long time I assumed Christian had done that, but in the end I began to wonder and then I started to worry" 

I have only one book left to read in the Starbridge series and I will be sorry to see it come to a close.  These novels can be read out of sequence but it's best to read them in order because the characters carry over from one book to the next.  So if you are curious I would start with book one, Glittering Images.  You may find the series is not for you but if you get hooked you have a very enjoyable reading experience ahead.