Rick Emerson’s Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World’s Most Notorious Diaries(Penguin Random House 2022) is a whiplash of a book. Detailing the rise of the infamous published diary Go Ask Alice (1971), the life of a woman named Beatrice Sparks who alleged to have counselled the diary’s subject and published the diary after the subject’s death via a drug overdose, and the subsequent Satanic Panic and war on drugs in the United States that followed Go Ask Alice’s publication, Unmask Alice is more than an exposé—it’s a cultural study of one of the United States’ most tumultuous periods.
A quote that perfectly explains the long and sordid history of Go Ask Alice comes near the book’s close, when Emerson states that “[i]n December 2020, Simon & Schuster released a fiftieth-anniversary addition of Go Ask Alice. Its inside copyright page says ‘fiction,’ but its Library of Congress entry says ‘not fiction’”. Whether or not Alice is fabrication is one of the main questions of Emerson’s book, questions he attempts to answer as he sifts though the life of Beatrice Sparks, a supposed PhD psychologist who found (or was given, her story continually shifted) a diary by a patient who overdosed on drugs after a long struggle with homelessness, sex work, and familial strife. Emerson follows Alice’s journey though the publication process and outlines the frankly shocking lack of checks and balances done on Sparks and the manuscript itself. Inconsistencies were not difficult to find, but were overlooked nevertheless. This part of the book was well-researched, thorough, and left me scratching my head as a reader. How was this book allowed to be presented as a real diary, when it clearly was a piece of fiction written shamelessly by Beatrice Sparks? Emerson does a careful job of explaining the kind of person Beatrice was and how, through sheer dumb luck and perseverance, she convinced the publishing industry and the public that Alice was a real diary.
Although the journey through Sparks’ early life was a wild ride, things only get crazier from there. The book’s coverage of Alden Barrett’s life and death, which becomes the subject of Spark’s next project Jay’s Journal (1979), is devastating and infuriating. Emerson explains in stark detail how Sparks not only profited off a tragic death by suicide, but details how Sparks took Alden’s real journal and embellished it to such an extent that it connected Alden’s death with the occult, foregoing the complex reality of depression that Alden experienced. This portion of the book goes to great lengths to show us not only the depth of Sparks’ culpability in sullying Alden’s memory, but it also links Jay’s Journal with the Satanic Panic that would eventually grip the United States to disastrous results. This section of the book not only attempts to reclaim a bit of Alden’s lost voice, but it displays for readers how fabrications like Jay’s Journal started an immense moral panic in the United States. You will learn so much from this detailed and well-researched portion of the book.
Perhaps my favorite parts of the book, however, are the sections where Emerson tries to untangle Alice’s legacy. In my own teenage years in the early 2000’s, I read Alice after finding the book at the library and being compelled by its promise of an anonymous diary. I, like many people who have read it, assumed it was a discovered diary of a young, troubled teenager. One section of Emerson’s book described perfectly how I felt about Alice after first reading it:
“Beneath the dated jargon and drug-porn storyline, 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”
I couldn’t relate to Alice’s running away, or her drug use, or her sex work, but I could relate to the way she felt. I could relate to the larger-than-life teenage emotions that lead her down such a path. And although Emerson’s book spends a lot of time doling out responsibility for Alice’s farce, he does not take for granted why and how this book meant something to people, for better or for worse. It is this nuanced perspective that made me really appreciate this book, and it is for this nuanced perspective that I recommend it.
A copy of Unmask Alice was provided to True Crime Index by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
About the Writer:
Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature. Her work on women in twenty-first century true crime has been published in Crime Fiction Studies.