Rick Emerson’s UNMASK ALICE: LSD, Satanic Panic and the Imposter Behind the World’s Most Notorious Diaries is a good but flawed book, worth reading but often best taken with a grain of salt.
Emerson’s subject is Beatrice Sparks, the author of the supposedly True Story Go Ask Alice. Sparks actually made the whole thing up, pitching it to celebrity Art Linkletter who blamed his daughter’s recent suicide on drugs. Linkletter’s company published the book, but without any mention of Sparks, creating the impression it was a raw, unedited diary. Drugs were a big, controversial issue (President Nixon made them bigger to justify cracking down on liberals, hippies and blacks) and the book caught the zeitgeist perfectly, despite some reviewers who questioned it’s authenticity. The fact that it’s still being published, read and enjoyed years later shows Sparks did something right
Eager to replicate her success, Sparks wrote several more diaries. Jay’s Journal is the only one based on a real individual, teenage suicide Alden Barrett. His mother gave the diary to Sparks, hoping she could turn it into something other families could learn from (Emerson is very good showing how 50 years ago recognizing and treating depression weren’t much beyond the level of bleeding patients with leeches). Instead Sparks fictionalized it into the story of Jay, a teenager lured into Satanism and witchcraft which led to his death.
It was another fine job sensing the zeitgeist: the 1970s were full of fears about the occult, Satanism, etc., manifesting in fiction with The Exorcist and The Omen and assorted Marvel horror books. Emerson argues Jay’s Journal was a major factor in stirring the Satanic panic of the 1980s and 1990s, though he doesn’t offer any proof: the trigger cited in his accounts was fears about Dungeons and Dragons. And like I said, worries about Satan corrupting our kids were around before the book came out (and I think of them as largely old fears in new bottles)
Turning that family’s child into a monstrous fiction and passing it off as truth was a shitty thing to do. Beyond that, Sparks seems to be a thorough grifter, to the point of writing cover blurbs from non-existent doctors for her date-rape-and-AIDS diary It Happened To Nancy. She also constantly inflated her backstory, claiming she’d received various diaries from her patients when she was a therapist (she wasn’t) and adding a Ph.D. to her name.
I get the feeling Emerson’s more sympathetic towards her than I am: in his eyes she’s desperate to become an important writer, even if she has to bullshit her way to that status (I’ll come back to that point). I don’t believe he mentions how much she made off the books or whether he tried to find out (there’s no index to look for such details so I’m not sure whether that impression was accurate).
Like Bad Blood, Emerson’s account shows how badly the system deals with this kind of scam artist. Despite multiple red flags — Sparks could never keep her story about how she got any of the diaries straight — and factual errors (Nancy dies of AIDS in two years, which is freaky fast), Sparks’ publishers had no problems swallowing or pretending to swallow their truth. Newspaper reporters writing about Jay’s Journal never talked to the Barretts, even though Alden was known to be the basis for Jay.
Nobody questioned Jay’s story any more than they questioned the Satanic preschools or the occult powers of Dungeons and Dragons; as Slacktivist says, there’s always an audience that wants to believe this bullshit is real and the media and the legal system seem happy to go along. Emerson’s sometimes overly hard on the reporters — when I wrote about authors, I certainly didn’t go into fact-check mode to verify the story of their life. Then again, the ability of Satanism “experts” or someone like Sparks to get away with it shows the limits of running on basic trust.
But that brings us to the flaws in the book. Emerson acknowledges that his criticism of media gullibility leaves him open to questions about his accuracy. He states up front that all dialog is an actual quote; thoughts expressed in italics are from letters or diaries; while some of his sources use pseudonyms, he’s kept them to a minimum.
Trouble is, he writes a lot about people’s thoughts without any italics. For example when Sparks is at a major publishing event, she’s simmering that despite Go Ask Alice‘s success, she’s not recognized as the superstar author she is — but at least she’s in the winner’s circle, and that’s something. Most of this is not italicized. Does it have a source? If so, what? Or is it Emerson going the What She Must Have Thought route. That’s legit if marked as such but it’s not.
I could turn to the footnotes to find out — oh, there aren’t any. Emerson asserts there’s no point to having lots of citations when most of the facts can be verified with a Google search or a phone call; he wanted a fast moving book, not one bogged down with citations. But that’s the point of footnotes or endnotes, to provide citations without slowing things down.
I agree not everything needs to be footnoted: I have plenty in Undead Sexist Cliches but I don’t footnote things like who Emma Goldman was. However “you can google it” is not an excuse; “you can find it with a phone call” even less. Without footnotes I have no way to know which is which — and even if I called most of the people Emerson interviewed, would they talk to me? And would google turn up the personal letters and diaries Emerson drew on?
With footnotes I could see where Emerson drew Sparks’ thought balloons from; without them I’m suspicious whether they’re real. It doesn’t help that Emerson holds up Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City as his model because Larson had no qualms presenting speculation as fact. But at least Larson acknowledges the speculation in the endnotes; Emerson doesn’t have any, making accuracy more nebulous.
Unmask Alice is still a good book and I don’t feel the entire thing is a pack of lies. I am not so sure about the truth on the margins.
#SFWApro. Covers by Emily Weigel, Rich Buckler and Kemp Ward, top to bottom.