True Story: Go Ask Alice

This week’s episode of the podcast was all about Go Ask Alice, and all I can say is…. WOAH. This book! This episode! The response from all of you!

As you know if you’ve already listened to Episode 58, this was the first time I ever read Go Ask Alice, but even beyond that, I knew very little about the book when Abbe Wright suggested we discuss it for her episode. Since I came into the experience with only minimal information, it was that much more surprising to discover that the book was so graphic and that the back story around it was so complicated. Clearly, many of you were just as surprised as I was! (For those of you who haven’t listened yet, we spend a lot of time chatting about the fact that the book’s “Anonymous” authorship is kind of a big, fat lie. Originally billed as the diary of a real teenage drug addict, Go Ask Alice was actually written by a middle-aged Mormon youth counselor named Beatrice Sparks. Kind of an important piece of information to leave out, no? Since I was new to the book, I thought I was the only one late to the party on this news, but it seems that many people were operating under the assumption — reasonably, since the publisher sold it this way — that it was, indeed, a diary.) It’s okay, friends… we’re all in this together.

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Literary hoax aside, I have some other thoughts to share about Go Ask Alice.

Here’s the True Story on Episode 58.

(For helpful context, listen to the episode here and brush up with a summary of the book here.)

The heavy-handed body image stuff in the beginning of the book was hard for me to read.

If you’ve been part of the SSR community for a while, you know that I’m particularly sensitive to depictions of unhealthy body image and food habits in YA. The first part of Go Ask Alice was chock full of this kind of content! The narrator spends a lot of time talking about her efforts to lose weight in preparation for her move, and goes into great detail about how little she eats to make this happen. Logically, I can see that this was probably how her anxiety and depression was manifesting itself prior to her drug use, but it was still hard for me to read.

I wish there had been more of a direct conversation around the mental health issues that the narrator was experiencing.

Toward the end of the book, the narrator’s family commits her to a mental hospital in hopes that it will give her the resources she needs to tackle her addiction. Before that, though, there’s little reference to the health issues happening below the surface that are fueling her addiction — and even after she finds herself in the hospital, the narrator doesn’t seem to have developed a vocabulary around what she’s feeling.

If Go Ask Alice really was the diary of a teen, then I guess this lack of explicit conversation around mental health would make more sense. Most teenagers don’t have command of the language around these topics! Beatrice Sparks, on the other hand, was a youth counselor! Given her background, I feel like she missed an important opportunity to educate her young readers about the mental health issues wrapped up in addiction. She was so heavy-handed about so many other aspects of this book… why couldn’t she have been heavy-handed with this? It would have been a service to her audience in the long-term.

Sadly, the book speaks to the fact that it’s really hard to start over with your reputation in high school.

I ached for the narrator when she tried to go back to business as usual at school. After running away from home multiple times and struggling with her addiction, she just wanted to try to set things right and be a normal kid. The barriers that her classmates set up to make this difficult for her really broke my heart. They want to keep her in a very small box, which ultimately sets her up to fail in her recovery journey.

The narrator’s experience with trying to start over in high school is obviously a highly specific and extreme one, but it speaks to a fundamental challenge of being a teen: kids are not always forgiving, and they’re often not ready to be supportive in a personal evolution. So many teenagers experience this to different degrees when they’re in high school, and this variation of it was particularly hard to read.

There’s a queer reading of Go Ask Alice that we didn’t have time to touch on in our conversation.

This isn’t my theory, but it’s one that I stumbled upon while researching for the episode, and Abbe and I just didn’t have time to discuss it! I would encourage you to take a look at this 2018 essay from The Paris Review. I found it especially interesting given the fact that I can only assume that Beatrice Sparks has a more conservative, heteronormative worldview.

I’m still wondering how I think the publisher should be packaging the book now.

One of the questions that I jotted down in the margins of my copy of Go Ask Alice was this: “What should the publisher be doing differently now in terms of packaging the book?” Since so many people are now aware of the true origins of the book — at the very least, the story is now widely available on the Internet and Beatrice Sparks has spoken fairly openly about it — I can’t help but wonder why it’s still being presented the same way as it always has been. Why are we still pretending that it’s a real diary by an anonymous teen? The intro literally says just that. Books are reissued with new intros all the time!

I would love to see a new edition with an update to the author attribution and a new introduction. As Abbe and I discuss on the podcast, I don’t think that the true backstory of Go Ask Alice somehow disqualifies it from being a worthwhile or impactful read, so why can’t we just be honest about where it came from? I don’t necessarily agree with Beatrice Sparks’s process in putting the book together (or at least, I don’t agree with what I read about it in my research), but she did have good intentions. I think that modern readers would appreciate the whole truth in the book itself. It’s actually kind of a fascinating story… tell it!

Listen to the podcast episode about Go Ask Alice here!

I can’t wait to hear your “true story” thoughts about this book. Share them with me in the comments below.

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