Book Review: GO ASK ALICE (1971) by Anonymous
Updated: Jan 6
Let's talk about one of the most controversial books in YA fiction--the true story of an anonymous, fifteen-year-old girl who chronicles her addiction to drugs in the form of diary entries. Would this incredibly impactful and evocative book become any less powerful if you discovered it was a lie?
Our nameless protagonist comes from a good family. Her parents are married, her dad is a professor, and she enjoys happy relationships with her loving grandparents. Everything changes, however, when she moves away to a new house in a new town. She's quick to adjust and make friends, but she discovers the hard way that these kids are "dopers" after she recovers from an LSD trip. They'd drugged her without her knowledge, but one hit is enough to keep her coming back. Our protagonist takes us through all the ups and downs of experimenting with drugs, running away to San Francisco, coping with her sexuality, and navigating relationships with her parents.
The title. The title borrows lyrics from Jefferson Airplane's 1967 song "White Rabbit," which uses Alice in Wonderland as an analogy for drugs. The song's as trippy as it sounds, but it was stuck in my head the entire time I read this book.
The structure, voice, and intimacy. I've read books in diary-format before, but this book nails it. The voice of the protagonist is eerily similar to the way I wrote when I was that age. Some of the slang of that era is different, obviously, but I still resonate with the writing. It's almost as if it were written with the audience in mind, since the protagonist addresses her diary directly as "you." It's as if I, the reader, am her closest friend and confidant with whom she shares her deepest troubles, longings, and insecurities.
To expound on the structure, I find the scope of the book really interesting. Sometimes random names would pop up without explanation, and other names would disappear permanently. Other than the writer, none of the characters were well-developed or memorable, but I don't think it matters. The diary-format makes it okay to break the show-don't-tell rule, simply because that's the nature of diaries. Even if we subconsciously have a far-off audience in mind, it's rare that we stop to explain things in diaries, because ultimately, the writer herself is the audience; her intent is to summarize a moment in time.
This also makes for a very narrow scope. I already commented that this book is extremely intimate and visceral, but our proximity to the narrator illuminates how unreliable of a narrator she truly is. Since her writing is not detailed, she leaves us with so many unanswered questions. It's maddening (in a good way).
The graphic descriptions. This book is a little disturbing in some parts, like when she describes her trips. In contrast, the lack of details (such in the cases of rape) were achingly blunt and matter-of-fact--more of a shock to the reader than the writer. I don't think the writer was able to acknowledge the trauma of her circumstances. Based on the simplicity and naivety of her narrative, being the victim of rape was certainly not something she processed. This makes the book all the more heart-breaking.
Things I found problematic:
It doesn't really make sense that she tries LSD and all the other hard drugs before she tries pot. Pretty sure it goes the other way around.
The ending. The ending shocked me. I won't spoil it, but it was abrupt and disappointing.
After I finished this book, I did a little digging about the whole "Anonymous" writer thing. Turns out it was a lie. The book is a work fo fiction written by a Mormon woman from Utah named Beatrice Sparks. Apparently she's some sort of youth counselor or psychologist who's written other "true diary" books about drug-addicted teens.
And people are pissed. If you go on Goodreads, you'll have a hard time finding a positive review. You'll also find several articles around the internet of people talking about how impactful this book was during their adolescence--until they found out as an adult that this book is a fake, preachy, unrealistic pile of garbage meant to promote anti-drug propaganda.
Now I'm pissed. I'm pissed that people are bitter that Sparks scared them away from drugs, as if she robbed them of the ultimate teenage experience. Can I understand the frustration of having been lied to about this being a true diary? Yes, absolutely. I'm frustrated that Sparks underestimated the power of fiction. I'm frustrated that, by setting this story up as truth, she undermines the very truth she is trying to express: that drug addiction causes irreparable damage. It's disappointing that Sparks compromised her credibility as a writer and commentator of teen drug abuse.
My Rating (out of five):
From the beginning, I was almost positive I would give this book a five-star rating. But since the the author lied to me, I need to dock a star. Regardless, I can't ignore that this book is a near-masterpiece.
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