If you’re a person of certain age, chances are you were assigned the 1971 book “Go Ask Alice” in middle or high school. The book was used by educators everywhere as a cautionary tale against rebellion and drugs. Kids loved it because of it contained swearing and frank expressions of sexuality.
I don’t recall reading the book, but I remember seeing it everywhere.
I also don’t remember the attendant controversies. Publishing industry drama is rarely on a teenager’s radar. Apparently it was a big deal.
Upon its publication, almost all contemporary reviewers and the general public accepted it as primarily authored by an anonymous teenager. According to Lauren Adams, Publishers Weekly magazine was the only source to question the book’s authenticity on the grounds that it “seem[ed] awfully well written”. Reviews described the book as either the authentic diary of a real teenage girl, or as an edited or slightly fictionalized version of her authentic diary. Some sources claimed that the girl’s parents had arranged for her diary to be published after her death. However, according to Alleen Pace Nilsen, a “reputable source in the publishing world” allegedly said that the book was published anonymously because the parents had initiated legal action and threatened to sue if the published book could be traced back to their daughter.
Not long after Go Ask Alice’s publication, Beatrice Sparks began making public appearances presenting herself as the book’s editor. (Ellen Roberts, who in the early 1970s was an editor at Prentice Hall, was also credited at that time with having edited the book; a later source refers to Roberts as having “consulted” on the book.) According to Caitlin White, when Sparks’ name became public, some researchers discovered that copyright records listed Sparks as the sole author—not editor—of the book, raising questions about whether she had written it herself.Suspicions were heightened in 1979 after two newly published books about troubled teenagers (Voices and Jay’s Journal) advertised Sparks’ involvement by calling her “the author who brought you Go Ask Alice”.
I bring all this up because New Yorker writer Casey Cep takes a look at the ongoing questions about “How a Mormon Housewife Turned a Fake Diary Into an Enormous Bestseller.”
If you had twenty dollars and a few hours to spare during the fall of 1970, you could learn about “The Art of Womanhood” from Mrs. Beatrice Sparks. A Mormon housewife, Sparks was the author of a book called “Key to Happiness,” which offered advice on grooming, comportment, voice, and self-discipline for high-school and college-aged girls; her seminar dispensed that same advice on Wednesdays on the campus of Brigham Young University, a school from which she’d later claim to have earned a doctorate, sometimes in psychiatry, other times in psychology or human behavior. “Happiness comes from within,” Sparks promised, “and it begins with an understanding of who and what you really are!”
Such an understanding seems to have been elusive for Sparks, who was then calling herself a lecturer, although she would soon enough identify as a therapist and occasionally as a counsellor or a social worker or even an adolescent psychologist, substituting the University of Utah or the University of California, Los Angeles, for her alma mater, or declining to say where she had trained. But, wherever she studied and whatever her qualifications, Sparks was destined to become best known for being unknown. Although her book on womanhood was a flop, she went on to sell millions of copies of another book, one that even today does not acknowledge her authorship, going into printing after printing without so much as a pseudonym for its author. “Go Ask Alice,” the supposedly real diary of a teen-age drug addict, was really the work of a straitlaced stay-at-home mom.
I think it’s hilarious that the whole thing started to unravel because Sparks, the moralizing anti-drug housewife-turned-crusader, was greedy for attention and couldn’t keep her mouth shut.
You can read the rest of the New Yorker article here.
BTW it’s a common misconception that Jefferson Airplane’s hit “Go Ask Alice” was based on the book, when it was actually the other way around: the publisher picked the name because of the song.
There was a made-for-TV movie of the same name starring William Shatner and Andy Griffith. Weirdly, it has a not terrible rating from IMDB. As usual with movies of this kind, the bad reviews are more interesting than the gushing ones.
See page below from TV Guide.