In 1971, the YA book Go Ask Alice hit shelves and almost immediately set off a firestorm. Purportedly the real-life diary of a straitlaced teen girl who lost her life to drugs, it was an instant hit, touted by critics across the country as a must-read for parents and teenagers alike. Over the ensuing decades, it sold tens of millions of copies — beloved by teens for its frenetic entries about taboo subjects, and by adults because it was a text they could point to as proof of the ills of drugs. But by the early 21st century, questions had arisen about the book’s veracity, as well as the true identity of its “anonymous” author — something only known by the book’s editor, a supposed child psychologist named Beatrice Sparks.
It was Sparks who captured Rick Emerson’s imagination one day back in 2015. Driving home from lunch, Emerson — who wasn’t born when the book came out, but lived through the Reagan-Era D.A.R.E. classes and War on Drugs it helped to fuel — began wondering about the mysterious author. Who was she, really? Where could he find out more about her? When he got home, he realized that the book he wanted to read didn’t exist, so he set out to write it himself. What he discovered was more shocking than he could have imagined. “Go Ask Alice was the bright, shiny object that started the story,” he tells Rolling Stone. “But then it got much bigger, much faster.”
In short, Emerson found something that one of her follow-up YA books, Jay’s Journal, an equally suspicious “diary” of a teen boy’s descent into occultism and suicide, may have helped ignite that other late-20th-century moral freak-out: the Satanic Panic, a two-decade span of Americans blaming the devil and occultists for everything from depression to suicide and murder. “As I worked my way from the outside in, [I realized] the shadow and the scope and the scale that these books had, especially combined,” he says. “It went literally from Hollywood to the Oval Office to Quantico, and then into high schools in small towns throughout America.”
Seven years since that idea popped into his head, Emerson has finally published Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter behind the World’s Most Notorious Diaries, out this month from BenBella Books. Based on intensive research — scouring Sparks’ personal letters; conducting dozens of interviews with those who knew the real families who lost children, and with the families themselves; meticulously picking through Sparks’ other books, as well as their source material — he’s created a portrait of a fabulist so intent on spinning her legend that she stole the stories of others for her own gain. But in telling the real stories, he also brings a sort of justice for the kids and their families whose experiences had been exploited for profit.