Go Ask Alice: An awesome YA novel (if you ask me)

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Go Ask Alice is the “diary” of an “anonymous” teenage girl whose life, documented from age 15 to 17, is dominated by her downward spiral into drug addiction. Published in 1971, this realistic, young adult problem novel remains one of the most popular YA books of all time.

Although the book was originally marketed as the true diary of an actual teenage girl, it has since been revealed to be a work of fiction. It opens: Go Ask Alice is based on the actual diary of a fifteen-year-old drug user. It is not a definitive statement on the middle-class, teenage drug world. It does not offer any solutions. It is, however, a highly personal and specific chronicle. As such, we hope it will provide insights into the increasingly complicated world in which we live. Names, dates, places and certain events have been changed in accordance with the wishes of those concerned. ~ The Editors

Like many teen girls, the protagonist confides her inner most thoughts and secrets to her diary. In terms of craft, since the story is written in first person and in diary form, “Alice” is presented to us as her life unfolds naturally, with observations both dramatic and insignificant. She speaks directly to the reader and her relaxed, sometimes exaggerated, adolescent tone makes her experiences, while at times foreign to many readers, seem authentic, truthful and realistic.

The protagonist’s language plays a big part in her authenticity. It stayed consistently teen-like from the very first page when she writes: “I thought I’d literally and completely die with happiness” all the way to her final entry two years later when she writes: “Diaries are great when you’re young. In fact, you’ve saved my sanity a hundred, thousand, million times.”

The protagonist’s name is never actually revealed in the book. According to Wikipedia, it is believed that Go Ask Alice got its name from the 1967 Jefferson Airplane song White Rabbit which includes the lyrics: “Go ask Alice when she’s ten feet tall.” Grace Slick, one of the band’s lead singers, wrote the song after noticing possible drug references in Lewis Carroll’s classic novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (AKA: Alice in Wonderland), first published in 1865. The connection is spelled out for us on page 36 of Go Ask Alice, when in Alice’s July 14th entry, she writes: “I feel like Alice in Wonderland. Maybe Lewis G. Carroll was on drugs, too.”

Though the byline says “Anonymous,” the US Copyright Office lists Beatrice Sparks as the sole author, although her name is found nowhere on the book itself. According to Wikipedia, “Beatrice Sparks (1917–2012) was an American therapist and Mormon youth counselor who was known for producing books purporting to be the ‘real diaries’ of troubled teenagers.”

In Wild Ink: How to Write Fiction for Young Adults, Victoria Handley identifies and defines the following common characteristics of YA literature: Age of Protagonist, Coming of Age, Passion, Honesty, Independence, Wild Exploration and Breakdown/Breakthrough. There is no question that Go Ask Alice contains each of these qualities, or that the story itself as well as its messages are clearly driven by Alice’s wild exploration and her breakdowns/breakthroughs.

The protagonist predominantly explores the world of drugs and through a string of breakdowns the reader is able to see the damage the drugs are doing to her mentally and physically. On page 163, after she vowed again to never touch drugs, while babysitting Alice eats some chocolate covered peanuts which we learn later were laced with acid. After going into a fit of rage, she is locked in a closet where she self-mutilates. She is hospitalized and later institutionalized. She writes: “The whole ends of my fingers have been torn off and two nails have been pulled out completely and the others torn down almost in half.” In addition to the physical breakdown, she is experiencing a mental breakdown, as well: “The worms are eating away at my female parts first. They have almost entirely eaten away at my vagina and my breasts and now they are working their way to my mouth and throat. I wish the doctors and nurses would let my soul die, but they are still experimenting with trying to reunite the body and the spirit.”

Alice’s breakthroughs are few and far between but her intentions to stop doing drugs are made clear multiple times in the novel. Sadly, each time she succumbs to her addiction.

On page 14 of In Writing and Selling the YA Novel, K.L. Going writes: “Writing for teens isn’t easy. It’s a balancing act—weighing what’s relevant with what’s timeless—but if you can do this, you can succeed in any genre.”

Go Ask Alice was published in 1971 and some of references in the book suggest a timeline from 1968 until 1970, yet today’s teens are still reaching for it, reading it and talking to their friends about it. With well over a million copies in print, it has become a classic piece of YA literature. It addresses difficult themes and it successfully makes its points. This powerful realistic faux-diary of a teenager’s struggle with the seductive and often fatal world of drugs and addiction tells the truth about drugs in an authentic, never preachy voice. The book is influential and it challenges the conceptions of YA literature by tackling powerful young adult themes, like drug addiction and sex, without bothering to sugar coat consequences. Drugs and sex have always been and will always be hot topics for teens and will probably always be considered taboo topics by many adults. Through its no-holds-barred, realistic depiction of one teen’s journey into drug addiction and sex, Go Ask Alice has advanced the field of YA lit.

On page 531 of Literature for Adolescents—Pap or Protein? Frank G. Jennings writes: “Here are young people, trembling on the threshold of adulthood. They want to know what it is like to hope and fail, to suffer, to die, to love wastefully. They want to have spelled out some of the awful consequences of going against society’s grain. They want to dare greatly.”

I first read Go Ask Alice as an eighth grader attending a Catholic elementary school in inner city Philadelphia. My best friend Nicole talked it up and then finally lent me her copy when she was finished with it. I remember being anxious to get my hands on it. To me, it was exciting and scandalous, since the book was not available in our school’s library and I knew the content was pretty much off limits for someone my age. While my parents weren’t typically the types to censor my reading, I assumed they wouldn’t approve if they knew so I snuck around to read it.

On page 42 of Writing & Selling the YA Novel, Going writes: “W.H. Auden said, ‘Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.’”

I remember being blown away by this young girl’s diary, which at the time I truly believed to be real. I related to Alice’s desire to fit in and her issues with her body. Most teenage girls would. I was captivated by her firsthand account of how she first got introduced to drugs and sex and how both spiraled out of control until she was addicted to various drugs and having casual sex with complete strangers. Alice’s experiences fascinated and scared me.

When Alice is sober, she writes almost every day about her life and her goals but when she’s on drugs, there are large gaps between entries and many entries are undated. Alice goes from writing about normal teen girl things like friendships and boys to documenting in a broken matter-of-fact way her recollection of being raped and how good the drugs made her feel.

In addition to being a cautionary tale about the evils of drugs, Go Ask Alice is also a book about loneliness, depression, fitting in and finding one’s place in the world. As Alice’s family moved around, young Alice started at a new school in the middle of the year and she struggled to make and keep friends. Like many young adults, she felt insecure and struggled with her weight and appearance. She perceived her siblings to be more attractive and popular and because of this she believed her parents loved them more. She felt alone and like an outcast at school and at home. In multiple entries, Alice writes: “I wish I had someone to talk to.”

Whether or not teens can relate to Alice’s world and circumstances, most are able to relate to her mindset and her emotions. At twelve, I was curious about drugs and sex. While I hadn’t yet done either, some of my friends had and I was aware that I could if I’d wanted to. Living in the city, in a densely populated neighborhood, I certainly had access if I’d wanted to try either. But, unlike Alice, I knew I had people to talk to. I could talk to my parents—though like many teens in my situation, I didn’t always take advantage of that and more often than not I got my information from my friends. Still I knew I was loved and that my family was there for me if and when I needed them. But even with a good family and friends, there were still plenty of times when I felt alone, lonely and different, and when I struggled to fit in just like Alice. Every teen feels this way and some of the things that happened to Alice could happen to anyone.

This book made a huge impact on me as an adolescent. I remember how I felt when Alice’s life began to unravel and how scared I was for her when she ran away. I was so happy when her parents welcomed her back only to be devastated again when she wound up institutionalized. I believed her when she vowed to never touch drugs again in her final journal entry. And I cried when I read the epilogue and learned she died from an overdose three weeks later.

Because of its explicit drug and sex references, Go Ask Alice has been banned from many school libraries. According to Wikipedia: “The American Library Association listed Go Ask Alice as number 23 on its list of the 100 most frequently challenged books of the 1990s. The book was number 8 on the most challenged list in 2001 and up to number 6 in 2003. The dispute over the book’s authorship does not seem to have played any role in these censorship battles.”

This is a book that has the ability to make a difference with young readers. Even though it was written in the 1960s and much of the language and plot reflects those times, the protagonist’s story is still relevant today.
Addiction, drugs, sex, rebellion and fitting in are timeless young adult topics. And while I understand some parents may not want their teens to read it because of its mature themes and language, teenagers are who need to read Go Ask Alice.

Twelve-year-old me read this book and was totally freaked out! I did not want to be like Alice. Reading it again at 37, the book still affected me. Sure, I’m an adult now and as such my perspective is entirely different. But I still cried for Alice. And now, I can look back over my life and see how her story influenced me. I definitely had Alice in the back of my mind when I encountered similar situations in my teen years to those she faced in the book, and I proceeded with caution. Seeing what happened to her positively influenced me to walk a different path.

Even though I believed the book to be a real diary written by a real girl back when I first read it, I’m not sure it would’ve been any less impactful had I known it had actually been written by an adult. Rereading the story as an adult I still found Alice’s voice authentic and even knowing what I know now, that the book was written by Beatrice Sparks, I still pictured a young girl in my head. The protagonist, whether or not she was based on a real person, still felt real to me and her thoughts and actions grabbed and kept my attention. On page 59 of Writing & Selling the YA Novel, Going writes: “Active characters are endlessly fascinating because we’re always wondering what they’ll do next. It’s easy to feel as though we know them well, and when a reader feels like they know a character in the same way they know a real person, they’ll invest in loving him, hating him, rooting for him, or laughing with him. Active characters shape the plot through the choices they make, and their desires create mirrored desires in the audience.”

Like most teens, Alice knows she shouldn’t do drugs. But once she tries them she immediately wants more and she becomes increasingly more curious about different drugs. As her appetite grows, so does her addiction. Soon she goes from dabbling to dealing. Not only can the reader see the effects of drugs through Alice’s deterioration as the book progresses but after each drug relapse she goes on and on about the dangers of drugs and promises herself each time that this time will be her last. But the addiction overpowers her and the drugs win every time.

On page 53 of Writing & Selling the YA Novel, Going writes: “Watching what a character does or does not do can reveal what she wants and help create a fuller sense of who she is both physically and emotionally. This is especially true when we reveal the reasons behind her actions.” After a string of horrific experiences, Alice reveals her desire to become a social worker and someday counsel kids about the evils of drugs. She wants to do better but the drugs are too powerful and her addiction to them keeps sucking her back in.

Above all else, Go Ask Alice is an effective cautionary tale. Rather than lecture the reader about the perils of addiction, it draws our attention to the protagonist and through her internal dialogue, her thoughts, feelings, actions and experiences, it screams: “Don’t do drugs!”

On page 52 of Writing & Selling the YA Novel, Going writes: “In Nancy Lamb’s The Writer’s Guide to Crafting stories for Children, she writes: ‘What happens to characters—how they suffer and celebrate, how they meet challenges, overcome obstacles and find redemption—is the heart and soul and spirit of story.’”

Alice’s battle with drugs and her journey through addiction, saturated with repeated mistakes and painful suffering, made her a sympathetic and, at times, frustrating character. She knew what she was doing was wrong and yet she just couldn’t seem to stay straight long enough to save herself. Still Alice’s most redeeming quality was her desire to overcome her own addictions so that she could someday become a social worker and help others to avoid making the mistakes she’d made. In a heartbreaking twist, Alice never actually reaches that goal.

When I look back at my youth and think about some of the choices I made and the lessons I learned from reading Go Ask Alice, I truly believe, in some profound way, Alice fulfilled her destiny to help others. Her story certainly helped me.

Works Cited:
Anonymous. Go Ask Alice. Simon Pulse. New York. Print. 1971.
Going, K.L. Writing & Selling the YA Novel. Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books. 2008.
Handley, Victoria. Wild Ink: How to Write Fiction for Young Adults. Prufrock Press. 2010.
Jennings. Frank., Literature for Adolescents–Pap or Protein? Source: The English Journal, Vol. 45, No. 9. (526-531). National Council of Teachers of English. 1956.
Wikipedia. Web site. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beatrice_Sparks
Wikipedia. Web site. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Go_Ask_Alice

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