1971's Go Ask Alice was a watershed moment in popular culture. The literary equivalent of a found footage horror movie, the novel, written by "Anonymous," was purported to be the abandoned diary of a young teenager, whose drug abuse spiraled so out of control that the only thing she left behind barring any semblance of her soul was a bafflingly-detailed and suspiciously well-written diary. In reality, it was written by Beatrice Sparks, a Mormon therapist and author who would go on to capitalize on the book's stratospheric popularity by penning similar diary-cum-novels ('cum novels' might serve as a solid subgenre name, but I digress). Sparks claimed to have solely served as the book's editor, having met "the diarist" during her tenure as a youth counselor.
Two years after the runaway success of the book, it was adapted into a television movie for ABC, finding its rightful place in the pre-Lifetime canon of "very special episodes" turned into primetime movies. Go Ask Alice stars no less than William Shatner, who gets top billing as the film's patriarch. But its focus is fifteen-year-old Alice, played by Jamie Smith-Jackson, whose name is so fucking insane I'm almost positive she was in witness protection at the time of the filming.
Much the same way that the Monster in Mary Shelly's Frankenstein is often colloquially referred to by the doctor's name, the writer of the diary was purposefully left unnamed, a placeholder for any version of "us." But more than anything else, it conjures the titular blonde of Lewis Carroll's invention, who burrows down the rabbit hole, emerging on the other side of a twisted wonderland a little worse for the ware. That same character is referenced in Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," the opening notes of which launch us into this film adaptation headfirst.
The ABC special opens with Alice running her fingers along a series of diaries as the lines from the book's opening pages narrate. "I guess I'm buying you because I finally feel I have something worthwhile to say," Alice explains in voiceover, "and it feels important that I have a place to be me, and to say what I really think." Alice and her family are recent transplants and her mother loves their new house; her brother Tim has already made a couple new friends. Alice, meanwhile, is keeping her hopes up but her expectations low — her own mother calls her a drag (!). "I'll do just fine in school," she says, "as long as I can keep my weight down." (As brutally manipulative as anti-drug propaganda usually is, I couldn't help but feel a pang of authentic sadness over the fact that body image issues pervaded teen life even in the era of free love. So it goes...)
It doesn't take long for the typical specter of teen anxiety to rear its head. Alice befriends another quiet classmate, Beth, only for her to run off to camp for the summer, leaving our protagonist back at square one. It's during her first full summer in town, having been momentarily abandoned by her only friend, that Alice finds drugs — or rather, they find her, as she unknowingly takes a swig of LSD-infused soda casually being handed out at a party. Soon, Alice is tripping, her inner monologue taking on new resonance as it sounds less like the entries of her diary and more like the default consciousness of a '70s teen coming to fruition.
"At first, I felt totally cut off from everyone, and thought that I was dying very slowly," she says later in her trip. "And I knew that no one in the world outside me could help. It was so frightening, and I wanted to die. But then the ugliness left, and everything became new and beautiful. After that, I felt I'd found the perfect true, original language. My mind seemed to possess all the wisdom of the ages. And for the first time in my life, I felt beautiful."
From there, Go Ask Alice follows both the typical trajectory of the coming-of-age narrative, as well as the worse-case-scenario playbook of all anti-drug fare. Alice falls for a boy who enables her drug use, and finds it confusing when he all but ignores her while he's sober. She becomes more irritable at home, defensive and angry at her parents when they find pills in her room. Her drug use gets worse, and begins to infiltrate her day-to-day life. "Whenever I get hungry or tired, I just pop a benny," she says. "It's uppers at school and downers at home, and the uppers to help with the downers."
Seeing the typical beats of a propaganda film meet the adaptation of this book manages to bridge a gap that I didn't even notice existed prior. Propaganda films were often delivered into the hands of adults, who would then go about using the text as fodder for their anti-drug lecturing. Go Ask Alice is an early example of anti-drug propaganda that all but cuts out the middleman and speaks directly to the kids themselves. It doesn't aide adult finger-wagging; it attempts to all but replace it. To date, the book has sold upward of 5 million copies during its four decades in print. As always, the question becomes how much of the youth's engagement with drug stories is moral cleansing vs. a kind of sensational rubbernecking. Sales have yet to stagnate, and in a way Go Ask Alice might prove that the limitations of drug propaganda are that kids are fascinated by the chaos of rock bottom more than they are scared of it.
The book's popularity has much to do with the inherent mystery at its center — who is this writer, and what exactly happened to "Anonymous"? — tapping into the same sensation that the true crime genre continues to get at today. But as a screed against drug use, the anonymity of its protagonist in the book is a crucial detail to leave behind. For all its failures as a work of worthwhile fiction, Go Ask Alice was an interesting case study in projection. With an ambiguous protagonist, one reads the book imagining someone they know, someone they love, or maybe even themselves. But when portrayed by a living, breathing actress, that suspension of disbelief is traded for the same thing all propaganda films lean on: empathy.
Yet Sparks's book is fundamentally a work of anti-drug hysteria, using totems of the counterculture as a means to discredit the allure of drugs and, in some ways, to challenge the transient lifestyle associated with the leftover hippies of the early 1970s. By trading in the book's ability to rope you in as a reader — essentially scaring you stiff by having you imagine, say, yourself as the wayward teen — the film loses its center. Instead, like most propaganda films, Alice becomes about some 'other.' The film's sense of moral panic surrounding the children of the '70s outweighs your empathy for the protagonist. She becomes less of a person and more of a cause. In one particularly clever shot, Alice is running away from town on a bus and sits next to a girl with the same long blonde hair, army green jacket, and feigned confidence as her, implying than an entire generation of girls were the same all over, interchangeable as both people and victims.
When Alice catches her boyfriend cheating on her — a bizarre conflation of teen melodrama and "free love" practice — she runs away from home and takes said bus, somehow bouncing around from Dallas to Phoenix to Los Angeles. (Side tangent: As someone raised by an Iranian mother, I can tell you that the fact that Alice ran away from home in a hissy-fit and didn't have her ass handed to her by her mother when she walked back through that door is proof positive that white people are insane. If I'd even tried to finesse a dramatic exit across state lines, a drug overdose would be the cover-up my family would use after literally murdering me). But, spoiler alert, Alice does indeed die. The diary in Go Ask Alice functions a bit like Anne Frank's, a testy comparison to be sure, but a way to say that one goes in knowing full well that they're holding this diary in their hands because it tragically slipped out of someone else's.
And that someone is Alice/Anonymous, who turns her whole life around at the very end of the film. The TV movie drops some of the book's more infamously lurid details, instead merely insinuating Alice's dabbling in prostitution. Yet even with her senior year glow-up — we last see Alice clean and sober, having abandoned her diary as she enters her last year of high school confident — the film ends on a mercilessly tragic note. Alice's mom completes the voiceover, telling us that Alice overdosed shortly after deciding she didn't need to write in her diary anymore. She was one of 5,000 drug-related deaths that year, according to the film. Where those stats were pulled from remains murky, as does everything related to the story's origins and subject. But if there is anything that we learn from Go Ask Alice, it's that you write first and ask questions later.
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