Reading Go Ask Alice—the so-called real diary, first published in 1971, of an anonymous girl who took drugs and died—is an experience so widely shared that there’s little point personalizing it. Everyone who encounters Go Ask Alice goes through the same four stages:
- Titillated horror, for the young reader, at the book’s dramatic depictions of drug use.
- Creeping suspicion, as the reader ages past adolescence, that there’s something fishy about the diarist’s life-destroying addiction to LSD and marijuana, not to mention the very premise that a diary kept by a homeless drug addict and “recorded on single sheets of paper, paper bags, etc.” was perfectly preserved for posthumous publication.
- Revelation, for the adult reader, that Go Ask Alice is not, in fact, a “real diary” but a fictional hoax written by a Mormon youth counselor named Beatrice Sparks whose other books included Jay’s Journal (the “real diary” of an anonymous boy who got involved in Satanism and died) and It Happened to Nancy (the “real diary” of an anonymous girl who got date-raped, caught AIDS, and died).
- Howling hilarity upon rereading the book in this context.
By now, the Go Ask Alice reader’s narrative is a comic genre unto itself. (For the best examples, see Paul F. Tompkins and Mallory Ortberg.) I will now add my own to the pile, if only to establish my credentials as the world’s foremost authority on Go Ask Alice.
The year was 1999. I was in the sixth grade, weeks away from turning twelve, and I made the mistake of bringing along only one book—that book being, of course, Go Ask Alice—on a two-week father-daughter boat trip to the Galápagos Islands. Picture that ship’s bunk: just me, my father, perhaps a pelican swooping past the porthole, and Go Ask Alice. The prose, even by sixth-grade standards, was not challenging, and within mere hours I’d read it to the end. I stared for a while at the final page (“Epilogue: The subject of this book died three weeks after her decision not to keep another diary”). Then, helplessly, I turned back to the first page (“Editor’s Note: Go Ask Alice is based on the actual diary of a fifteen-year-old drug user”) and reread the whole thing from the beginning. What else could I do?
It was not summer or Christmas or even spring break; it was February, and I was missing two weeks of school. I’d awkwardly cleared the situation with my teachers, all of whom were supportive (“Have a fantastic time! I’m so jealous!” my sweet English teacher wrote on my homework packet), and not one of whom dared to ask me the obvious question: Why?
This question troubled me, but I was hesitant to raise it with my parents. They’d been acting so strange lately—rarely appearing in the same room together, sometimes ignoring or snapping at me, other times confiding in me as though I were the world’s littlest marriage counselor. When they sat me down and told me they had something serious to discuss with me, I braced myself for the obvious. Instead, they presented me with this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play hooky from school and tour the Galápagos Islands—just my father and me!—while my mother and brother stayed home in New York. Wouldn’t I like that? “You love animals,” they kept reminding me, and I felt it would be churlish to clarify that I loved wolves, which were not to be found in any volcanic archipelago. I had little interest in island ecology. I didn’t even mind going to school.
Still, I fully understood that certain parental questions had an implicit correct answer, and that “Would you like to skip school for two weeks and tour the Galápagos Islands in a boat with your father?” was one such question. I answered it correctly, and off we went—in such haste, as I recall it, that I forgot to pack any reading material other than Go Ask Alice.
And so I read Go Ask Alice, and then I read it again, and again, and again. In my memory, Go Ask Alice is sulfurous and igneous. Go Ask Alice prickles with red Sally Lightfoot crabs on a sunbaked black moonscape. Go Ask Alice reeks of a thousand sea lions, writhing and moaning in an orgiastic heap. To read Go Ask Alice is to be sunburned and seasick and shitting my wet suit because I’ve picked up some sort of pants-shitting parasite that will linger in my intestines for a full month after my return to New York.
This is all to say that I essentially have Go Ask Alice memorized. I am not proud of this achievement; if anything, I resent it, because Go Ask Alice is a truly terrible book—aesthetically, pedagogically, morally. The writing is tin eared (“Like here I am in Denver”) and riotously unconvincing as the voice of a teenage girl (“I’m afraid to live and afraid to die, just like the old Negro spiritual. I wonder what their hang-up was?”). As antidrug propaganda, it’s so misinformed as to defeat its own purpose (“Anyone who says pot and acid are not addicting is a damn, stupid, raving idiot, unenlightened fool!”). The plot takes too long to get going, ends too abruptly, and has enough holes to trigger a trypophobe. In short, Go Ask Alice is bad in just about every way it’s possible for a book to be bad, and much has been written to this effect.
But there’s one aspect of the book that I’ve never seen discussed, perhaps because no one else has the text memorized from beginning to end: its unnamed narrator is bisexual and closeted.
It’s easy to misremember the book’s gay content, if one remembers it at all, as pure homophobia. The narrator catches her drug-dealer boyfriend in bed with another man, calls him “repulsive” and “a low class queer,” and subsequently reflects: “I had condemned Richie for being a frigging homo, but maybe I should have given even that mother a break. With the shit he was on every day, it’s no wonder he was out of control.” Later, she meets a fellow drug addict, of whom she reports: “An older teenage girl tuned her in and turned her on drugs, then took her the homo route.” There’s an easy joke in here about how drugs will turn you gay, and on the surface this does seem to be one of the warnings of what is, after all, a Mormon tract from 1971.
A closer reading, however—and I am nothing if not a close reader of Go Ask Alice—reveals that the narrator actually spends the entire diary consumed with anxiety that she herself might be queer, even before she starts using drugs. In one of the early entries meant to establish the all-American normalcy of our heroine before her fateful first encounter with LSD, the narrator contemplates her best friend:
Beth and I have only two more days together. Our parting is almost like looking forward to a death. It seems that I have known her always, for she understands me. I must admit that there were even times when her mother arranged dates for her that I was jealous of the boys. I hope it’s not strange for a girl to feel that way about another girl. Oh I hope not! Is it possible that I am in love with her? Oh, that’s dumb even for me.
Beth never reappears in the text (let me reiterate: this book is terrible), but as the narrator descends into drug addiction, her attraction to women—and her distress over it—only intensifies, culminating in an entry supposedly written during a “bummer” acid trip:
Now when I face a girl it’s like facing a boy. I get all excited and turned-on. I want to screw with the girl, you know, and then I get all tensed-up and scared. I feel goddamned good in a way and goddamned bad in a way. I want to get married and have a family, but I’m afraid … Sometimes I want one of the girls to kiss me. I want her to touch me, to have her sleep under me, but then I feel terrible. I get guilty and it makes me sick. Then I think of my mother. I think of screaming at her and telling her to make room for me because I’m coming home and I feel like a man.
And even toward the end of the book, when the narrator is in recovery from drug addiction, she struggles with her feelings for Babbie, another girl at the rehab center:
Tonight Babbie went down to the day-room to watch TV and I am jealous. Will I wind up a hard butch angry at some child who has given her affection to an old woman with a package of cigarettes to share with her?
This can’t be! It can’t be happening to me!
In a text littered with turns of phrase like “Oh those were the fun, fun times!” and “The fuzz has clamped down till the town is mother dry,” the narrator’s horror at her own sexuality—the violent intensity of her shame and self-disgust—stands out as uniquely visceral. It feels personal—it feels human—in a way that the rest of the book never does. It makes me wonder about Beatrice Sparks herself.
It’s also genuinely painful for me to read, even now—especially when I consider that Go Ask Alice was surely my first literary encounter with same-sex desire. You can see its influence, both stylistic and ideological, in an entry from my own seventh-grade diary, dated April 27, 2000:
What if I turn out to be lesbian? Everyone hates me. I wonder why I’m the only person in my grade who never wears a skirt? At the rate I’m going I’ll probably grow up to be some solitary gay freak … Am I oversexed? Am I bisexual? Am I suicidal?
(“Oversexed” is the giveaway here: I sound like a time traveler from 1971.)
At the time, though, I don’t think I made the connection. It certainly didn’t occur to me any more than it occurred to her that the narrator of Go Ask Alice was bisexual. The diary format allows for her moments of sexual self-insight to remain contained and unexamined, and she moves on from each one as if awakening from a harmless nightmare. Within the universe of the book, these moments don’t matter or add up to anything; none of it is worth acknowledging, let alone discussing. Like most of history’s fictional lesbians, the narrator of Go Ask Alice dies at the end—by her own hand, it’s suggested—and the question of her sexuality dies with her.
But it continues to haunt me. Why did the author introduce it at all? Why?
When I think of how this book has lingered within me like a pants-shitting parasite, the whole thing becomes a lot less funny, and to this day I have trouble laughing at Go Ask Alice. Sometimes, in fact, the very title sends me into a raw, childlike rage. Sometimes I think about Go Ask Alice and find myself eleven years old again, bobbing in the Pacific, staring out the porthole, sunburned and seasick and seething with the question: Why? Why do adults lie to children? (This is a real diary. Marijuana is dangerously addictive. It’s sick and wrong to feel that way about another girl—but if you ignore it, it doesn’t mean anything. This trip will be fun. We’re not getting a divorce. Everything is fine.) Why won’t they tell the truth?
Frankie Thomas is the author of The Showrunner, which received special mention in the 2013 Pushcart Prize Anthology. Her writing has also appeared in The Toast, The Hairpin, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. She is currently studying fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.