A Thorough Exposé of a Literary Fraud and a Podcast-to-Book on Cults

When I was growing up, Go Ask Alice, the “true diary” of an anonymous teen girl, nicknamed Alice, was still an ubiquitous must-read despite being released in 1971, already decades old at that point.

It’s a salacious, haphazard diary of a young girl who is dosed once with LSD at a high school party, from there becoming a runaway heroin-addicted sex worker. Quite the leap, in other words. As a 12-year-old this didn’t wave any red flags for me, but as an adult my bullshit detector is beeping like crazy.

Alice’s trajectory just gets worse from there, as the diarist spirals further into a horror show depiction of an addict’s life. It’s essentially propaganda for the War on Drugs.

Although credited to Anonymous, most later editions carried the note of being “edited” by Beatrice Sparks. In Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the Worlds Most Notorious Diaries, former radio host Rick Emerson deep-dives into the utterly wild story behind the faked — yes, completely fake — diary and the other volumes Sparks wrote and pushed as being real despite their total fabrication.

That is, with the exception of one, the notorious Jay’s Journal, which does contain real diary entries from a teen boy, Alden, in Utah who died by suicide. His mother gave his journal to Sparks, believing that Alice was real and Sparks could help bring attention to her son’s struggles. Instead, Sparks hopped on the Satanic Panic bandwagon and wove Alden’s entries into an absurd, fantastical account of occultism run rampant in a small town. It would ruin Alden’s family’s lives and completely overshadow the memory of his own.

Although it took me a while to get into this one, once it winds up and gets going, it’s not only astounding in what it covers but unputdownable. Every chapter has some new, shocking revelation about both Sparks’ actions and the era that made them possible, involving everyone from Richard Nixon to Art Linkletter.

Sparks is a con artist of almost impressive degree, and the effort it would’ve taken to expose her many, many lies and fabrications is almost laughably minimal (per Emerson: “Beatrice Sparks was no more a psychologist than she was a Sasquatch, and even a lazy editor could have unraveled the lies with a single phone call.”)

And yet she suckered everyone from the New York Times to major publishing houses to the National Book Awards. Her books remain bestsellers, and if a quick scan through my Goodreads friends proves anything, even adults still believe they’re authentic (groans to infinity).

If these were now clearly designated as fiction it would be mildly less egregious, but nevertheless I think the overt messaging of Sparks’ books (thoroughly explained here but in a nutshell: Mormonism + America’s hobby of pearl-clutching; see also: abortion) is incredibly damaging (Unmask Alice also covers the enraging entry in Sparks’ library of bullshit It Happened to Nancy, a moralistic cautionary tale of a teenage girl who contracted HIV after being raped, which apparently progressed into AIDS at lightning speed until she died) and the extent of the fraud behind them deserves to be wider known and mentioned in the same breath as Alice every time. 4/5

published July 5 by BenBella Books. I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.
Used or new @ SecondSale.com

Cults: Inside the World’s Most Notorious Groups and Understanding the People Who Joined Them, by Max Cutler with Kevin Conley Used or new @ SecondSale.com

Springboarding from his Parcast podcast also titleed Cults, Cutler has done the done thing for popular podcasts and written a book. I’ve never listened to this podcast, but if you write a book about cults, I will read it.

The authors profile ten notorious cult leaders: Charles Manson, Adolfo de Jesús Constanzo, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Jim Jones, Claude Vorilhon (better known as Raël), Roch Thériault, David Koresh, Keith Raniere, Credonia Mwerinde, and Marshall Applewhite. All of these were familiar to me besides Mwerinde, the more obscure ones thanks to Last Podcast on the Left.

I did enjoy revisiting a few of these stories, like the Rajneeshees and Raëlism, always a wild story that deserves more attention, but I Constanzo and Thériault in particular are two that I find difficult to stomach. They’re especially gory and brutal and left me feeling queasy and very sad. I’d listened to both of these on Last Podcast but because I always absorb less from listening to a story as opposed to reading it, the brutality didn’t sink in as much. I preferred it that way.

The highlight here is when the authors apply some psychological principles and analysis to the cult leader’s behavior and to that of their followers. I found this well done and firmly rooted in sound research, especially as they acknowledge where something is a possibility but can’t be definitively known or diagnosed. Something I always want more of in any cult story is the how and why of it — if anyone really can be susceptible to a charismatic, manipulative leader, show me how that process works. That’s rarely effectively done in cult stories, but here I felt it was, although it could’ve been even more extensive.

These mini-biographies of the cults do read kind of Wikipedia-like and can be dry in spots, but reading Wikipedia for fun is also ok sometimes. But like most other podcast-inspired books I’ve read (except for Zealot‘s, also covering some of these same cults, but I’m biased because of Jo Thornely’s delightful sense of humor) my primary issue is that it did leave me wondering what the point of this podcast-to-book was. It’s perfectly fine reiterated storytelling, but why? Especially when a co-author was necessary — for this? Really? 3/5

published July 12 by Gallery Books. I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

17 thoughts on “A Thorough Exposé of a Literary Fraud and a Podcast-to-Book on Cults

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    1. I did too! As young people we didn’t have enough frame of reference for it, I think. To re-examine it as an adult is pretty shocking, even without the fraud story behind it. It’s so wildly unlikely, the dialogue is laughable, it’s outright homophobic…this was so eye opening!

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  1. I never read Go Ask Alice but lots of my peers were reading it in high school. I didn’t know it was fake! I see that it and two other Sparks titles are still on my e-library list and being checked out , without any notice that they are fakes. Shameful. Publishers should be better about corroborating such sensationalistic stories, but I guess they are as eager as the author to make money off of them.

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    1. I’d heard that it was fake years ago, when I worked in a bookstore during college, but I didn’t know the details. Shameful is a good word for it. Her use of actual journals for the other book is even worse (still sold in a box set together with Alice). Her publisher made no effort to confirm her claims that It Happened to Nancy was fact checked by someone with a medical background from an AIDS/HIV organization. It’s all incredibly gross and disappointing.

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  2. I have never heard of this Alice, and it seems I am probably better off without her. The good thing is that someone has revealed the truth. Cults are always fascinating, but rather depressing. One wonders what makes people tick towards these kind of communities.

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      1. You know how it is like. You have never heard about someone, or something, and then… just a few days after the name pops up again. This happened with the book about Alice. A Swedish blog I am following who is blogging about news etc in the publishing word, just mentioned this new book and the truth about the story. Maybe have to check it up.

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      2. I know exactly what you mean! Actually I’ve noticed this book getting a lot of publicity this week too, and I’m really glad about that. So many important books fall through the cracks, but it’s about time this fraud was better known! The book is a very entertaining read too, I can highly recommend it even if you’re not familiar with the original book!

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  3. Added Unmask Alice to my TBR list. Never heard of Go Ask Alice book, as well as a fraud it sounds completely ridiculous. Spiked with LSD and then straight to heroin! Yeah right, I had sherry trifle as a child and immediately I was drinking a bottle of vodka a day…the cult book I will avoid as I made the mistake of looking up Theriault on Wiki and then wished I hadn’t…you did warn us!

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    1. It’s amazing what we believed as kids, like I don’t remember anything about that book being questionable to me and then to see it examined as an adult was so laughable! Also the dialogue is completely hilarious, I can only imagine as a kid I thought that’s just what 70s-era people talked like.

      The only benefit of the cult book was that I had that song in my head about cult shows that you sent me awhile ago, remember? 🤣😭

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    1. Oh I’m surprised that you escaped it! Although you got lucky, I think. It is really awful, and I’ve been happy to see some news articles popping up around this book too, not just in the bookish community — it should be widely known!

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  4. It looks like you have a penchant for literary (and other) hoaxes. I’m amazed at what length people can go to fool other people and it always keeps me wondering: why? Megalomania? Greed? Propaganda for hidden agendas? Or all of that together?

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  5. omg I had not realized that about Go Ask Alice (but haven’t thought much about it since I read it when I was much younger). I’m definitely going to have to pick up Unmask Alice!

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  6. I find it very interesting that there are so few nonfiction classics and yet Go Ask Alice, which is actually fiction, was such a hit for such a long time! It does look like it’s labeled fiction on goodreads now and several of the top reviews mention that it’s faked, so hopefully efforts like the book you read are helping make people more aware of the actual origins of this book.

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    1. That’s such an interesting point, I didn’t even think about that – that there are so few nonfiction classics! And for one of the top young adult ones to be fake is really so sad. I was excited to see a lot of media coverage around this book this month, so I hope it’ll be the nail in the coffin of this thing being considered a true story!

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