Go Ask Alice

Go Ask Alice

While some people believe that Go Ask Alice is not a true diary after all, but the wholly or partly fictional work of Beatrice Sparks (one of the book's editors and the author of several fictional teen "diaries"), the diary indisputably evokes the drug and sex-saturated atmosphere of the late 1960s. After several underground and some mainstream movements—think of Elvis Presley, James Dean, and the Beat writers—punctured the conformist bubble of the 1950s, the baby-boomers of the 1960s were ready to join the revolution.  Easier access to drugs and birth control and an unpopular war in Vietnam only solidified their desires as they followed the mantra of mad scientist Timothy Leary to tune in, turn on, and drop out.  Society was divided along generational lines between the powerful establishment of old, white men and the insurgent counterculture.

Alice is caught in the midst of the societal struggle, and her diary reflects her experiences and feelings.  She harbors conventional bourgeois aspirations, such as marriage, and also disdains the hypocrisy of the establishment that makes it easier for minors to acquire illegal drugs than alcohol.  She grows long, straight hippie-style hair and uses the informal language of the counterculture (e.g. "Dig, man?") Her experiments with drugs—including marijuana, the one she has heard so much about, and LSD—are the substances that privileged white teens had newfound access to in the 60s, and her sexual exploits exhibit the new Sexual Revolution. Still, the book is oddly sealed off from the rest of 60s culture.  Alice hardly mentions listening to music, not once naming artists like Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, or even The Beatles as contributors to societal or personal protest and experimentation.  More glaring is the omission of the Vietnam war, discussed only briefly between Alice and her father; Alice's most political act is attending an unspecified rally where she does drugs.  While this may simply have been Alice's route, many supposed rebels in the counterculture did little more than jump on the bandwagon and use revolutionary politics as an excuse for hedonism.

Go Ask Alice is also an epistolary work, a narrative constructed by letters (in this case, diary entries.)  Many of the earliest novels in the English language were epistolary—Samuel Richardson's Pamela, for instance—and Go Ask Alice adapts the style for its modern needs.  Assuming the book is a real diary, Alice is presented to us as she really was, with observations and experiences both dramatic and insignificant, as her life unfolds naturally.  If the book is fictional, or a fictionalized diary, the author still allows Alice to speak in her own highly plausible language, with a first-person account that makes her experiences, foreign to some readers, sympathetic and realistic to others.  In the tradition of other first-person coming-of-age novels, such as Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn,  J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and Russell Banks's Rule of the Bone, Alice speaks directly to the reader.  As is Salinger's underlying intent of having the alienated Holden Caulfield connect most deeply with his reader, Alice (or Beatrice Sparks—and it doesn't really matter in the end) fulfills her goal of becoming a social worker through her first-person direct address.

Alice

Alice begins as a typical adolescent whose insecurities about sex, her appearance, her parents, and her social standing are fairly common.  She could be any middle-class girl from the 1960s, and her death, just one of thousands that year, drives this point home.  However, her observations and emotions are filtered through her rather uncommon prose in her beloved diary.  She seeks someone who will understand her, someone she can open up to and, finding it in no one, dives into the world of drugs and the counterculture.  There, she is able to connect at times with others but only through the haze of drugs; more often, she is betrayed and victimized by cruel predators.  With support from her family and Joel, she eventually learns to open up to others.

Alice also tries to find herself, a difficult job for an adolescent at any time, not least in the rebellious 1960s.  Her initial decision to do drugs is rebellious and escapist, as much a push away from her parents as a pull towards the novelty of experience.  As she suffers painful episode after painful episode, she realizes that drugs cause more hardship than they alleviate, especially when she becomes interested in what has caused her, and others, to run away from home. Notwithstanding a few lapses, she devotes herself to being good and joins her two former problems—that of communicating and of finding her own identity—in her dream to become a social worker.  Her experience takes on a religious aspect, as she redeems herself with the desire to transform her own suffering into sacrifice for others.

"Diary"

While not an actual character, Alice personifies her diary—she calls it "Diary," as many people who keep diaries do, but she refers to it as her friend and writes to it in a conversational style as if she were speaking to it.  It is the repository of all her thoughts and the only thing that travels with her through her journey—from her carefully noted first diary at home to dateless scraps of paper on the road to cryptic descriptions from a mental hospital.  Alice seeks most of all someone to talk to, and the diary fulfills this better than any person, promoting her expressive prose style with its ever- ready blank page. She feels she hides her identity when with others, but with Diary, she can be her true self.  As she gets further into the counterculture, drugs supplant the diary as the focal point of her life, but she always maintains her devotion to it.  The diary's triumph comes at the end since Alice discards it in favor of wanting to share herself with other people—the tool that enables Alice to better communicate and understand herself has served its purpose.

The diary also functions as the engine for Go Ask Alice's epistolary narrative (a narrative composed of letters.)  The epistolary novel, especially one in which the protagonist addresses only herself, allows us deeper insight into the character's emotional world. Many novels, in particular coming-of-age works, use some kind of device to allow a first-person narrative that does not seem as if the protagonist has somehow magically transcribed his thoughts to a page—note Holden Caulfield's revelation that he has been telling his story to a psychiatrist in The Catcher in the Rye.  Go Ask Alice, whether or not it is a true diary as it claims, accomplishes this task and makes it all the more real and immediate through the diary.

Parents

Alice's parents devote themselves to her recovery each time she returns home, though they are a major part of the reason Alice continues to leave—until the end, she never feels as if she can fully open up to them about anything important, from her drug use to her fears about sex.  They have few flaws, being upstanding, cultured citizens, but that is precisely the point: the child of even the best parent can fall into drugs, as lines of communication are not always as open as they seem, and society can injure children in ways parents cannot help.  Alice is at war with herself over whether to follow or rebel from their middle-class example and often wonders how devoted they are to their family or to their social standing.  Her father, especially, stands at the crossroads of ambition and family; an up-and-coming professor, he fears Alice's hippie lifestyle will tarnish the family's reputation and ruin his chances at the university presidency, yet he drops everything whenever Alice is in trouble.  Her mother's nagging, too, reveals anxiety about the family's image and is a force behind Alice's alienation.  By the end, however, both learn to treat Alice with more respect and as an adult, and Alice responds accordingly.  As Alice reads elsewhere, they discover that parenting means allowing one's child to make enough decisions for herself.

Difficulty of Communication

Alice begins her diary because she has no one else to talk to, and she spends her energy searching not for drugs, but for someone who understands her.  The drugs only create the temporary illusion that she is in touch with nature and people. Fortunately, Alice is a gifted writer, lacing her unhappy vision of the world with poetic, sensitive language.  Her diary becomes the personified "Diary," and Alice feels only Diary knows who she is underneath her social posture.  Her string of friendships—Greta, Beth, Chris—are ongoing attempts to find a best friend, each time believing this person is the one who will truly know Alice (ultimately, Joel fulfills this role.)  Her inability to share herself completely with them, let alone her family, is the greatest factor in Alice's descent into drugs.  Even throughout her various recoveries, Alice cannot open up fully to her parents.  Her discussions with teen runaways and experiences in group therapy at the mental hospital help Alice learn about the difficulty of communication, and galvanizes her dreams of becoming a social worker.  As the therapy leaders put it, when thoughts are kept inside they are "magnified" and "distorted."  Alice has reservations about prying into the teens' lives, but her discomfort is a sign that she understands how difficult, and precious, open communication can be.  Through small steps—opening up to Joel about her past, for example—Alice gains the trust in others that she formerly put in her diary and is able to discard her literary life for an interpersonal one.

Problems of Adolescent Identity

Alice's problems are as relevant today as in the 1960s.  She begins as an insecure girl who worries about sex and popularity, and, to an extent, these anxieties persist throughout her diary; sex continually plays on her mind, whether through her fear of pregnancy or dependency on men, and she remains concerned with what others think of her, especially when she goes "straight."  Her sexual maturation is too quick: her schoolgirl crush on Roger turns quickly into a drug-dealing affair with Richie and later devolves into prostitution for drugs.  Only with Joel does she develop a mature, fulfilling relationship.

The deeper problem for Alice, though, is the adolescent cliché of not knowing who she is.  She observes the social stratification at school (divisions between drug users and others) and feels that she does not belong in any group.  She is lonely no matter where she is, with reprieves from drugs coming less frequently the more she sinks into addiction.  She reads an article about the problems that develop when children make too many or too few decisions while growing up.  She thinks she doesn't fall under either category, but throughout her diary she balances precariously between adulthood and childhood, feeling at times independent and at other times homesick.  Her strengthened relationship with her family affords Alice the opportunity to grow into a new person with a commitment to a responsible, mature life—as an older sister to her siblings, a peer to her father and mother, and a future social worker to others who have suffered the same pains she has.

Counterculture and Drugs

The hippie counterculture of drugs, casual sex, and other anti-establishment mores readily seduces Alice, whose discontentment with her middle-class upbringing is strong in the first few sections of the diary and whenever she reverts to drugs. Regular society is competitive, cruel, and hypocritical (note the difficulty of attaining liquor versus the ease of acquiring drugs); the counterculture gives Alice what she wants: excitement, experience, ecstasy.  Her experiments with drugs are initially strolls into newfound lands, but they soon become her entire world, and she reflects the counterculture in her appearance, language, and ambitions.  No longer does she want to go to college, marry, and have a stable career, but she simply wants to get stoned and have casual sex.  For Alice, drugs are a way to connect, however briefly, with others.  Moreover, they offer a powerful escape, blurring the line between fantasy and reality as books once did for her.  However, the counterculture soon becomes empty and cold to Alice, and her repeated returns home—and ensuing happiness in the family fold—indicate her true desire for the stability that middle-class life offers, despite its downfalls.

Sexual Assault

Alice documents several cases of sexual assault, either on her or on others. She and Chris are molested by Sheila and her boyfriend; Alice performs oral sex for drugs; a boy from school threatens to rape her; and both Doris and Babbie have long histories of abuse.  The numerous cases provide evidence of the utter cruelty of society; not only do others try to lure Alice back into drugs or remain unsympathetic to her, they actively victimize her and other girls who are in need of help.  Alice develops a jaded attitude toward sex, and only through Joel's gentleness does she regain her belief in romantic love.

Maggots and worms

As a purported piece of non-fiction, Go Ask Alice does not have any explicit symbols, but Alice's nightmares and hallucinations of maggots and worms eating away at corpses or her own body can be viewed as a dual symbol.  At first, Alice's fears of the maggots center on the loneliness of the individual mind.  No one knows what happens to a body underground, hidden from sight. Alice's loneliness and her feeling that only "Diary" understands her connects this anxiety: she fears no one knows what is happening in her mind.  In the hospital, she fears that even she does not know what is happening in her mind, and her memory of her unintentional overdose deliver the maggots a second meaning.  She remembers the "dead things and people" that were "pushing" her into a casket, intermingling and becoming one entity that sought Alice's harm.  We can interpret the maggots and worms as all the destructive impulses of society that Alice has internalized into low self-esteem; society is "pushing" her inside the coffin, as it has pushed her into drugs, away from her family, and into a lonely corner at school.  She remarks that both her first and last drug uses were without her knowledge, but, in a sense, all times were without her full consent: the drugs were pushed on her by a society that was harmful and could not understand her mind.

Study Questions

How does Alice's penchant for writing fit alongside her drug use?

By making her diary into a personified "Diary," Alice finds a friend who understands her better than anyone else.  As the group therapy leader at the mental hospital puts it, when thoughts are kept inside they are "magnified" and "distorted," and Alice can re-align these thoughts a bit when they are on paper.  Her capacity to transform her feelings into poetic language is, at times, her only salvation, and "Diary" travels with her wherever she goes, knowing Alice at her most intimate times, while never judging her.  But this is not enough; Alice still craves human companionship and, unable to find it in her family or friends, journeys into the world of drugs, where she often feels spiritually connected to others while under the influence and, often, while not.  Interestingly, in some ways, drugs function for her as writing once did.  Just as literature blurred the line between fact and fantasy, so do drugs create an escapist environment where harsh realities are softened. Alice even stares at her right hand for hours while tripping on acid one time—a hand that once scrolled her observations into the diary.  Alice concedes several times that she cannot do her drug trips justice by translating them into words (although she is quite efficient at times), but this is the real problem—drugs are incompatible with communication and do not provide the true warmth and openness she needs.  Alice learns to apply her skills at self-communication to others—teen runaways, her mother and father, her siblings, Joel—and retires her diary, knowing human communication is far more necessary in life.

Discuss Alice's clash with the establishment and her experience with the counterculture.

At the start of her diary, Alice is settled in, if not quite content with, her middle-class bourgeois life.  She worries about boys, popularity, and her studies as most adolescents her age do.  She is excited for her father's new university job and imagines herself like her mother one day, married to a stable young man like Roger.  But her experience with drugs opens her eyes, and soon she is aware of all the flaws of the establishment.  Her time spent with the counterculture further divides her from her upbringing, but time after time, she longs to return.  The people she meets on the other side range from the boring (the teens who lounge in the Berkeley shop) to the irresponsible (the pregnant woman Alice meets who claims her baby will belong to everybody) to the cruel (the rapist Sheila.)  All the young girls, it seems, have been victimized by others and have fled to the counter-cultural lifestyle with no other option; at any rate, it is an unhappy place that does little to salve the wounds that the establishment has inflicted upon the world. Perhaps Alice's rather apolitical stance has something to do with it; unlike the many protesters and activists of the 1960s, Alice falls into the camp of hedonists who tune out of their surroundings.  Although Alice finds that her return to middle-class life is laced with as many cruelties, she embraces its values when she sees someone like Joel, given every excuse to turn to a life of drugs, strive even harder to make a positive difference in the world.

On what religious themes does Go Ask Alice focus?

When Alice meets Beth, she laments that she does not know as much about her own religion as her Jewish friend does.  While her religious ignorance is undoubtedly a lifestyle choice by herself and her parents, it is a subtle clue to Alice's problems: her immediate family is unable to understand her, as is her larger religious one.  When she initially experiments with drugs, Alice seems to awaken a more spiritual side, reveling in the otherworldly quality of LSD.  But it is true religion that saves her when she hits rock bottom; she is directed to a mission from a church in Oregon, and a priest later helps her reunite with her parents.  The idea of Christian redemption plants itself in her mind when she wonders if her suffering may have had a purpose, since she now better understands humanity.  Still, she remains conflicted as to life and religion's place in it; even while on drugs at the rally, she writes that life is "so goddamned beautiful" and also full of "goddamned stupid people."  These are conventional curses rarely used by Alice, and their inclusion here makes it clear that Alice finds the world both spiritually enlightened and debased.  She concludes the first diary with the words "I love God"; whether or not Go Ask Alice is a non-fiction work, her salvation in April, around Easter time, seems symbolically important, as is her continual love for the healing powers of Christmas.  When Alice finally comes clean, she sees love and spirituality in everything from her family to the birth of a litter of kittens. She commits herself to a life of helping others, completing her salvation and making her suffering worthwhile.

My mind possessed the wisdoms of the ages, and there were no words adequate to describe them.

Alice's best skill is her talent for putting her thoughts and feelings into words, but time and again she concedes defeat when it comes to explaining the hallucinogenic and emotional effects of drugs.  At first, this untranslatable quality is the main appeal for drugs, but ultimately it conspires to alienate Alice from even her own escapist reality—she needs to communicate with others, and drugs only create temporary and shallow relationships based on hedonism.  Her dislocation from writing and words while on drugs becomes explicit when, under the influence of acid, Alice stares at her right hand for hours—her writing hand, in effect, becomes no longer a tool but an object of study.

I wish I were popular and beautiful and wealthy and talented.

One of the main factors behind Alice's move to the counterculture is the competitive, harsh world of bourgeois life, with its premiums placed on appearance, skill, and ambition.  It leaves little room for the less quantitative attributes of love and openness, and Alice seeks such values in drugs and the counterculture.  Even within her family, Alice is jealous of her better- performing younger siblings and resents her father's concern over himself and his career more than with his family.  Nevertheless, her frequent returns to her family always refuel her middle-class desires for marriage and education, and her father shows his true colors in dropping work to help her.

He has his words when he wants to stress a point—but let me say 'man,' and you'd think I had committed the unpardonable sin.

What forms the counterculture is not only drug use, sexual abandon, rebellious fashion, and subversive politics, but the adaptation of a new language, one derived partially from minority slang.  Alice rebels from her middle-class upbringing when she introduces words like "dig" to the family and identifies her father's academic vocabulary as "his" words.  Just as each group of the population belongs to a different sphere, such as wealthy drug users and poor drug users, as Alice observes once, each one has its own specific language to reflect its lifestyle and values.  In part, Alice's use of counter-cultural language is simply an offshoot of her own natural facility for expressive language, but it is also an attempt to try and describe her new experiences.  As she learns, words are generally unable to describe drug trips, but this holds true for the counterculture as a whole; it is not a world based on communication, and she struggles to relate to the near-comatose drug users she meets.  She eventually returns to the language she was brought up with, one that suits her and helps explain herself but with the memory of other languages she has spoken.

Thousands of other dead things and people were pushing me inside and forcing the lid down on me.

Alice's recurring nightmares of maggots and worms eating at corpses turns into explicit hallucinations during her overdose and hospital stay.  Since it is supposed to be a true diary, Go Ask Alice does not have any overt, artificial symbols, but the maggots and worms do take on two meanings for Alice.  The loneliness of the individual mind, hidden from others while it is being destroyed, is one possible analogy for the maggots and corpse; no one knows what happens to a body underground, hidden from sight, while predators scavenge it.  A second meaning indicts society more.  The "dead things and people" that "were pushing" her into a casket become one mass entity that seek Alice's harm.  The maggots and worms are the destructive impulses of society. Society is "pushing" her inside the coffin, as it has pushed her into drugs and away from other people.

But I think when a person gets older she should be able to discuss her problems and thoughts with other people, instead of just with another part of herself as you have been to me.

The quest in Go Ask Alice is for communication; Alice finds it first only with her personified "Diary," and not with other people. The diary fools Alice into thinking that she is corresponding with someone who reciprocates her feelings, opening up to her as much as she reveals herself to it.  Through conversations with other runaways, Alice gains an interest not only in sharing herself with others, but in letting themselves share their stories with her.  Alice learns to trust others, taking risks while opening up to Joel about her life, and she finds that her relationships deepen that much more when she is open.  Discarding the diary is her victory; she has finally applied her skills at self-communication to a newfound intimacy with others, one that she hopes will eventually help them as much as it does her.

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