Friday, October 4, 2013

Go Ask Alice, and "real" teen voices

Go Ask Alice is a YA book that was widely read when I was growing up, and perhaps still is. My copy lists the author as "Anonymous" and says, on the cover, "Autobiography" and "A Real Diary." The introduction says, "Go Ask Alice is based on the actual diary of a fifteen-year-old drug user ..." and the epilogue tells us (spoiler alert!) that the diarist died of an overdose while her parents were out at movie. (A rather specific description of a person's fate.)

The above factors all led me to believe at the time--and not unreasonably, I think--that this was the actual diary of an actual person. Especially when I noticed that although no years are given as part of the diary's dates, the days of the week on which these dates occurred corresponded exactly to the years 1968-1970 (the book was originally published in 1971). To me, that gave it an extra touch of authenticity. The only clues that this was perhaps not a real story appear in two places in my copy of the book: the cataloguing information in the front of the book (which, hey, who doesn't read that, right?) lists this as "Fiction" (although I recently found an older copy of the book in which the "Fiction" label does not appear). And a close reading of the introduction makes one notice the "based on" language. What does it mean to be "based on"  a real diary? How loosely based was this?

Snopes.com has a discussion of this book's hazy provenance and how we know it is really fiction. (See also this NY Times Online article by Mark Oppenheimer, and the Wikipedia entry for Beatrice Sparks, author of Go Ask Alice.) There is, however, one point in the Snopes piece on which I disagree: "Girls of that age do not write the way the journal entries of Go Ask Alice are penned ..." This statement is followed by a criticism of the use of polysyllabic words, and the amount of space the alleged diarist gave to the topics about which she wrote.

I have to say that teenagers are perfectly capable of writing the way the narrator of Go Ask Alice writes. Teenagers--especially those who read a lot, and who like to write--have vocabularies that rival those of adults. (After all, high schoolers are preparing for SATs and college entrance, and they're regularly reading textbooks and literary classics for school.) I myself tended to use longer words and a more expansive vocabulary when I was writing--especially when I was writing for myself--than I did in casual conversation. The personality shifts in narration in Go Ask Alice could be the result of multiple authors and jagged editing ... or true adolescent experimentation. When I was growing up, I remember trying on different voices, different handwritings, different nicknames, different attitudes and interests. So did my friends.

What appealed to me about Go Ask Alice was not only the gripping, slow-motion horror of the main character's descent into addiction (as unrealistic as I may find some of it now), but the emotional quality of her voice. The narrator's ups and downs reflect my own adolescent diaries: one day, everything was wonderful; the right guy smiled at me; I aced a test; whatever. A week later: devastation. Fights with parents, being ignored by a crush, or clashing with a teacher could inspire the most introspective and despairing of entries. If Go Ask Alice is fiction--and I have believed for a while now that it is--it is nonetheless fiction that did exactly what I needed it to at the time I read it. When I was a teenager, I never questioned the authenticity of the book's voice. And judging by this book's phenomenal sales, neither did many other people.

I will leave to others a discussion of whether the book should be read now, why it was presented as nonfiction, and many other interesting issues that could arise. The only point I want to make today is that we can't assume teenagers don't use big words or have deep thoughts, or that they only write about certain subjects. Adult expectations of what teens are "supposed" to sound like do not constitute evidence either way.

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