Before Ellen Hopkins wrote Crank, or Melvin Burgess wrote Smack, there was an anonymous book published in 1971 that reported in frank detail the diary of a fifteen year-old drug user. Though it explicitly references drugs, sex, violence, and rape, Go Ask Alice is such an important book that it is still in print today and shelved in the Classics section at my local library. The diary follows several years in which the diarist (whose actual name is never given) falls into the world of hard drugs, and catalogues her euphoric highs, her painful lows, and her tragic struggle towards sobriety.
At the beginning, the diary centers around the normal struggles of a highschooler – boys, clothes, weight – but after unknowingly drinking LSD-laced coke at a party, the diarist begins experimenting with all sorts of drugs: tranquilizers, pot, heroin, cocaine, acid, sleeping pills. For a while she is convinced that she’s just experimenting, tells herself she can stop. But when she runs off to San Francisco with a friend and they are raped while high, the more serious consequences begin to become clear.
And so begins a yo-yo between heavy using, when she does whatever is necessary to maintain her high – pushing LSD to elementary-age kids, prostitution, begging on the streets – and periods of sobriety when she struggles to regain her normal life free of the beast of addiction. But that normal life has been irrevocably damaged, not only by her cravings, but also the relationships she’s ruined, the damage to her reputation, and her permanent record. Even when she is clean and sober, old acquaintances from when she was a user threaten her and her family, and the “squares” won’t accept her because of her past. She has nowhere to fit back into, which makes it all the more easy to slip up.
The most poignant part of the diary is that she isn’t the rebel bad girl, the dropout, or the crazy-type. This is just a normal girl who didn’t intend to get high that first time. But because her first experience was so pleasant, she decides that “all the things I’ve heard about LSD were obviously written by uninformed, ignorant people like my parents.” Anti-drug propaganda centers around the negative effects, and so she is honestly surprised when she enjoys the trip, which is an important point – there are not 119 million users because it’s no fun. Go Ask Alice is effective in its entirety – the initial enjoyment, the certainty of her ability to stop, the downward spiral, and her inability to ever get her life back to that way it was.
Even when she vows to change her ways, there is always the temptation, the chance of backsliding. At one point after being clean for a month, she smells pot smoke and breaks into tears. Sometimes she goes back voluntarily, once an enemy slips her acid and she suffers a horrific trip that ends with her in the hospital, then a mental institution. Towards the end she is confident that she no longer wants drugs, and maintains months of sobriety. Whether this is a true turn around or not, we are never sure as she ends her diary with her belief that she has turned her life around, but the epilogue states that she OD’d three weeks later. The most important point the diarist makes is that once you fall into that trap, you will never be truly free of it; the rest of your life will be a constant battle to stay sober – whether it’s two years or twenty.
It’s a tough book, and not exactly what I would call heart-warming, but it deals honestly with the issue of drugs and addiction, and I think it’s an important one for middle to upper-lever readers. And it’s still relevant 35 years later, which makes more of a case than I ever could.
The title comes from the song “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane.