Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Authenticity Debate

"I'm not really sure which parts of myself are real and which parts are things I've gotten from books." Go Ask Alice, Anonymous

The afternoon I decided to read Go Ask Alice, I had just gotten off the phone with my dad in which we tried to remember the words to “White Rabbit” and could only come up with “go ask Alice when she’s ten feet tall…” That song is creepy enough. And, even as an adult, the novel left me unsettled. So much in fact that I discussed it in length and had my family and colleagues begging me to read something else, anything else.

The novel begins as most addiction lit does: an innocent child is corrupted by the people around her, her culture (in this case the early 70’s when families were struggling to keep those scary drugs out of their picture perfect/ignorant households), and her friends. (It's always the friends.)  The novel itself is a cautionary tale, meant to shock and leave the reader terrified of all drugs, even the caffeine found in their morning latte. The problem with Go Ask Alice is it focuses too much on everyday melodrama and then offers a few scenes that read like an afterschool special.  When the narrator has difficulty connecting her situation with reality, you can hardly blame her for confusing textbook addiction with real-life addiction.

The story itself is shocking but, to be honest, it just made me glad I didn’t live in the 70’s. It seemed like such an angry time in America’s history and the protagonist – an anonymous teenage girl – receives the brunt of its abuse. The story is told in a diary format, and I have to commend the “authors” (aside from the drug abuse storyline, another controversy for this book is the question of its authenticity) for leaving out huge pieces of the narrative. The format matches the erratic tone of the narrative (which the Crank series had been missing). Obviously the protagonist’s naivety annoyed me, but I am going to assume it was my 21st century mindset editorializing as I was reading.

Like the cautionary tales before it, Go Ask Alice takes on the same fate as Charlotte Temple – you know the protagonist is doomed from the start. I forgot to remember that and was shocked when I reached the epilogue ::embarrassed professor cough:: How could this have happened? Wasn't anyone watching her? Who would let this happen? I was furious. Now that I've had time to digest, I realize it wasn't the ending that shocked me but the clinical voice in the epilogue. The diary ends abruptly and the audience is left with this condescending, scolding voice telling us THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS TO BAD PEOPLE. Again, with my 21st century mind, I found this to be an insult to everyone who suffers from addiction. The protagonist needs help and she does not get it from anyone she comes in contact with in the novel. Everyone is useless, which cements her unfortunate fate. The epilogue makes the argument that addiction can be beaten by the sheer will of the individual. We know now that this isn't the case. Like everything else in this world, there is more to the equation, more players to the stage.  If the "authors" were going for authentic narrative, they should have left out their soapbox speech.

As I mentioned before, the novel spends more time shocking its readers than reminding us of its purpose as a cautionary tale. I have to admit, some scenes were devastating to get through and a bit shocking. At one point the protagonist is sent to a mental institution. That event is heartbreaking enough – the story of how she got there is downright terrifying - perhaps a little far-fetched as well?

Did I feel for this unknown protagonist? Absolutely. It will disappoint those who published Go Ask Alice that I didn’t feel for her because of her drug addiction. I connected to this unknown protagonist because I wondered how many more like her fell victim to not only drugs but to the ignorance and indifference of their time period. And how many more like her were silenced, reedited and labeled as “anonymous” drug addicts.
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