The Author Known as Anonymous

That wily writer known as Anonymous is at it again. In just a few weeks, his new book, O: A Presidential Novel, will hit bookstores. No one knows who has written this new story of O, but the guessing is becoming fierce. In fact, if the author is not unmasked by the publication date, I, personally, will lose ten bucks.

O: A Presidential Novel is a roman a clef, which means readers will have the fun of recognizing “characters” and “scenes” in the story as real people and real events. For those not familiar with literary terms, roman a clef is French for “you can’t sue the author for this unflattering portrayal because you are a public figure.”

It’s about time that Anonymous has come out with a new book. His last big seller (not counting the AA Bible, which is Anonymous’ greatest work, in my opinion, and a perennial good seller) was Primary Colors in 1996. Primary Colors is also a roman a clef and it skewers the Clinton administration in a devastating, though amusing and affectionate, fashion.

Primary Colors’ author was outed. He acknowledged his authorship soon after the book came out. I won’t reveal his name here because I want to honor the spirit of anonymity, and because everybody already knows it’s Joel Klein.

The two above novels were marketed as fiction– roman a clefs, political commentary, social criticism, too, but still fiction. Fiction with a message is still fiction.

Which brings me to one of Anonymous’ other greatest hits.

I was in the sixth grade when Go Ask Alice was published. Needless to say, I didn’t buy a copy hot off the bookstore stands, as it was not appropriate reading for a 12-year-old (then) and I was attending a Catholic school that featured a nun who confiscated my copy of Love Story because it was racy and inappropriate. Yes. Love Story.

I read Go Ask Alice a few years later, when I was at a public high school and was blessed with an English teacher who wasn’t scared of controversial books. For those unfamiliar, the book was marketed as the true diary of an anonymous teenage girl who fell into a life of drug addiction. The title is a reference to the Jefferson Airplane song “White Rabbit.” In the book, the narrator never gives her name. Her drug experiences begin at a party, when her drink is spiked with LSD.

From the reading perspective of a 14-15 year old in a small town with no personal contact with anyone who used illegal drugs (as far as I knew), my take on the story was as follows. One minute this girl is sipping a spiked drink, and the next thing you know she’s giving daily BJs to a pimp named Big Ass. (Hey, it’s in the book.) For an impressionable girl, the line “Another day, another blow job” was much more effective phrasing than Just Say No, but you can’t put that on a billboard. Although, at this point in the war on drugs, maybe we should.

My point is, for me, Go Ask Alice worked. I was sure this girl was real; I was nowhere near her world, and I was glad for that, because her world scared the living bejeezus out of me.

So imagine my sense of betrayal when I learned that it was a hoax.

The reveal came several years ago, after I overheard the following conversation in a bookstore.

Customer: I need to know the author of Go Ask Alice.

Employee: The author is Anonymous. We have a copies over here—

Customer: I have a copy. I need to know the author’s real name.

Employee: Ma’am, it’s Anonymous.

Customer: Fine. I’ll look it up on the Internet.

Silly woman, I thought, the author is Anonymous. You can’t find it on the Internet. But of course, I went home and immediately looked it up on the Internet and found out the author’s name. Go Ask Alice was not the real diary of a real girl who drank one spiked drink and fell into a life of fear, degradation, sadness, pain and abuse. It was a “based on” a real person and a “compilation” of incidents.

I was crushed. I admit it. I re-read the book and felt more crushed. As an adult, I saw the manipulation. As a writer, I recognized that the voice was not true to a teenager. As an editor, I noted the glaring bits of author intrusion.

But back when I read it, initially, all I saw was a real girl whose life scared me, made me worry and made me cry.  I believed that diary. I felt every word of it. I felt tricked. Duped. I don’t like feeling duped. Years have passed since I learned that Go Ask Alice is a work of fiction, but I still feel duped.

When writing for a young audience, authors are advised not to write down to them. Be honest and respectful of the reader while acknowledging the level of reading skill. I’ve written for children and understand this challenge, but I would also add to that writing advice to play fair with the reader. Especially a young reader.

Unlike Joel Klein and the soon-to-be-outed-author-of-O, the Anonymous who wrote Go Ask Alice was purposefully deceptive. Which burns my grits.

And yet.

I can’t say that Go Ask Alice is the sole reason that I, to this day, have never even indulged in a puff of mj, but it contributed. Would I have connected to the character as strongly if I knew she was fictional? No. My heartfelt response to her was because I believed she was real. So I wonder. For Go Ask Alice, did Anonymous’ ends justify the means?

Tell me what you think.

Ramona

9 thoughts on “The Author Known as Anonymous

  1. nancy martin says:

    Huh. I’ve never read Go Ask Alice. (Maybe that explains my behavior in high school.) I thought it was another Never Promise Me a Rose Garden, which was a snooze. Most of the books I read by Anonymous were semi pornographic. (Which explains——-oh, nevermind.)

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  2. Kathy says:

    I’ve never read Go Ask Alice. I did have it on the shelf at my school/public library and watched a lot of girls check it out. When I learned that the therapist who “found” Alice had published another “diary” by Anonymous, detailing a boy’s experience with drugs, I became highly suspicious. Reading a few pages convinced me a boy hadn’t written it. But the girls kept reading Alice, which was shelved in Fiction.

    I remember a TV adaptation of Go Ask Alice. I thought at the time it was well done–I might think differently today. But perhaps it made up for what the book lacked.

    I don’t know about ends and means here. I’d have to think harder about that than I want to this morning. I believe writers who write for young people have a responsibility to do their best, to be honest, to show that there are always choices, and to give hope. If girls react positively, maybe Anonymous has done all that.

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    • Ramona DeFelice Long says:

      Kathy, there are sections of Go Ask Alice that I remember word for word. Even though it’s fiction and even with its flaws, I would recommend it to any teen reader. I doubt it would have the same impact. The world has changed a great deal since then, and current readers would probably call foul on parts I found terrifying.

      I suppose I should be happy this girl wasn’t real, considering what-all happened to her. How odd is it that the fact that she’s made up makes me angry instead of relieved?

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  3. Annette says:

    Go Ask Alice is still on many middle school rending lists. It was required reading for me for a YA Literature class in college. Whether it was fact or fiction never made a difference to me. It was still terrifying. I can still visualize the babysitting scene after reading it so many years ago.

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  4. Kathy Sweeney says:

    Honestly, I barely have time to read the books written by authors I love. If someone doesn’t have enough pride in their own work to attach their name to it, I’m not buying it.

    Sorry if you already mentioned it in earlier comments, but who did write “Go As Alice?” My money is on Karl Rove.

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  5. Ramona DeFelice Long says:

    Kathy, I’m not naming the author. Mr. Snopes can do that for us. 🙂

    I think the decision was a marketing one, and very effective, to hide the fact that the writer was an adult writer and not the teen diarist. As I mentioned, as a young reader, I totally believed the author was a fellow teenager. What the book said is no problem; it’s the deception of who said it that troubles me.

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  6. Pauline says:

    I never read Go Ask Alice but you’ve made me curious. I doubt whether I’d buy anything written by anonymous. With work, why couldn’t the author have made the book completely fiction but written as a diary so readers felt they heard the voice of a teenage girl and then it would’ve been an honest book?

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  7. SherryT says:

    Well, it sounds like the ends justified the means –for you. However, did other young readers see the manipulation and get turned off by the book? There’s no way to say how many young people were helped vs hurt by the writing style and the core lie. In my opinion, more readers might have taken Alice seriously if the book were better written.

    I read I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. I felt sympathy for the anonymous author and just assumed that she existed. However, she was psychotic, not a substance abuser. To the best of my knowledge, there was no agenda involved in writing that book, except maybe that being stricken with a mental illness is no fun. That, I already knew.

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