I should probably save that title for when I write about my 30th high school reunion next year (that’s assuming I go–which is a very big “if”), but it seemed to be a very appropriate heading for the padded book envelope which was in the mail when I came home from work this afternoon.
A trade paperback of A Place in the Sun: The Truth Behind Jay’s Journal, by Scott Barrett, was sitting on the table just inside the front door. I had been searching– rather aggressively–for this book since before Steph and I were married, and it had been on my “want list” with AbeBooks for at least seven years. I almost needed CPR when I opened my email late last week and saw that a copy had been located. (I had just about forgotten about it.) So, the next day, I mailed a money order to Frontier Book in American Fork, Utah. And the product came today, wrapped neatly in the Sports section of the Daily Herald, the newspaper that covers Utah County, Utah.
From whence cometh the disappointment? I haven’t begun to read it yet, so I probably should rein in all my initial deflation, but I am very displeased by the finished product. In the first two pages alone typographical errors were jumping out at me like flares (one of the epigraphs was–I kid you not–“…turn… turn… turn…” by “The Birds”). This was without even consciously looking for them! I tried to remind myself that maybe my work as a typesetter and proofreader had made me hard-wired to look for mistakes like that on a subconscious level, but I don’t think so.
And should I let that cloud the purpose of the book? The author, Scott Barrett is the brother of the late Alden Barrett, who committed suicide in Pleasant Grove, Utah in 1971. Alden’s family wanted to make some sense out of such a tragedy, and maybe in so doing save another family from such grief and horror by educating them about how to ward off suicide before it happened.
They turned to Beatrice Sparks, a teacher and therapist who had helped to bring out Go Ask Alice that year. If you were in middle school from 1971 or 1972 onwards, you have encountered Go Ask Alice, which was by “Anonymous”. “A Real Diary,” said the cover, and the book was supposed to be the actual journal of an unnamed 15-year-old never-named drug user. (The titular Alice is based on the song “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane and its line “Go ask Alice when she’s 10 feet tall.”) My dad brought home a copy, which I read in one evening, and there was a very long waiting list for it at the Washington County Public Library, mostly requested by girls. (TANGENT ALERT: I just about fell through the floor when I went to AbeBook’s Website and saw that a first-edition Prentice-Hall hardcover with dust jacket is on sale for $1250!!) The heroine is your typical adolescent girl–worried about popularity and her weight, feeling she can’t communicate with her family, etc., at battle with the queen bees at her new school, yadda, yadda, yadda. She unknowingly drinks a Coca-Cola spiked with LSD at a party, and it’s downhill from there–more and more drugs, falling in love with drug peddlers, selling drugs on grade school playgrounds, running away, prostitution, etc. She tries to kick the drug habit, is doped against her will, has a mental breakdown, and is confined to a psychiatric facility for a short period of time. After her release, all seems bright for her future, except for the epilogue on the back page that she died of an overdose three weeks after discontinuing her diary, one of “thousands of drug deaths that year.”
So what did Beatrice Sparks do for Alden Barrett? She eventually published his diary as Jay’s Journal. Alden’s own story was tragic enough, but she rewrote it entirely as the writings of a slightly rebellious and acting-out teen who becomes immersed in the occult and Satanism, letting his body be taken over by a demon named Raul. Alden seems to have been a faithful diarist, filling most of a spiral notebook (reproduced in A Place in the Sun), and Sparks used maybe 25 entries and completely rewrote them. The closest thing to Satanism is Alden’s moving away from his family’s Mormon faith–he was nothing close to the sociopath who is the protagonist of Jay’s Journal. (I did get a kick out of “Jay” making a New Year’s resolution to use the occult powers he’s learned to get better grades and do better in sports–kind of Aleister Crowley meets Lifespring.) Sparks came away with a lot of money, and continues to crank out “real diary” books about teens, usually girls, who stray from the path of truth, justice, and the
Mormon American way and come to an ugly end because of it (running away, AIDS, teen pregnancy, eating disorders).
I hope that the book, as sloppily produced and carelessly typeset as it is, puts to rest any belief that Jay’s Journal is authentic. I first learned of the book at Ohio University, which has a reputation of being the most haunted campus in North America. I knew some people there (I was dating one of them) who fancied themselves as witches, and insisted on secrecy about it. (Their secrecy reminded me of Dennis the Menace’s clubhouses, where “SECRET ENTRANCE” was painted in giant letters above a big red arrow pointing to the door.) Many of them handed Jay’s Journal and The Necronomicon around “clandestinely,” like 12-year-old boys with stolen Penthouses. (I made one futile attempt to explain to them that The Necronomicon by “Simon” was based on–plagiarized from–the Cthulhu Mythos created by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft.)
TANGENT ALERT: I have never been involved in “the occult” (a too-broad-based term, since occult simply means “unknown”) as a practitioner of any particular system of beliefs, rituals, and rites, although I have attended drum circles and Wiccan rites that welcomed the turning of the seasons. As a Universalist, a tenet of my belief is that of universal salvation, eloquently described by the Reverend Mark Morrison-Reed here as a faith in a God Who “created both Mother Teresa and Saddam Hussein, loves both Bush and bin Laden, and drags Hitler into Heaven as well,” so this means I have no belief in Satan or everlasting torment.
THE TANGENT CONTINUES: Shortly after I moved into my spacious bachelor apartment above Duttenhofer’s Map Store on W. McMillan St. in Cincinnati, I was cleaning out closets and hidey-holes, looking through what the previous tenant(s) had abandoned. In the closet of the bedroom I would not occupy, I found a ouija board and planchette. It was the commercially produced Parker Brothers edition, and it was hidden away behind some clothes and smut magazines the previous tenant didn’t take. I left the ouija board there, but knowing it was in the apartment gave me the creeps, an uneasiness that I could not identify or put into words. After about four days, I threw it in the trash can on the street.
Likewise, Go Ask Alice is fiction, and all but true believers have accepted this. Sparks still insists that it is based on an actual person, but she says she destroyed part of the original diary she used as a basis, and the undestroyed part is in her publisher’s safe. Not one of the millions who have read this book has had an Aha! moment and said, “Wait! I knew her!” The Library of Congress seems to have the most respect for the truth, as their classification for Go Ask Alice is under PZ, which is “Fiction and juvenile belles lettres.”
“But look how many kids it’s kept off drugs!” I hear someone cry. “Even if the story is fake…” That reminds me of a Richard Pryor line, when his wife catches him in bed with another woman: “Who are you going to believe? Me, or your lyin’ eyes?” This is the same argument put forth by the fans of Mike Warnke, a Christian comedian whose first career was as a self-styled expert on Satanism and the occult. His expertise rested on his bona fides as an ex-Satanic high priest who found Jesus while he was serving in the Navy after his coven tried to kill him with an overdose of heroin. This story was accepted without question, beginning with the publication of his “autobiography” The Satan Seller. Finally, two writers for Cornerstone, a now-defunct Christian magazine published in Chicago, did enough checking and research to convincingly demonstrate that Warnke’s story was complete fiction from top to bottom. Warnke’s “data” led to many police departments, journalists, and scholars spending most of the 1980s chasing their tails searching for nonexistent networks of Satanic covens that were abducting and murdering children, breeding babies for ritual cannibalism, and seducing teenagers with promises of unlimited drugs and sex. The teenaged killers who made headlines as “Satanic killers,” such as Sean Sellers and Ricky Kasso, were too antisocial and sure of their own supremacy to cooperate with anyone in authority, whether it was a principal or a high priest. (Warnke was even brushed off by Anton LaVey, the creator of the Church of Satan. LaVey, I believe, is the love child of Aleister Crowley and Ayn Rand.)
One question that has plagued me ever since I learned that A Place in the Sun existed is the choice of the title. It is the title of one of my favorite movies, a 1951 Paramount Pictures feature that starred Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. I had first seen it on Nite Owl Theater during my 13th summer, when I was “home alone” while Dad spent all his time (literally) at his wife’s apartment. I had tuned in just in time to see Raymond Burr (as a D.A.) sitting in a rowboat in the middle of the courtroom, and stayed with it until the tragic conclusion. It would be a year or more before I saw the movie in its entirety.
The movie is based on Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, one of those long books I know I should read, but which I will put off for a future long bus trip I take (it’s a save-for-long-bus-trip-or-prison-sentence book). It figured humorously in my life when I went to my first Unitarian Universalist youth conference, at Camp Tippecanoe in Harrison County. A young woman, the same age as I was then (16), were clicking well after sitting together at lunch, and I began to see… possibilities. But she turned white as a sheet when I suggested that we get in one of the canoes and row out on Clendening Lake. I was a little hurt, but relieved, since it took a lot of nerve for me to overcome my fear of water enough to make this suggestion. At dinner, I saw a paperback copy of An American Tragedy protruding from the pocket of her knapsack when she came up to the lodge.
So I knew that it wasn’t me who had rattled her, and I felt better. It’s one of those “we’ll look back on this and laugh” moments.