“Go Ask Alice” (1973)

Being raised by parents who cared little about what I did as long as I came home each night with all my limbs intact, I read pretty much whatever I wanted as a child. I read The Shining at age nine, even though I really didn’t understand it much. Not long after that I read a book called The Piercing, about a girl who suffers from stigmata after the Devil sodomizes her. Let me be clear, I had no idea what sodomy was (and stigmata even less so), I just knew that it was bad.

One book I always avoided, though, because it just seemed too frighteningly plausible, was Go Ask Alice. Purportedly the real diary of a teenage girl whose very first time experimenting with drugs sends her spiraling into an abyss of addiction, promiscuity, crime, and violence, it was banned in most schools and libraries, even as most recently as 2007. Even after it was revealed sometime in the 80s to be fiction, Alice remains one of the most challenged books of all time, and you’d be amazed to realize just how many gullible souls not only still think it’s real, but believe that it somehow inspired Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” released four years earlier.

The TV movie adaptation, aired in 1973, softens the graphic, lurid tone of the book, but only by a fraction. Jamie Smith-Jackson plays 15 year-old Alice (in the book the main character is unnamed), the nice but shy and vaguely depressed new girl in town. When her only friend goes away for the summer, she accepts an invitation to a party from a classmate. A game called “Button Button” is played at the party, which evidently involves everyone drinking a bottle of soda with a tab of acid in it and then…well, that’s about it. There really doesn’t seem to be any object to it and no “winner,” unless perhaps the winner is whoever can come up with the most blathering, meant to be profound deep thought, which in this case is Alice, who says “My mind possessed the wisdoms of the ages, and there were no words adequate to describe them. After that, I knew I found the perfect true and original language,” while staring at her hand.

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Alice writes in her diary that, while she was elated by her first experience with drugs, she’s ashamed as well, and vows never to do it again. In literally the very next scene, she’s become an anorexic, bedraggled hippie, and writes about regularly tripping with her new college-age boyfriend and dealing with her “monthly pregnancy scares” by stealing her parents’ tranquilizers. Snorting, smoking, or swallowing whatever is handed to her, Alice has given her entire life over to drugs, slacking off in school and spending all her time with her irritating junkie friends. In one mindblowing scene, she and her friends do a few lines just seconds before Alice’s implausibly oblivious parents (one of whom is played by William Shatner) bring out her birthday cake. “See, honey, birthday cakes aren’t for squares!” Alice’s mother says, to which one of the friends replies “Cakes aren’t square…they’re round,” before dissolving into a fit of giggles.

The downward spiral continues as Alice starts selling pills to junior high school students (one of her clients, who looks all of 12, says he’s in turn “pushing it to grade school”). After catching her sleazy boyfriend in a three way, she robs him and runs off with a friend. Naturally, because Alice serves as nothing but a cautionary tale victim from the moment we meet her, running away is an endless nightmare of sleeping on park benches in tattered, filthy clothing, eating out of trash cans, and selling her body to afford that next fix.

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Alice eventually returns home and gets clean with the help of a compassionate priest (Andy Griffith), the only adult she encounters up to that point who isn’t an idiot or a creep. Staying clean proves to be a struggle, not just because of the overwhelming urge to start using again, but also because her druggie friends mock her (right in front of her blissfully ignorant mother in one scene), and her straight friends turn their backs on her. Things only get worse when she rats out a friend who shows up high on speed for a babysitting job. Rather than be concerned at the behavior of the friend, who was supposed to be in charge of an infant, Alice’s classmates instead bully her for being a “fink.” In retaliation, the friend spikes Alice’s drink during another babysitting job, causing her to have a bad trip and mutilate herself.

To make things even worse than that, while recovering in the hospital from her injuries, Alice learns that she’ll face charges for drug possession, after two of her classmates lie to the police. However, a kindly doctor helps Alice understand that what happened wasn’t her fault, and Alice enters rehab. She leaves treatment healthy and happier, repairing her relationship with her parents and straight friends, and ready to face a drug-free life with the help of her nice new boyfriend.

And then, Alice’s mother, in a voiceover at the end as Alice starts the first day of school with a hopeful smile on her face, announces that she died of an overdose a few months later.

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Well! That was nice. What a powerful, useful message to send to young people, in that if you try drugs, any kind of drugs, even once, there is no going back. Your life will instantly turn into a relentless hellscape, and any attempt to recover will inevitably end in failure and death. To be clear, though the book takes place over an extended period of time, the movie suggests that Alice goes from a sweet, timid high school sophomore to a junkie whore to dead in just barely a year. Even meth users get a little while before they start looking like their faces have been run through a cheese grater.

Further emphasizing the hopeless, despairing tone of Go Ask Alice, the meek, passive Alice has no agency in anything that happens to her. Her first time trying drugs isn’t really by choice, and everything she initially does upon getting hooked seems to be to please her gross boyfriend, who only wants to spend time with her when they’re high and ends up cheating on her anyway. Then, of course, she has to debase herself time and time again for more drugs, and even quitting requires her to grovel for forgiveness from her family and friends. There’s no mercy given, even though she was more or less introduced to drugs by accident. So what’s the lesson to be taken from this? “Don’t ever play party games”? “Never go anywhere except school and home”?

This isn’t a cautionary tale, it’s a horror movie. That the screenwriter managed to exercise enough restraint to not have Alice shove the baby she was watching during her “bum trip” in an oven is nothing short of a miracle. It’s as subtle as a bowling ball dropped on the viewer’s foot, and almost certainly had the same effect on young people as virtually every other alarmist anti-drug movie–nothing but peals of delighted laughter.

Original airdate: January 24, 1973

Watch it here

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