Editor’s note • This article discusses suicide. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.
Telling the story of Alden Barrett, who died by suicide in 1971 at age 16 in Pleasant Grove, started as an assignment to cover an upcoming rock opera.
When I learned about the “Pleasant Grove Rock Opera” in the last week of July, I knew vaguely what I was getting myself into, but was keen on seeing what this performance would be like.
I was about 100 pages into Rick Emerson’s “Unmask Alice,” touching my toes in the shallow end of what would become a two-month deep dive of reporting.
The beginning of the book, along with advice from my editor to read up on “Satanic panic” and a brief, summarized introduction to Beatrice Sparks, the woman who wrote the purported diaries “Go Ask Alice” and “Jay’s Journal”: This is what I had in my back pocket when I went to the West Valley Performing Arts Center.
When it came to Alden Barrett, my knowledge was small. The rock opera itself was beautiful, if a touch long, but the space was needed to tell the story — something I’d come to find out when I wrote my own. The opera was emotional, hilarious and poignant, all at once. The vocals and lyrics were the seatbelts for the show’s emotional rollercoaster.
The assignment to cover a rock opera was slowly becoming something more.
Two books and a band
I finished Emerson’s book, then checked out “Jay’s Journal,” and read that before interviewing Bay of Pigs, who told me their backstory: A group of kids who felt seen, because of Alden, all from a small, conservative Utah County town.
The bassist, Jack Donaldson, said they were all rebels, intrigued by rock music and wanting nothing more than to get outside the tight mold their town had envisioned for them.
When Bryan Hall, the guitarist, told me that he rented a room from Marcella Barrett, Alden’s mother, who shared Alden’s real journal with the band, the story came full circle — connecting all the way around after the opera had been in the works for 25 years.
They were firm about their roles with the opera: Bay of Pigs, a real band, wrote this story.
Finishing both “Unmask Alice” and “Jay’s Journal,” I was even more curious because what I was learning could only be described as folklore.
The more I learned about Alden — the true and untrue versions of his story that have circulated, in Pleasant Grove and across the country — the less it felt real. I found myself feeling much as the band did, motivated to uncover what happened to the Barrett family after “Jay’s Journal” was published — and maybe provide some redemption.
I felt for Alden. For all the Aldens, past and present. It’s something I couldn’t shake.
From Emerson’s book, I learned how the Barrett family had to take Alden’s gravestone out of Pleasant Grove City Cemetery. Talking to Hall, I learned the Barretts had an ongoing chore rotation, to decide who would go to the cemetery every weekend and clear away the witchcraft paraphernalia — the melted wax, the pentagrams burned into the ground, the corpses of small animals, and the damage done to Alden’s portrait on the headstone.
My heart broke. And I wanted to see for myself — partly to satisfy journalistic curiosity, partly because it all felt like a ghost story, a legend repeated so many times that the truth would never be discovered.
Touring Pleasant Grove
Hall offered to give me a tour of the town where both he and Alden lived. We met at the Purple Turtle, and he brought along Ian Webb, the actor who played Alden in the rock opera.
We ate at the classic haunt, chatting between bites. Then, Hall pointed out the window over my shoulder, at a street corner. It was the same intersection where one of Alden’s friends was killed, Hall said. That’s when the tour started.
Piled into Hall’s Honda, we drove through Pleasant Grove, passing landmarks of Alden Barrett’s life: The office where his father practiced medicine, the pharmacy a couple of doors down where Alden bought his journal. A few turns away, the cemetery, where father and son are buried in adjacent plots.
We spent most of our time at the grave, standing silently, making the occasional quiet remark. Even with the bright green grass, and the sprinklers furiously chugging away in the next lot over, it felt surreal. We spotted a chipped piece of blue stone on the corner of Alden’s grave, and we took turns trying to figure out if it was another forgotten fragment from his portrait. (We decided it was too blue to match.)
Hall then drove us past two houses where Alden lived, past his high school, passed the now-defunct Army recruitment center — now fenced off, but still as menacing as it must have been in the ‘70s.
The last stop on the tour was a long shot. There were rumors — some of the many rumors involving the Barretts in this eerily quiet small town — that there were tunnels under the high school where there was graffiti mentioning “Jay’s Journal.”
We were led around by some sophomores who said they had “found” the tunnels earlier that day, but couldn’t find them now. The students had never heard of Alden Barrett or his infamous, fabricated journal.
In another hallway, I stopped short at a door with a gold plaque above that read “social worker.” On the door was an orange poster, showing a stick figure vomiting “words.” The caption: “Therapy: Weird, but good.”
More than 50 years after Alden Barrett attended this school, I thought, there was a social worker there to help students. There weren’t many mental health resources available back then; would this have helped him?
I thought of several “what if?” questions while reporting this story. What if there had been more resources to help a troubled teen? What if Sparks had never gotten her hands on Alden’s original journal? What if inflated concerns like “the war on drugs” and “Satanic panic” weren’t spreading like wildfire when “Jay’s Journal” was published?
We couldn’t find the tunnels, or gain access to them if they existed. We did find a teacher, the only person we met at the school who had heard of Alden or “Jay’s Journal.” Her recollection, fittingly: He was the kid “controlled by Satan.”
‘The burden of being myself’
Days later, my curiosity would take me to Brigham Young University, where Sparks’ papers are kept. What I found were folders full of clippings, a meticulously crafted history of her deceit.
Over email, Emerson, the author of “Unmask Alice,” mentioned a story in the alternative student newspaper Seventh East Press that posthumously outed Alden, and a series from Provo’s Daily Herald that contributed to the fear of “Satanic panic” in Utah.
As I started writing the story — trying to encompass Alden’s journey, the rock opera that introduced me to this saga, two books and two trips to Utah County — what stuck in my mind were the few original bits of Alden’s journal that, according to Emerson’s book, made it into “Jay’s Journal.”
One phrase Alden wrote was particularly devastating: “I am very, very lonely. I’ve got myself and that’s all, besides the burden I’m carrying … the burden of change. The burden of being myself …”
The memory of the real Alden is slipping away from Pleasant Grove and it seems the memory of the legend, created by a falsified journal, is too. With the renewed interest, through Emerson’s book and Bay of Pigs’ rock opera, maybe Alden Barrett can be himself, not the kid from “Jay’s Journal” — someone who wanted to be heard and understood in his conventional small town.
It’s Emerson’s words, now, that ring the clearest, after the story has been published: “By turning the story into something demonic, Sparks did more than defile Alden’s memory — she squandered the chance to make a real difference.”
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