The legend of a Utah teen’s death lives on, and is being turned into a rock opera

The legend of a Utah teen’s death lives on, and is being turned into a rock opera

Ian Webb crouches somberly in the August heat, where white flowers poke out from the grass in front of a large headstone in Pleasant Grove City Cemetery.

The portrait atop the headstone, tarnished by four decades of weather and vandalism, shows a boy whose resemblance to Webb, 26, is striking, if not eerie.

At the bottom of the grave marker, it reads “Alden Niel Barrett,” and the dates “Sept. 4, 1954 — Mar. 13, 1971.” Barrett was 16 when he died by suicide.

Most of the headstone — crafted by the boy’s father, Doyle Barrett, who died in 2003 and is buried next to his son — features a poem written by Alden, “Portrait of a Child.” One line in the poem, “The child is innocent,” is engraved deeper than the rest.

That phrase is also the title of a song in “Pleasant Grove Rock Opera,” a rock opera written by the band Bay of Pigs, which depicts Alden Barrett’s short life — portrayed by Webb in a recent staging — and how it diverges wildly from the town folklore that grew up around the teen’s death. That folklore was heavily influenced by the publication of “Jay’s Journal,” a fictionalized version of his diary that gave a panic-inducing depiction of a strait-laced teen’s fall into drugs and Satanism.

“You can’t run into anyone from Pleasant Grove of that generation that doesn’t know of the legend of ‘Jay’s Journal’ and most, to this day, still don’t know the truth,” said Bryan Hall, guitarist for Bay of Pigs, who spent 25 years composing the rock opera with bandmates Jack Donaldson, Winston Lee and Jaime Jespersen.

Preview performances of the rock opera were held in July. The band is aiming to premiere the work officially sometime in 2023.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alden Barrett purchased his journal in the 1970s at Smith Rexall Drugs, which still stands in Pleasant Grove. Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022.

The legend of ‘Jay’s Journal’

Alden Barrett lived his whole life in Pleasant Grove, then and now a quiet little Utah County town where nothing bad is supposed to happen, or so the residents like to believe.

Doyle Barrett, a prominent doctor, had his office on the same street as the Rexall pharmacy where Alden bought his journal. Pleasant Grove High School and the now-shuttered U.S. Army recruitment center were next door to each other.

The red house where Alden and his family lived, and where he died, is not too far away. In front, a gray metal sign that reads “Barrett” is hidden, falling apart — the last remnant of the Barrett family.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Barrett sign can still beset in the overgrowth of shrubs in front of the home where Alden Barrett lived when he was in High School, in Pleasant Grove. Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022.

In small towns, bad news often spreads like wildfire. The Barretts were considered bad news, especially after the publication of “Jay’s Journal” in 1978. Hall, who lived in Pleasant Grove as a teen, said the book was “legendary” — even though most of it wasn’t true.

In 1995, Hall returned from New York — where he served his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — inspired by Broadway, with ambitions to write a “rock version” of the story of his town’s most notorious resident.

Hall’s family had moved away, so he didn’t have a place to stay — a friend arranged for him to rent a room from the friend’s grandmother for six months.

The grandmother was Marcella Barrett, Alden’s mother.

During that time, Marcella gave Alden’s real journal — not the fictionalized version — to Hall, who found it “instantly moving” and shared it with his bandmates. Within 18 months, they had written the first version of their rock opera.

As many young bands do, Bay of Pigs split up, the members each going their own ways. In 2015, as the cast recording of “Hamilton” was released, the bandmates were inspired to reunite and give their rock opera another shot.

The motivation to complete the opera hasn’t changed: To uncover what happened to the Barrett family after “Jay’s Journal” was published, and provide some redemption by exposing the author who “edited” the fabricated journal, Beatrice Sparks.

(Pleasant Grove Rock Opera) Alden Barrett, who was 16 when he died by suicide in 1971.

From ‘Go Ask Alice’ to ‘Jay’s Journal’

Sparks had gained fame in 1971 — the same year Alden Barrett died — when she published “Go Ask Alice,” the anonymously authored best-seller that purported to be a memoir of a teen on an odyssey through drugs, sex, rape, prostitution and abuse.

Sparks’ career is the subject of investigative journalist Rick Emerson’s book, “Unmask Alice,” which, in great detail, unravels the webs of deceit Sparks wove through her writing career, and the cultural repercussions her books had.

It was curiosity over the “anonymous” author of “Go Ask Alice,” and living through the “War on Drugs” panic begun by President Richard Nixon, that launched Emerson into his investigation. He spent seven years writing “Unmask Alice,” after a deep dive into LSD, “Satanic panic” scares, and Sparks, who lived the majority of her life in Utah County.

LSD had been used in studies on psychiatric patients before its recreational use was popularized in the 1960s. Fear of its use, because of the erratic and unpredictable effects it had on various users, grew as it spread across the country.

Even Utah felt the effects. Gerald Pearson wrote a 1970 tract, “There is a Way Back,” about his work helping a group of Latter-day Saint youth return to their faith after drug abuse.

Nixon declared drugs “public enemy No. 1″ in 1968. Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act — which set the strict bans on LSD, cocaine, heroin, marijuana and other drugs that America still lives under — in 1970.

In the same year, Alden Barrett spent some time attending the Wasatch Academy. Back then, with the stigma of mental health problems at an all-time high, so-called “troubled” people would get sent to behavior schools such as Wasatch, or institutions like the Utah Territorial Insane Asylum.

In his real journal, which Emerson quotes in his book, Alden shares an entry that speaks to his “troubled” mind: “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 …”

Another concern Alden may have faced, according to Hall, was the prospect of registering for the Selective Service Draft, and possibly being sent to fight in Vietnam.

Nixon instituted the lottery draft, which gave young men a random number based on their birthday, to select who would be conscripted into the Army. According to the Utah History Encyclopedia, nearly 28,000 Utah men served in the Vietnam War. Utah placed fifth in the nation for recruitment numbers at 8.6%, above the national average of 6.9%.

The draft law was set to expire at the end of June 1971, but Nixon extended it for two years — which would have made Alden Barrett eligible to be sent to war.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lana Kanen plays Dr. Sparks, Our Lady of Perpetual Virtue — a character based on Beatrice Sparks, the author who “edited” the memoirs “Go Ask Alice” and “Jay’s Journal” — in “Pleasant Grove Rock Opera,” on Friday, July 29, 2022.

Alden’s journal vs. ‘Jay’s Journal’

There’s a scene later in “Pleasant Grove Rock Opera” in which Doyle and Marcella Barrett sign paperwork, allowing Sparks to publish Alden’s original journal.

According to Emerson’s book, Sparks used only two dozen of Alden’s original entries. In her “editing,” Emerson wrote, she fabricated 190 new ones related to violence and witchcraft — fostering the “Satanic panic” themes that would terrify parents for years.

“‘Jay’s Journal’ definitely shaped and accelerated that fire, especially where teens were concerned,” Emerson said, via email. “You can see it in the news coverage, in specific claims and worries that spread through the region, and in the memories of kids who lived through the panic.”

Two years after “Jay’s Journal” was published in 1978, a Heber City group led an anti-Dungeons and Dragons crusade. In the ‘80s, allegations of child sex abuse in places like preschools and daycare centers were rampant — such as the case of the LaBois family, who fled Minnesota and lived under aliases in Utah for years.

In 1985, The Daily Herald in Provo ran multiple stories on Sparks and her work, publishing a weeklong series, “Satan Worship in Zion.” As recently as this June, in a case investigated by the Utah County Sheriff’s Office, embers of the “Satanic panic” era live on.

“Jay’s Journal,” Emerson said, “infected the culture in all kinds of ways, and probably nowhere more than in Utah.” The type of fear-stirring that Sparks was able to capitalize on is a twisted, yet perfect formula to enrapture a small, religious and conservative town.

Emerson says Sparks’ twisting of Alden’s story is a double tragedy.

“His real story touched on so many crucial topics: Depression, addiction, suicide, faith,” he said. Even now, he added, those topics are serious, especially with teenagers involved.

“Sparks had a chance to play it straight — to tell Alden’s story the way it happened, and maybe, possibly, help stem the tide. Instead, she lied,” Emerson said. “By turning the story into something demonic, Sparks did more than defile Alden’s memory — she squandered the chance to make a real difference.”

(BenBella Books) The cover of Rick Emerson’s book “Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World’s Most Notorious Diaries.”

Digging into the papers

Part of Emerson’s research journey brought him to Utah — specifically to Brigham Young University’s Harold B. Lee Library’s special collections area, where Sparks left nine boxes of special papers.

Emerson had to file a written application and interview with a librarian in person before seeing Sparks’ papers, he said, “which meant a 600-mile plane flight just for a chance to visit the archive.”

Sparks kept everything: Hotel bills, award pamphlets, clippings of health and religion magazines, royalty statements from her books and fan mail. She also kept carefully cut out newspaper clippings about her and her books from papers around the country — marked with green marker and red pens here and there, but mostly pristine.

One paper’s 1979 review said “‘Jay’s Journal’ has the ring of authenticity and truth.” Another review, in The Boston Globe, praised Sparks for editing “for information and not entertainment value.” A clipping from Publisher’s Weekly, circled in black pen, reads, “this is a compelling document, more mesmerizing than fiction.”

In his book, Emerson wrote that Sparks kept clippings of the fallout the Barrett family endured in Pleasant Grove. He noted a front-page expose from Seventh East Press, a paper launched by two BYU alumni, published in November 1982, headlined “Beyond Jay’s Journal — Dispelling Occult Myths.” It stood out to Emerson, he said, because it outed Alden by name and included a photo of him.

After his visit, BYU reprocessed many of Sparks’ files, making them inaccessible to researchers until 2060. When a Tribune reporter visited in August, some folders were entirely empty; according to a student helper in the student collections section, the folders mostly contained fan mail, which was removed because of legal issues.

A reprocessing note in one empty file reads “photocopies of materials used to edit and create ‘Jay’s Journal,’” which was removed by a student processor in September 2015.

Among the clippings, what appears to be a signed contract between Sparks and a filmmaker from January 1997, with the intent to make a movie from “Jay’s Journal.” The project never came to fruition. (ABC made a TV-movie based on “Go Ask Alice” in 1973; William Shatner played the girl’s father, and Andy Griffith played a priest.)

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Bay of Pigs perform in the Pleasant Grove Rock Opera, on Friday, July 29, 2022.

Trying to understand Alden

In writing “Pleasant Grove Rock Opera,” the members of Bay of Pigs have found their personal connection to Alden Barrett.

“All of us didn’t fit the mold of Utah County,” bassist Jack Donaldson said. “We were on the outside. We were rebels. I related… to this poor kid that didn’t fit in, didn’t have any tools or support in his life to deal with what he was dealing with.”

Hall, the guitarist, added that they know how damaging it is to feel that “all-encompassing judgment that’s everywhere from well-intended people.” The story, he said, has a redemptive quality for people on the fringes of society. “It gives a chance for people that are broken to be heard,” Hall said.

He said the production’s power emanates from the music. “With music, you can put things into perspective — because with some chords and melodies, you can realize that before all this happened, there was a love story,” Hall said, referring to both the parents’ relationship and Alden’s relationship with his girlfriend, Teresa.

As the band has grown older, the story has evolved with them, Hall and Donaldson said. In the first draft, the focus was was a love story between Alden and Teresa. Now, as the bandmates have families of their own, the portrait of Doyle and Marcella has become a bigger part of the narrative.

“The reality is, in many ways, this story is just as much [ours],” Hall says.

Though Hall and Donaldson have kept the main parts of Alden’s story intact, as told to them by Marcella and Alden’s younger brother Scott, a few changes have been made for dramatic purposes. In the opera, for example, Doyle and Marcella reconcile; in reality, they divorced after the fallout from “Jay’s Journal.”

Ian Webb, who plays Alden in the opera, said he bases his performance off of feelings that “we all experience as teenagers.” Growing up in Orem, he heard about “Jay’s Journal,” but never about Alden. Learning that the book was about a real person, so close to him, was eye-opening.

“Alden represents this figure that we all have in our lives,” Webb said. “Either we are the Alden, or we have someone who is close to us who is an Alden type.”

It can be intimidating at times, Webb said, playing a character who’s based on a real person — because there’s an added pressure of honoring them. The experience, he added, has been rewarding.

“In order for us to grow and improve as a society, as a culture, we need to do the hard work that comes with introspection,” Webb said. “This show really teaches that [having compassion and empathy] is not only important, but vital.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ian Webb, center, plays Alden Barrett in a preview performance of “Pleasant Grove Rock Opera,” on Friday, July 29, 2022.

A fading memory

While reporting on “Unmask Alice,” Emerson visited Pleasant Grove Library, and spoke to some librarians. While there, he heard a young volunteer tell a librarian about their memory of Alden as “the high school ghost.”

These days, students at Pleasant Grove High School don’t know of Alden Barrett, and only some are vaguely familiar with “Jay’s Journal.” Instead they talk of Veera, a ghost associated with the theater department.

When asked about “Jay’s Journal” a passing teacher mentions knowing about it from her childhood, calling it the book about the kid “controlled by Satan.” There are rumors of graffiti in the tunnels under the school that reference “Jay’s Journal”; a Tribune reporter was not allowed to go underground to confirm this.

Emerson points out, toward the end of “Unmask Alice,” that the journal that Alden Barrett wrote, that became the impetus for the fictional “Jay’s Journal,” has existed for 50 years — three times longer than Alden Barrett was alive.

To some degree, the truth of Alden Barrett, his family and his story, will never be known in its entirety — no matter how many accounts are told, but the universal truths of his experience cannot be altered, nor should they or he be forgotten.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

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