Book Review: Review: Dear Nobody: The True Diary of Mary Rose
This nonfiction account of a teen's encounters with sex, drugs, and jail is one long, raw primal scream
Reviewed by Tim Stegall, Fri., Jan. 2, 2015
Dear Nobody: The True Diary Of Mary RoseEdited by Gillian McCain & Legs McNeil
Sourcebooks Fire, 336pp., $15.99
In 1971, a striking work of purported nonfiction was published, Go Ask Alice. Credited to "Anonymous," it was a first-person account of a teenage girl's introduction to LSD, leading to more drugs and an afterschool special-style descent into addiction and degradation. It was a fairly immediate publishing sensation and bestseller, well beyond its intended young adult audience. But the power of the prose and its rather heavy-handed message was blindsided with the eventual revelation that the book's "editor," psychologist Beatrice Sparks, was in fact its author. It was later stated that Sparks may have based Go Ask Alice on the diary of a patient of hers, but the damage was done. The book remains in print, a teen classic, more accurately listed as "fiction" by its publisher since the mid-Eighties.
Once Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil, co-authors of classic New York punk history Please Kill Me, stumbled across these real teen diaries simply by asking the author's friend what was the best thing she'd read recently, at least McNeil realized they may have accidentally discovered the real-life antidote to Go Ask Alice. Mary Rose, last name never revealed, was an actual Nineties teenage diarist, her mother recalling in the afterword that she was an aspiring writer whose favorite book was Please Kill Me. The power and confidence of Mary Rose's prose, lightly edited and presented unadorned by McCain and McNeil, exceeds her youth and experience.
Born to a mother whose own partying and abusive affairs clouds her ability to rear Mary Rose and her sister, Mary Rose grows up angry and dysfunctional in a handful of Pennsylvania backwaters. Like any other pissed-off teen, she gravitates to fellow misfits – partying, drinking, drugging, screwing, defying. As is often the case, sensitive soul that she is, Mary Rose looks for love and fulfillment amid tenuous liaisons, petty arrests, and trips in and out of rehab, and is rewarded instead with gang rape. She relates her descent through her notebook entries, written as letters to the titular "Nobody" and in actual letters to a friend. She writes with a gripping confidence, balancing her rage and frustration with a journalistic eye for detail. Midway through, after slowly hinting that her health is deteriorating, she delivers the gut-punch: Among the sickening cards life's dealt her is a terminal disease. Her death sentence transforms her prose, a sudden moral authority adding weight as accounts of hospital stays now outnumber tales of drinking, fighting, fucking, shooting up, and trips in and out of jail and rehab.
Despite her self-destructive bent, Mary Rose was wise beyond her years. Dear Nobody reads as one long, raw, primal scream, a wail from the depths of despair that you can't put down. McNeil may have envisioned the book as the answer to Go Ask Alice, and it certainly joins it as a classic teen book that adults could also enjoy. But Dear Nobody surpasses Go Ask Alice. Read this and weep: The world has simultaneously gained and lost a great writer in Mary Rose. Her debut is also her epitaph. The loss is total and profound.