News: Jay’s Journal and Deseret Book

The latest issue of Salt Lake City Weekly features a cover story on Jay’s Journal, a sensationalist cautionary tale that Motley Vision readers, or at least those that spent their teenage years somewhere along the Wasatch Front, may be familiar with. The article itself is your standard alt-weekly piece. So don’t take this as a whole-cloth endorsement of it, but the basic premise of the story — that Beatrice Sparks, the “editor” of Jay’s Journal fabricated, or at least exaggerated most of the sensational (much of it having to do with Satan worship and the occult) material that is included in the work — appears to be credible.

The book is based on the journals of Alden Barrett, a (disaffected) LDS kid from Pleasant Grove who committed suicide at the age of 16. Alden’s mother Marcella — who has remained active in the LDS Church — gave the journals to Sparks because she wanted other teenagers to learn from her son’s death, to help them stay on the straight and narrow. She was horrified, naturally, to find all the added material. Sparks claims that she pulled the occult material and other details from interviews with Alden’s friends and other sources — although she’s a bit hazy and unforthcoming on the documentation and the details. I have no way of verifying any of this, but my guess is that at the very least she exaggerated a lot of the material to suit her primary goal — trying to scare Utah teens straight.

I haven’t read the book. But I spent grades 7-9 in Provo public schools and I remember seeing kids reading it and hearing them discuss it. And I’m sure that this comes as a major shocker, but as far as I recall not one of them was interested in it as cautionary tale — they just liked the prurient parts. This is not to say that any of them went on to indulge in the occult — fears of such activities among the young have continually been shown to be overblown.

I could be wrong. Judging by the Amazon.com comments there are readers out there who respond to it in the way Sparks intended.

But this post isn’t really about the Sparks-Barrett dispute. What I found most interesting about the article is that it proffers another example of how Deseret Book’s stocking policy is playing out.

Alden’s brother Scott has published a rebuttal to “Jay’s Journal.” He reports:

“Today, Deseret Book sells Jay’s Journal online, but refused to sell Scott’s book because it contains some profanity, he said. No other publisher or distributor has expressed interest in Alden’s journal.” (Ben Diterle. “Teen Death Diary.” Salt Lake City Weekly: June 3, 2004). ASIDE: I cleaned up three typos in this quote. What does SLC Weekly not have copy editors?

So let me get this straight. Profanity — not good. Vivid, bloody depictions of occult acts — okay. Now let me be clear. I’m not criticizing the policy. I believe Sheri Dew when she said that the policy is in response to extensive market research — that it’s what their customers want. And if that’s the business model they feel the need to go with, I’m not going to fault them for that. Most companies have to be just as responsive to their customers. But what I do think this illustrates is that the policy is bound to lead to more moments of dissonance.

I think what puzzles me most is that it doesn’t seem to add up with other instances of application of the policy. In the first, a book by Anita Stansfield that had a frame that showed that acts were ‘bad’ weren’t carried by DB because the acts were referred to or depicted. In the second, a book by Richard Paul Evans had such a subtle depiction of a man spending a night with a woman he wasn’t married with — a depiction of emotional infidelity perhaps, but at least according to him, not one of adultry. How is the objections to these two books any different from “Jay’s Journal” which has a cautionary tale frame, but depicts “bad” (one might say even “evil”) acts? Again, I’ve read none of the books in question, but the press coverage so far has me confused.

It’s not clear if Deseret Book was actually contacted for the SLC Weekly story. If DB would care to clarify or further elucidate this situation, contact me.

NOTE: I’d prefer to link to AP, Salt Lake Tribune or Deseret News articles on Evans and Stansfield, but I ran into paid archives.

3 thoughts on “News: Jay’s Journal and Deseret Book”

  1. WM, this is a very interesting post. Unfortunately, it feeds the public image of the LDS docu-drama (on film or in print) that purports to be current documentary or history but in fact is partly fiction. Don’t some consumers of this genre get alientated when they figure it out? Or do they never figure it out? Or do they not care, preferring a good value-affirming story to an accurate one?

  2. Oops. The above comment should have read –>

    Dave:

    Sorry for the formal format of this comment, but it helps me keep my thoughts straight…

    First: What is the “it” that’s doing the feeding? My post? The SLC Weekly story? Jay’s Journal?

    Second: Regarding docu-dramas and values-affirming — I don’t know that the Mormon audience has the market cornered on this one. It seems to be a popular discourse in general (Oliver Stone’s JFK, for example).

    As far as alienation goes — my guess is that most readers either don’t bother to find out the facts or if presented with them either discount them as coming from a biased [read: not of my ideology] source or say, well, that’s too bad, but the message is still good. In others words, yes to both questions.

    Read the Amazon.com reviews. Most of the reviewers totally buy into the ‘crucial cautionary tale for Christians’ theme that Sparks uses to sell her books. It is the whole problem with idelogically-driven narratives. Of course, part of the point of this post is that sometimes those narratives deconstruct themselves [to further misuse and abuse a misused and abused term] by arousing curiousity and depicting imagery where before there was none.

    It’s like the LDS firesides about ‘appropriate’ music where the fireside presenter gives examples of songs that seem innocuous but aren’t. You know what pops in my head from time to time from one of those firesides? The lyrics and melody to “Take Me Home Tonight” — which the presenter discussed as an example of a catchy tune with a bad message [i.e. it’s about a one night stand] — and not any of the ‘appropriate’ songs that we listened to.

    Third: Any examples of “LDS docu-dramas” that you’d care to cite? I’d be happy to take a look at one and do a review.

    Fourth: History and fiction and appropriate sourcing is a huge topic — considering its presence in the Mormon book market, I should probably do some posting on it.

    But let me just say — this is the power and danger of narrative discourse, the ability to make sense of the world by mixing ‘fact’ and fiction. Even ‘straight’ fiction tries to do this in so far as it seeks to create a coherent world for the reader.

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