Dear Diary, When I grow up, I'm going to read you out loud in a bar . . .
The diary entry for Jan. 2, 1989, began with a warning. “The news I’m writing isn’t going to be funny,” wrote 13-year-old Jennifer McDonnell. “I swear to God, if anyone is reading this, you better shut it now, cuz this is NONE of your business.”
A decade and a half later, it became everybody’s business when McDonnell read her preteen musings aloud to a packed crowd at a Los Angeles bar. Last year, her angst-ridden entry was published with a collection of similar confessions in the aptly titled book, “Mortified: Real People, Real Lives, Real Pathetic.”
Erstwhile teenagers across the country are giving up the secrets of their teenage diaries and giving public readings of what they once kept under cover (and under the covers). Now grown-ups are getting the chance to share the embarrassing, sweaty secrets they’ve hidden away in shoe boxes since high school.
Monthly readings take place at bars in New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston. In February, a show called “Grownups Read Stuff They Wrote As Kids” debuted in Toronto.
“Everybody can relate to being terrified and unbearable,” said Dave Nadelberg, creator of a Los Angeles diary reading series called “Mortified.” “Everyone was an awkward teen.”
Including Nadelberg. Originally from what he calls the “achingly boring” suburbs of Detroit, Nadelberg, 35, got inspired after finding a love letter he wrote as a 15-year-old high school sophomore to his crush, Leslie. The letter, which he never had the courage to send, waxed poetic about ninjas, Calvin & Hobbes and sunsets across the water. It was awful. He had to share.
In 2002, he launched “Mortified” at M Bar in Hollywood, Calif., with seven other diarists. Now the show plays bimonthly to packed crowds, and Nadelberg works full-time coaching would-be readers sifting through their childhood secrets to find comedic gold.
There seems to be no shortage of embarrassing secrets, but why share them?
Deep down everyone wonders if others behave as ridiculously and embarrassingly as we think we do, said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. “We used to have to sneak into our sister’s diaries,” he said. “Now, she’s willing to read.”
This “confession culture” has been around since the 1960s, when the hippie generation let it all hang out, unlike their uptight parents. Oprah-style talk television brought ordinary people’s problems into the nation’s living rooms. Reality television and the Internet have pushed the envelope of public humiliation several steps further.
Today, there are few secrets left to share, especially with the proliferation of blogs and Web sites likes Post Secret, Diaryland and Group Hug, which feature dozens of overly candid confessions each day. One e-memoirist at student.com felt the urge to share the following mundane observation: “Last night Josh made rice . . . But I have nothing left to put on it.”
Unlike blogs and e-confessions, pen and paper diaries were never meant to see the light of day. The sappy sincerity of a 13-year-old’s love missive has unmistakable authenticity in an era where irony reigns and even “reality” shows are staged.
Take, for example, Vanessa Murdock’s New Kid On The Block-themed entry, dated Feb. 6, 1991: “If I filled my heart to the brim with love for Joey McIntyre,” she wrote, “it would be ten times too little.” In an entry dated April 10, 1982, 11-year-old William Nolan wrote a hate-fueled diatribe against a schoolyard foe who tied him to a tree. “I hate Drake,” he wrote. “And I want him to burn in a really slow way that hurts a lot. Cause he sucks is why.”
Tucked into the backroom of Freddy’s Bar in Brooklyn on a blustery March evening, the crowd at the latest installment of "Cringe Night" shared laughs--and beers--over similarly histrionic tales of “three-hour-spring-break boyfriends,” rock-star crushes (INXS!) and the subtle, but important, difference between liking somebody and "liking” them.
Sarah Brown, who is the organizer and host of the monthly reading series, says the event appeals to former brace-faced band geeks and cool-kid jocks alike. “It’s all about making fun of yourself,” she said. “After all, we were all basically the same teenager.”