Mortified Nation: Revisiting Our Teen Angst

by Dina Gachman

Diaries and journals are meant to be private, sacred things where you share your deepest thoughts and desires. That is, unless you’re a dead celebrity and whoever handles your “estate” decides to publish your diaries in Vanity Fair or in a juicy, scandalous book for all the world to see. Luckily, most of us will never be dead celebs. Our deep, dark thoughts are safe and sound.

I started keeping a journal in eighth grade, right around the time I embarked on my wildly passionate yet sexless three-year relationship with a dude I’ll call Sam. At the time I was wearing pastel Gap T-shirts and color-coordinated pastel socks with white Keds, and he was wearing a beat-up denim jacket with huge safety pins all over it that said SEX PISTOLS across the back. How could we not fall in love? Sam passed me a note in Social Studies one day that said:

Will you go with me?
[ ] Yes
[ ] NoMy heart exploded and I checked “Yes.” Love is extremely melodramatic when you’re 14. You have to deal with all those swirling hormones and Shakespearean daydreams about hurling yourself off a craggy cliff into the ocean with your lover so you can escape the evil of the world (aka your totally lame parents and teachers) and live together for eternity at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. In my cliff-jumping fantasies, The Smiths were always playing in the background somewhere, which made everything so much more dire and awesome. Recording these thoughts in a journal helped me let out my roiling emotions so I could stop thinking about craggy cliffs and eternal love and go focus on adding and subtracting fractions and memorizing the subsistence economies of different Native American tribes.

I never thought about sharing my embarrassing journal confessions (“I saw Sam yesterday — I looked up and he was right there! My heart blew up!”) until I saw a live Mortified show. If you haven’t seen a Mortified show or don’t know what it is, the first thing you should know is that they’re hilarious. A bunch of adults who’ve been chosen by the producers get on stage and read excerpts from their teenage journals in front of a room full of cocktail-swilling strangers. They share artwork, play songs they wrote way back when, and humiliate themselves for your enjoyment — and theirs. David Nadelberg started Mortified in 2002 after he found an old love letter and read it to his friends. Realizing that it’s fun to commiserate and laugh at each other’s most embarrassing confessions, he teamed up with producer Neil Katcher, and a movement was born.

They’ve been approached by Hollywood over the years, but the executives always tried to “put Mortified in a box that it shouldn’t be in,” says Nadelberg. They did agree to do The Mortified Sessions on the Sundance Channel, where Nadelberg talked to celebs like Tig Notaro and Bryan Cranston about their most embarrassing childhood memories. Still, when it came to making a Mortified documentary, Nadelberg says, “I’d rather make something for $10” than let some out of touch execs take the reins. So that’s what they did.

“It’s not really a vibrant living,” says Nadelberg. “It’s very much akin to being in an indie rock band. We wanted to do a project where we were completely in control.” Mortified Nation (directed by Mike Mayer) is a mix of performance footage from their live shows and interviews with past participants and the family members they exposed in their childhood diaries. Early in the film they ask a teenage girl what she thinks about a bunch of adults getting on stage and reading from their old journals. Despite the fact that most teens I know are telegraphing every emotion and thought they have via Facebook and Twitter, she says it sounds like a terrible idea, and she can’t understand why anyone would want to humiliate themselves that way.

“She speaks to two things,” Nadelberg says. “We hear from teenagers all the time that they still keep diaries — that whole thing hasn’t changed due to the digital era. In terms of the social media aspect and the fact that we live in generation over-share, I think there is still shame and privacy and you don’t want people to see every aspect of yourself. People are still guarded.” After the credits roll, that same teenage girl admits that in a few years, she might actually take the stage at a Mortified show.

There’s something freeing about “sharing the shame,” like the Mortified producers say. There are things in my old journals I would never want to share, but between the drawings of Aztec gods (apparently I was really into Quetzalcoatl?), heartfelt odes to my childhood hero Olivia Newton-John, sketches of a tombstone with the words “Here rests Dina. Once she loved another. She paid her price” (like I said, love was one big ball of melodrama then), and the occasional sneaky entry from my younger sister that broke up the histrionics with notes like, “Hey Buttbrain, Wuz ↑ ?” there are some ridiculous, embarrassing things in there that remind me of who I was then, how I saw the world, and, most importantly, how I dealt with breakups:

Males just suck. That’s all. They’re selfish, confused, horny, immature liars. People can really hurt each other. My organs and my blood feel like they are caving in. Actually, it’s not that dramatic. But it hurts.

Eventually we all grow up and learn that it’s not physically possible for our organs to cave in on themselves due to heartbreak, and life on Earth did not end because we didn’t make the cheerleading squad. “We’re not laughing at people’s pain in a sneering, mean spirited way,” says Nadelberg. “You’re not laughing at some guy getting hit in the nuts by a Wiffle Ball bat. We have this philosophy that the audience should ‘laugh at, cheer for.’ That’s our internal motto. We should always be celebrating the voice of that kid and their vision of the world.”

If you check out a live Mortified show or watch the new documentary, you’ll probably find yourself rooting around in your closet trying to find your old journals. Gird your organs.

Mortified Nation is playing around the country. You can also watch it online.

Previously: Interview With Bassmaster Champ Christiana Bradley

Dina Gachman is a former angsty teen living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Forbes, the LA Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Marketplace on NPR. She’s on Twitter @TheElf26.