Their words shall set them free

The Baltimore Sun

NEW YORK -- The diary is a 70-sheet spiral notebook with candy wrappers and a used pair of chopsticks taped inside. A picture of Donna Summer is glued to its cover next to a scratch-and-sniff pizza sticker that - after 27 years - still smells like pepperoni.

Its cursive-scrawled pages hold Becky Ciletti's most intimate pubescent thoughts and secrets. The 39-year-old freelance magazine writer came to this bar on a rainy April night to read the mostly embarrassing excerpts - food-fighting, French-kissing, babe-loving and all - to nearly 100 strangers. She wrote the first entry in 1980, when she was 12. Feb. 7: We didn't have school because of the snow today. I miss Kelly. I don't know why, because I've seen him all week except for today. P.S. Please help me to be more mature and help me to fill out my bra.

The audience howled with laughter.

Feb. 11: Lunch was a riot and a blast and sort of gross. We had a food fight. I threw some beef jerky and some bread. Chris hit me with a potato.

Call it comedy. Call it therapy. The crowd that gathers over beers at Freddy's Bar & Backroom in Brooklyn calls it "Cringe Night." Once a month, people mostly in their 20s and 30s read their teenage writings, which have included a long-forgotten unrequited love letter to New Kids on the Block and a song composed in a fit of adulation for Richard Marx. And then there are the real-life diary entries, such as one read by 26-year-old Maggie Jacobstein:

I hate my mother more than I've ever hated someone. She makes me feel so bad when I see her fat ugly face!

Publicly reciting old songs, letters and journal entries "is cathartic in a way," said Aaron McQuade, 30, a news anchor, who said he was the pudgy kid with bad skin who didn't talk to anybody in junior high. It's not like back then, "when they're laughing at you and you're not laughing at all."

When McQuade first read at Cringe two years ago, he said it was like releasing the pent-up torment of his teenage years. He realized how funny it all was. "This is brilliant satire," he said, "but it's not satirical. It's unintentional. You couldn't write this stuff as authentically as it was written back then."

Clear-skinned and confident in his gray beanie, glasses and cuffed jeans, McQuade read one of his teenage musings on this recent Cringe Night, saying it was from his Jack Kerouac On the Road phase:

"Real," he read, pausing for effect, "revolves around subconscious on another level. Seriously, real is no fun."

McQuade, who is also a writer and musician, said he was "horrifically embarrassed" by his old prose. "It's a part of me, as much as I've changed," he said, "this came from me. This ... absolutely awful writing, I am responsible for."

Today's teens regularly broadcast their thoughts and poems to the world on blogs. But the sparkle-coated, yellowed pages of journals that people bring to Cringe Night were never intended for show, which makes them even more interesting and absurd. They are relics that capture a culture of kids from the 1980s and 1990s, before YouTube and MySpace made growing up a public experience.

"There's no way you can get up and do this and sound cool," said Sarah Brown, 29, creator of Cringe Night. Six years ago, she stumbled upon a box of her old diaries. She invited her best friend over and read passages aloud over a box of wine:

Similar shows have started across the country: Seattle's "Salon of Shame" began in 2005 after its host learned about Cringe Night on Brown's blog; it draws 150 people to each show. In Toronto, a show called "Adults Reading Things They Wrote as Kids" started this year. In Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Boston and Chicago, people submit online entries for a chance to audition to perform monologues from their teenage diaries and letters in "Mortified Live," a stage show.

Cringe Night is free, and anyone can get up to read. It attracts as many as a dozen readers and usually lasts two to three hours. Brown doesn't know how many such open-mike readings are out there, but said hundreds of people have contacted her asking how to start them in their towns.

In high school, Brown said, she was a drama queen who was in love with a boy but would never write his name because she thought it would jinx her. Instead, she would only write HIM.

Trish Tchume, 29, attended her first Cringe Night in March and was surprised by how entertaining it was. On the train ride home, she wondered whether her old entries were as ridiculously overly dramatic as the ones she had heard. Tchume dug up a diary. "It was pretty bad," she said.

A month later, there she stood with her silver nose ring and a pink scarf wrapped around her neck, reading a love poem she wrote when she was an insecure 16-year-old living in suburbia with her Ghanaian-born parents.

"Part of me wants to feel that embarrassed again," she said before taking the stage. "I want to hang on to that part of me. It's kind of good to remember that girl."

Erika Hayasaki writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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