I鈥檓 reading my diary to a man I鈥檝e never met.

It鈥檚 safe to say, I鈥檝e never done this kind of thing before.

The entry is about a harrowing teen crush and recounts, among other things, how, months after we broke up, he asked me for a ride to a Depeche Mode concert. Still pining for him, I imagined a communion reunion to the strains of 鈥淧ersonal Jesus.鈥 What I didn鈥檛 expect? For him to be waiting at the curb with his new girlfriend.


So, yeah, when I wrote these words in 1994, I never thought I鈥檇 be sharing them. Much less while sitting at my desk in California, thousands of miles from the Chicago suburb where I first penned them, in a house I share with my husband and two sons.

But Neil Katcher, the guy on the other end of the phone, listens and laughs 鈥 I think he even 鈥渦gh鈥漵 鈥 in the right, painful places. He鈥檚 used to this.

Katcher is the executive producer of Mortified, a grassroots storytelling project that launched in 2002. Now a stage show in 10 cities, where performers dig up their real-life adolescent writings and share them in front of a live audience, Mortified has evolved into a multimedia phenomenon: There鈥檚 a book, a TV show, a film and a weekly podcast. (Download it or subscribe here or via iTunes.)

Each show is packed with laughs because, yes, it鈥檚 finally okay to laugh. As performer Jimmy Radosta puts it, 鈥淧eople are on stage, exposing this dark period of their life but standing there as fully formed, well-adjusted adults鈥 It鈥檚 cathartic to laugh off these toxic memories and it鈥檚 also really entertaining.鈥

I think it鈥檚 true for a lot of us that those teen years are the last few of childhood where we might almost fully live in the moment. But sadly, a lot of the moments kind of suck.

There鈥檚 a relief in knowing that someone gets it. And there鈥檚 some kind of processing that happens by dredging up this stuff and having someone say, 鈥淥h my god, that鈥檚 hilarious.鈥

鈥淣o one [performs at Mortified] when they鈥檙e still in the moment of absolute and utter teenageness,鈥 said Erin Potter, 34, a blogger and Mortified performer from Portland, Ore. 鈥淪o you now can see the humor in it. And hearing people laugh in the places you know are funny, you just light up.鈥

Potter鈥檚 diary story is unique: During a very rough time in her family life that got so difficult she ran away from home, Potter learned her dad and stepmom were reading her diary. So she began to pen fake entries. They鈥檙e laugh-out-loud funny but not printable here. (From the true section, Potter talks about fronting a band and finding two not-as-pretty girls as bandmates, so that she鈥檒l look hotter. Yes, she鈥檚 very relatable and hilarious.)

For her, doing Mortified was a baby step toward considering stand-up comedy, but basking in the glow of laughter gave her something else, too. 鈥淚t was like learning I had comrades in the darkness.鈥 (Though the darkness now has given way to a good relationship with her dad, who鈥檚 grandfather to Potter鈥檚 young son.)

Still, how many people really want to put everything out there? It turns out, a lot. And getting the laughs of comrades is the reason why.

鈥淥ne of the key things is that when the audience is laughing, they are laughing because they recognize that kid or what that kid felt like,鈥 said Katcher.

Katcher started his career with Mortified from the very first show, because he had a video camera and creator Dave Nadelberg needed someone to film him as he went on stage in Los Angeles to read a letter he鈥檇 unearthed: As a teen, he wrote to a crush detailing, in a polite and salesman-like manner, why she should go out with him. He never sent the letter, but years later that unrequited love took shape as the first-ever mortified show.

鈥淚t was supposed to be a one-time thing,鈥 Katcher said. But it turned out plenty of people had saved plenty of things and wanted to share.

Katcher himself has also performed a series of heavily vengeful poems directed at a senior-year crush who went to prom with someone else. (Katcher didn鈥檛 even ask her.)

鈥淚t鈥檚 nice to be able to laugh at what was traumatic. And it鈥檚 also fun to look back to see things we were so passionate about and opinions about how the world was supposed to work that were so off,鈥 he said.

Though one cliche teenage-ish belief 鈥 that the guy on stage gets the girl 鈥 did work out for Katcher. He met his wife through the show, when she approached him after his reading. (They鈥檙e featured in the film Mortified Nation, and are quite adorable. It鈥檚 currently streaming on Netflix.)

She thought he seemed really cool, to be doing what he did. There鈥檚 a sweet irony to that, no?

And, from my own experiences enjoying other people鈥檚 Mortified tales, I have always walked away thinking, 鈥淲ow, if I knew those people in high school, maybe it wouldn鈥檛 have sucked so much.鈥

But what happens as you listen is you figure out that you DID know those people in high school. It鈥檚 just that all of you were so busy hiding that real stuff that you never met.

Jimmy Radosta as a teen.

鈥淚 was blown away by how powerful the experience was,鈥 Radosta said, of seeing a Mortified show. Radosta, 37, is a reproductive rights activist in Portland, Oregon, but until 2009 worked as a journalist.

鈥淏ecause I did aspire to be a journalist, my journals had a level of detail 鈥 transcribing conversations, documenting daily embarrassments 鈥 that other people might not have,鈥 he said.

And while they have their funny moments now, Radosta said they were not fun to write at the time: 鈥淚 was suicidal and unsure about who I was,鈥 he said. 鈥淚 didn鈥檛 know anyone who was openly gay, so even in my own journal I was lying to myself about who I was attracted to.鈥

In some entries, he鈥檚 writing about a crush on a girl that he鈥檚 laboriously trying to believe is real. But his on-stage story 鈥渆nds鈥 at a high point, where he goes out dancing with two classmates and we sense he might finally be coming into his own.

鈥淚t was good for me to revisit a dark period in my life and have a good laugh about it,鈥 he said. 鈥淯ltimately, our teenage drama is short-lived but we don鈥檛 have the long view that this too shall pass.鈥

But still, for me, someone who鈥檚 never even done conventional therapy, the idea of putting on full display my most conflicted, bratty, self-pitying and navel-gazing moments causes me to shudder.

When I finish reading my journal entry to Katcher, he pauses to digest my adolescent palaver and offers up his assessment. After listening to so many teenage pinings and pennings, he鈥檚 like some kind of John Hughes-ian messiah, or at least that really cool older cousin who goes to school in another town so you can totally tell him your weird stuff.

He thinks I really worried about this bad-boy crush of mine ruining his life 鈥 maybe some kind of guilt due to my own, less-troubled background 鈥 by dating this new girl, who I describe as 鈥淕ia, of the ever-changing hair color.鈥 He also notes that maybe I had some deep-seated envy or longing to be like this wild girl, to say, 鈥渉ey, I might not dye my hair every week, but I鈥檓 not boring!鈥

Yeah. It鈥檚 pretty accurate. And some of those insecure traits still reside in me, which Katcher points out is another part of Mortified鈥檚 appeal. 鈥淓ven though we鈥檝e moved on,鈥 he said, 鈥淚t鈥檚 still us.鈥

What was your most mortifying experience? Share with us in the comments below!