In Mortified project, adults share their private middle school angst
“Wisconsin is to blame for Mortified,” says David Nadelberg, who 15 years ago founded a storytelling project that's become a cultural mirror.
Mortified is grass-roots storytelling where adults read their childhood writings to strangers. It brings the era of private diaries and journals to today's life-sharing era of social media. Words that were meant to be private are now recited before live audiences — and made available by Netflix.
There are multiple Mortified platforms: live readings staged in 20 cities around the world, a podcast from PRX and Radiotopia, a book series, concert films, and documentary series — including The Mortified Guide, now available on Netflix.
Critics cheer. “Funny, touching, and intensely relatable,” wrote Wired. “Funny and horrifying,” stated USA Today.
Mortified is the largest and longestrunning project of its kind, according to Nadelberg.
In the beginning, it was intended only to be a one-night stage performance in Los Angeles.
The official origin story for Mortified is that Nadelberg discovered an unsent love letter he'd written as a teen and, in 2002, conceived of a stage performance in which
people shared their childhood writings.
But the seed for Mortified was planted even earlier, when Nadelberg was a kid nosing around his sister's room after she left home to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“So, a fun fact is that the show was originally, potentially going to be called Debbie’s Diaries,” Nadelberg says during an interview May 24. He was at home in Los Angeles, talking on speakerphone and making eggs for breakfast. “Debbie is my sister, and I read her diary. She went to college in Madison, and that suddenly left her bedroom fair game for a snoopy little brother” back in Detroit.
He read the diaries, expecting — hoping — to find “blackmail material” and discover all the bad things his sister had to say about him.
“She didn't say anything mean about me,” Nadelberg says. “It was quite the opposite. … In terms of empathy, it was probably my first dose ever.”
He felt like a jerk.
“It made me understand the importance and the sacred quality of the diary,” he remembers. “I shut her journal and never went back.”
But the instinct to know and share the private thoughts of others took hold.
Nadelberg may have closed his sister's diary, but in the years since, he's opened many others — among them a red journal decorated with schnauzers and kept by a Milwaukee-area middle-school student named Liz Grossman.
“Mortified,” he says, “was supposed to be a one-night experience, but it's become much more than that. … It's shaped my entire adulthood. Other people's childhoods have shaped my entire adulthood — that is never lost on me.”
‘RANTS LIKE A DRUNKEN SAILOR ON SHORE LEAVE'
“Hi, I'm Liz. And growing up I was always the smallest and shortest kid in my grade,” Liz Grossman says in the opening segment of “The Mortified Guide to Fitting In,” the third episode of The Mortified Guide. “And … by like seventh-grade, everyone started going through puberty except for me.”
The Chicago editor had traveled to Austin, Texas, to read diary entries about “the jealousy effect” before a live audience.
She tells the audience about how, as a kid, she thought she was pale and her hair a frizzy mess. She was just a “little girl” in middle school but her best friend was maturing a whole lot quicker — “she had it all,” Grossman says, including her period and a bra that boys could snap.
At night, Grossman recalls unleashing pent-up fury in her diary — “I would go on angry rants like a drunken sailor on shore leave or worse.”
She reads the audience an entry dated Nov. 9, 1990: “Dear diary, hi. This is the first day I'm writing in you. I thought I'd see if the classic good old diary would help me with what's on my mind. There's a lot. I'm so goddamn jealous of Deb. Everyone likes her because of her body. My body? It's flat, plain, curveless, shapeless, ugly and unpubicized.”
A co-worker had introduced Grossman to the Mortified project and, fortunately, her sister had held on to her diary, which contained “some pretty funny stuff” from her days at Maple Dale School in Fox Point.
The Mortified team also found the material funny. So Grossman did a couple of readings, and then the Austin performance for the Netflix series.
Onstage, she says, “when you get huge laughs, you're like, ‘This is good.'”
The biggest laughs for Grossman in the “Fitting in” episode come when she explains, with more amusement than mortification, the “self-esteem ladder” she created in her diary after her best friend starting going steady with the Maple Dale's most popular boy.
On a zero to 10 scale, a girl saying “Hi” to Grossman rated a three, an “incensere” compliment was a five, a boy talking to her was an eight and a boy liking her — “the ultimate proof of self-worth” — was a 10.
Looking back, Grossman says, “then you kind of wanted to look like everyone else. You wanted to have the same experiences as everybody. You are just like, ‘How does everybody see me?' And I do think it was like that until you sort of realize that you don't have to necessarily fit in to find validation.”
Since the series debuted on Netflix, Grossman has heard from old friends surprised to learn about her insecurities as a middle schooler. They thought she was cute and “pretty cool.”
Grossman is not alone in her observation. Nadelberg says, “We've been overwhelmed with positive responses. We're seeing people all over the world react to these stories. It's incredible to see that this diary of a little girl who grew up in Wisconsin is somehow resonating with a viewer in Korea or Brazil or Italy. And that's what is happening.”
The opening of each episode of The Mortified Guide begins with recollections about puberty, parents, grades, heartache, religion, sexual orientation and this introduction: “Remember the angst? The awkwardness? You are not alone. … Put your hands together for the very, very brave souls who are all about to get mortified.”
Grossman, one of the brave, says, “Oh, I do remember being angsty and jealous.”
Why do people relate to adults sharing their journals, letters, poetry, song lyrics, art, home movies and plays about first kisses and worst prom dates, worst hand jobs and best mall jobs, celebrity crushes and coming out?
“Nostalgia,” says Nadelberg, “is always hypnotic to people. … No matter who you are, your experience at 13 put a big dent in you — probably a bigger dent than what happens to you when you are 23 or 33 or 43.”
When you're growing up, he adds, “everything is big — whether it's happy or sad.”
‘CURATED' SHOWS, NOT OPEN-MIC
In the TV series, the storytellers charm and captivate. They move their audiences to laughter and tears.
Some of them have training in performance art — Grossman, for example, did some improv at Second City. But the participants are editors, ad execs, architects, receptionists, attorneys — people from a range of backgrounds and generations.
The readings are not open-mic performances but curated by the Mortified team.
Nadelberg says, “Curating the show is the most important part of it. If you get onstage with us, we want you to get laughs — and not the bad kind of laughs.”
One way the team connects with prospective storytellers is online at getmortified.com, where people can watch videos, listen to podcasts and submit requests to meet with curators either in a city with a chapter — there isn't one in Milwaukee — or via Skype.
“Everybody can participate,” Nadelberg says. “We have a process where people show up and read us their material. And we help them figure out what of their childhood writings are fun for strangers to hear. … When we find enough, we put them in a show.”
With all its success — the books, TV, film, radio, podcasts, stage shows and workshops — Mortified remains a “scrappy” project and the series an independent program.
“We're really proud of our show,” Nadelberg says. “There really is no other show like it on television and we want more people to know about it.”
By “word-of-mouth,” he says, and sharing the stories, of course.
Liz Grossman, who grew up in the Milwaukee area, appears in an episode of The
Mortified Guide, now on Netflix.
Gabriel Lopez in The Mortified Guide. He reads in “The Mortified Guide to Fitting In” episode.
Shawn Hollenbach is interviewed on The
Mortified Guide. As a kid growing up gay, he created a magical place, diverse and full of love. It was called “Unicorn Island.”
David Nadleberg, left, with readers.