How em­bar­rass­ing

In Mor­ti­fied project, adults share their pri­vate mid­dle school angst

Wisconsin Gazette - - Front Page - By Lisa Neff Staff writer

“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.”


“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.”


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 get­mor­ti­, 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.

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