It wasn't funny at the time

Times Staff Writer

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 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 crap, 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:

Jan. 5, 1991:

Jennifer and I were in Musicland, playing "Stairway to Heaven" on the keyboard and laughing. I was laughing and my hair (thank GOD I curled it today!) fell over my shoulder and for once I KNOW I looked good. Then I looked up and there he was, five feet away, like he was waiting to say something, and I know if he had said something, it would have been, "Sarah?"

They couldn't stop laughing. Brown sent excerpts to about 15 friends on an e-mail group.

Nov. 25, 1988:

Today Erin and I are reading each other's diaries. It's funny because in one of my diaries, I was in kindergarten and I spelled everything wrong. I bet when I wrote those kindergarten entries I never would have thought that I'd laugh when I read them in sixth grade. Someday when I'm in 11th grade, I'll probably read THIS and laugh. But then, maybe I won't.

The list expanded as friends forwarded her diary entries. In 2005, Brown moved from Tulsa, Okla., to New York to become a writer. She invited a small group to the first Cringe Night at Freddy's, her neighborhood bar. She wrote about it on her blog. Word spread. Now, the monthly event is standing room only, even when it snows.

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. The next Los Angeles show is Wednesday at 8 p.m., at King King in Hollywood; tickets cost $15 at the door.

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.

Cringe Night, she said, has drawn onetime science-fiction aficionados, Christian conservatives and homecoming queens, among others. "It's the same themes," Brown said: angst-filled, narcissistic, cliche-ridden teenage writings. "If I had known, when I was in eighth grade, the popular girl was worried about the same things I was, it would have been a relief."

Most attend Cringe Night to watch, like Josh Gallaway, 33, a graduate student at Colombia University. He said it's one of the best ways to take a break from writing his thesis in chemical engineering.

He used to be a gloomy teenager who listened to the Cure. Now he wears button-down shirts and likes basement bars. When Gallaway listens to Cringe readers, he can often tell who was popular and who was depressed. "Every once in a while, there's somebody who is just so funny it's almost unbearable," he said. Then there are readers whose stories are "wistful, and sad a little bit."

"Maybe there's like a heartwarming message in it," he said, "that we're all the same."

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."

Audience members filled every wooden chair inside the black and yellow room. Some stood. Others sat on crates. The walls were decorated with paintings of naked women and a baby doll holding a cigarette. A pink spotlight glowed behind Tchume, who prefaced her piece: "This was the first time I actually fell in love with someone outside of my race."

The audience responded: "Ooooh."

The boy didn't love her back. She went on: "This was, like, huge racial tension. We're talking Shawshank level."

June 6, 1994:

How can I possibly describe the way I feel?

The dumb leading the dumb....

Is it love?

A word passed around like grated parmesan?

Hearing herself recite the line, Tchume scrunched her face and, well, cringed.

The crowd laughed.

Next came Jennifer Epel, 33, who read an entry about a high school crush:

If I wrote a paper on him, I would honestly delve into every aspect of him so deeply that A-plus would not be a high enough grade to give. No grade can express the strength of the emotion I have for him.

She blushed as the audience chuckled.

Epel is a Cringe regular. Her first public reading came from a diary she kept when she was 14, which included passages like:

I just want to be mysteriously seductive, the same way Carol Seaver was trying to do when she told everybody that she went to bed with Bobby Wynette on "Growing Pains."

"When I look back at some of those entries now, I see just how over-the-top I was," said Epel, a former newspaper reporter who is studying to become a teacher. "That's what this is all about, to just look back on that and laugh."

ON this Wednesday evening, it was Ciletti's first time reading at Cringe. The soap-opera-like entries she wrote at 12 brought the hardest laughs.

Ciletti, who still writes in diaries, keeps a trunk full of them dating back to 1980 in her apartment. She also stores boxes of journals at her parents' home. Her old ones are decorated with Snoopy stickers, bits of coconut shells, a packet of sugar she got from a trip to an ice cream factory, a ticket stub from her first concert: John Denver.

Her adult diaries are simple: Black artist sketchbooks she buys for $8.

Over the years her personality has changed like her style of diary. Her old entries reveal a girl obsessed with food fights and fun. "As an adult I've gotten to be more introspective and critical, less lighthearted," she said. "I've become more serious. So it's good to see I wasn't once."

Ciletti performs comedy, and says her sense of humor is deadpan and dry. Maybe, she said, it comes with becoming older, more responsible, more cynical.

"Now, I'm less likely to see the joy in going to a ice cream parlor and putting a pack of sugar in my diary," she said. "I feel like I've come a long way, but I also wouldn't mind going back."

Unassuming in her navy-blue sweatshirt and jeans, she showed the crowd her journal with the words: "Property of Becky Ciletti," written on it. She began:

This diary was started Feb. 1, 1980 at exactly 4:42 p.m.

Feb. 1: On Tuesday, January 29, Kelly asked me to go with him. On Wednesday, I dropped him. He was mad at me until Thursday. He was nice on Friday.

Feb. 14: I gave Kelly a Valentine signed love.

Feb. 19: I don't like Kelly. Now I like Rick.

Feb. 29: Yesterday in art we threw spit wads and crayons at each other. It was fun.

March 4: Those two lumps on my chest are sure to stay there forever. I don't think I'm growing them.

April 7: Today we had our practice for our pageant. I want the igloo part soooo much. Please give me the strength to get the igloo part. I also want to get popular with boys and get straight As.

April 9: Mike is such a fox, a total babe and a hunk. It was love at first sight with me and Mike.

May 1: Mike Brown asked me to go with him. I said yes.

May 2: After school Todd ... asked me to go with him. I said I probably would if I wasn't going with Mike.

Ciletti paused to look at the audience. Some people laughed so hard they had tears in their eyes.

P.S., she continued with a straight face, I'm getting popular.

erika.hayasaki@latimes.com

For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 17, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction Diary readings: An article in Saturday's Section A about adults reading their teenage diaries and writings in public misspelled the name of the university that graduate student Josh Gallaway attends. It is New York's Columbia University, not Colombia University.
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