Morto for me: excruciating encounters with my teenage self

The Irish Times, July 2014

There’s a sharp squirm of embarrassment when I open my teenage diary. No matter how many times I flick through those pages and find something to laugh at, the discomfort never quite fades. I barely recognise this person and I don’t think I want to. Even though there are 15 years between us now, trying to relate to that earnest voice just feels painful.

The idea to rediscover this younger version of myself came after seeing the documentary Mortified Nation. It’s about a stage show in the US where people read out humiliating extracts from their adolescent musings in front an audience.

Watching it is a cringe-inducing experience. “I just put down my Anne Frank diary – I can really relate to her struggle,” is one standout line. But it also makes for a hilarious, even touching portrayal of the hormone-induced insanity teenagers go through. It may have been hard to believe at the time, but it turns out we were all grappling with similar feelings.

That doesn’t make revisiting it any easier. The night I saw Mortified Nation, I decided against attending a play by an old friend purely because he had invited most of our year at school. Apart from the few I’ve remained close with, I will cross the street in dread if I spot someone who even resembles a former classmate. After watching Mortified Nation, however, I wondered whether it’s just my old self I’ve been trying to avoid all this time.

Sure enough, after digging out an old box at the back of a wardrobe, I find my answer. My first diary opens, quite immodestly, with what I must have thought was a fitting quote. It’s from the prison letters of George Jackson, a Black Panther. Apart from conveniently overlooking the fact that I was a white teenager in suburban Ireland, this is the first signpost towards a horror show of teenage angst and insecurity.

“When you read this, you will know me,” I begin. What sort of readership I had in mind here is unclear but the contents read like an ill-conceived autobiography, divided into chapters and written in the tone of someone on their death bed. Apparently I had a fear of dying prematurely without leaving something meaningful behind... though it’s hard to think of a worst testament to my character than this. I’m beginning my final year of school, having recently turned 18, and seem much further away from adulthood than I remember being.

Yet there’s so much change packed into that one year that, even while writing it, I was going back over the pages in wonder at the transformation taking place. At one point I’m despairing over not fitting in; at another I’m declaring it the happiest times of my life. I go from praying every night to reasoning that, actually, this religious stuff doesn’t quite add up. Nietzsche quotes begin appearing. Jim Morrison and 2Pac are revered as intellectual giants. “I almost sound pretentious,” I remark.

Somewhere beneath the growing pains, there is a well-meaning teenager grateful for what he has in life. Mostly, though, the pages are brimming with awkward moments I had either blocked out or rewritten in my own head. These are recounted in such excruciating detail that it’s difficult to take in: the self-righteousness, the drama, the lack of perspective, the floundering for an identity. The whole point of returning to this journal was to glean something worthwhile from my teenage self. Instead I’m taken aback at how clueless I was.

But there is someone who might be able to make sense of it. Dave Nadelberg developed Mortified as a stage show in 2002 after finding an unsent love letter he wrote as a teenager which he then shared with friends. What was originally intended as a one-night storytelling performance quickly took off. Fans became performers and performers became producers. Anyone can set up a chapter in their own city (a Mortified Dublin is currently being explored) whereby organisers help participants unearth their past, sort through the rawness and see their lives as a story.

Nadelberg is the perfect person to do this with. He laughs along and offers incisive reassurance, having heard it all before. Since Michael Mayer’s documentary about Mortified recently appeared on Netflix, Nadelberg has been inundated with emails from all over the world by people who’ve been inspired to excavate their past. But teenagers have been writing in too, expressing thanks and relief to Mortified for no longer feeling so alone.

“I really do believe that if you dig up something you saved – whether it’s a photo from a school dance, an old love letter or a home video you shot when you were 14 – and share that with just one person,” Nadelberg says, “you’ll learn a profound amount not just about who you are but how that kid shaped you. You’ll still have some of the same characteristics, bad habits and strengths as that kid. But you’ll also be very different because you’ve learned from his mistakes.”

But the mistakes are what makes me want to destroy this thing. What possesses people to take something like this onstage? It’s a healthy mix, Nadelberg explains, of wanting to make others laugh and taking ownership of your past. That’s where the catharsis comes from. The trick is to focus on times where you’re passionate or taking yourself too seriously. Those clumsy moments of unintentional hilarity are the key to balancing comedy with pathos. And once you gather enough of that, a theme should emerge. So, with this in mind, Nadelberg asks me to read an extract.

“Today the purpose of this book was killed,” I begin. “Stabbed in the back, without warning, and it’s bleeding on the ground.” A girl in my class had the wrong idea about me, I explain, so I tried to get her to read my journal. But she refused, telling me to just accept who I am. There’s a silence on the other end of the line. “You did what?” says Nadelberg. “Woah... Well, that’s mortifying. You were ahead of your time! You were doing Mortified before there was Mortified.”

We both agree that if there’s an underlying theme to the mortification, it’s that I dearly wanted to be understood – specifically, by the opposite sex. The fact that I had little understanding of myself doesn’t seem to have mattered. With the benefit of hindsight, however, anyone who may have been the subject of my affections during this time deserves an apology. Evidently it was a disaster for all involved. If only I could impart to my younger self that the way to a woman’s heart is not through bad poetry, sweets and overwrought letters.

A classic example of the latter is described when, at 16, I wrote to someone I had a crush on. There was only one listing under her surname in the phonebook, so I copied down the address and sent off some soul-bearing serenade. “It was the wrong family,” is all I had to say about what happened next.

It gets worse. Much worse. Thankfully, there’s no way to fit it all within this article. But reading back through the pages, I realise the value in seeing just how much you didn’t know. It’s in the things you wouldn’t say, think or do now. It’s in the things you can’t take back. The things you hope nobody else remembers. The things that, forgotten or not, all have a place in the story. After almost a year of keeping a journal, even my teenage self sensed as much:

“Writing it all down made me see what was wrong, what to work on. It showed me who I was and I just kept working on that, a lot of the time without any awareness. That might not be for everyone but it worked for me.”

In a way, I’m lucky to have this. We tend to go through life without any tangible way of measuring personal growth. The amazing thing about memories is that they’re malleable enough to suit our self-image, our take on how the past unfolded. But when you have a written account of your thoughts and actions, there’s no room to manoeuvre. It’s all there on the page. As firm as the narrative of our lives may seem, sometimes the evidence we leave behind can prove otherwise.

Perhaps that’s why I’m not quite ready to squirm my way through the other six diaries in that old box. After everything I’ve found out about myself, revisiting further instalments does not sound appealing. Nadelberg, however, assures me that it sounds like a goldmine worth cherishing.

“Look at it this way,” he says. “Whatever’s in there, the good news is that you’re not alone. The bad news is that however unique we like to think we are, usually we’re not. We may not have the exact same stories but no matter where you’re from or who you are, we can all relate.”