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COLUMN ONE

It wasn't funny at the time

April 14, 2007|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

New York — 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.

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.

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.

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