Sharing Private Shame for Public Laughs

Across the world, people are digging out old diaries and journals and reading the embarrassing bits out loud in public. The trend started in Brooklyn, where the aptly named "cringe readings" are still going strong.

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Our next story is about what some people do for fun today in Brooklyn. But it has a preface. First, think about the most embarrassing thing you ever wrote -a love note, perhaps a poem penned when you were a teenager. Now imagine reading it out loud in front of a crowd. May sound like torture to you, but for others, that's entertainment. Cringe readings, as they're called, began in the back room of a Brooklyn bar two years ago, and have spread around the world.

NPR's Robert Smith went back to the original venue to soak up the shame.

ROBERT SMITH: I know you probably think that your youth had some mortifying moments. But nothing compares to this. Sarah Baron(ph) wrote a complete pornographic screenplay when she was 11 years old.

Ms. SARAH BARON (Patron, Freddy's Bar): It's like the whole thing is written -it's like a little 11-year-old handwriting. You know, it's like all Is are dotted with like little hearts and my spelling was horrible. So I was like constantly spelling words like pinus(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BARON: And vigania.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: We're in the backroom of Freddie's Bar in Brooklyn. And as usual, the monthly show has drawn dozens of curious strangers. Baron has brought her friends, Maggie McBryan(ph) and Joseph Vanex(ph) to read from the porno script.

Ms. MAGGIE McBRYAN (Patron, Freddy's Bar): (Reading) We got to his house and he took off his T-shirt and put on black umbros(ph) and said how easy is it to get those clothes off. And I said why don't you try and find out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McBRYAN: (Reading) So he took off my brassiere.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McBRYAN: (Reading) So then he starts making out with me with tongue and ear biting, then we start violently and wildly...

SMITH: Wait right there. I'm going to fast forward through this part. Although the sex scenes are not really anatomically or physiologically accurate, this 11-year-old's imagination is still too dirty to put on the air. Let's pick it up in the afterglow.

Mr. JOSEPH VANEX (Patron, Freddy's Bar): (Reading) Cool. So, you want to do this again sometime? It was satisfying.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McBRYAN: (Reading) Maybe for you.

Ms. BARON: And I just want to say, after 50 pages, those were like the last two lines of the whole thing, which I think is an amazing predictor of how sex really unfolded when I had it a few years later in dorm rooms.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

SMITH: Now you know why they call it cringe. With each reading, a shudder of recognition goes through the audience and the readers too. Afterwards, Baron is still a little freaked out.

Ms. BARON: If you can imagine reading some of that text and knowing that it came out of you, it's very disconcerting.

SMITH: And very funny. That's what a young woman from Oklahoma discovered a few years ago when she started to sort through her childhood diaries.

Ms. SARAH BROWN (Founder and Organizer of Cringe): My name is Sarah Brown and I am the founder and organizer of Cringe, the reading series in Brooklyn.

SMITH: Brown had just rediscovered an old box of her journals and was e-mailing the juicy bits out to her friends.

Ms. BROWN: And every week, right before I would hit send, I would think, why am I doing this? This is really embarrassing. And then the minute you hit send, like, you know, five minutes later, people would start writing back. Talking about how funny it was and how they remembered that and things like this. So then, immediately, you have this feeling, of like, oh I can top that. So the next week, you try to find something even worse, which was really not that difficult.

SMITH: In 2005, the virtual shame went live with a public reading here in Freddy's Bar. In turns out Brown wasn't the only one who had saved her teenage ramblings. Everyone wanted to share.

Ms. BROWN: When people are trying to decide whether or not they should read something, I always tell them, the thing that when you read it to yourself, it physically makes you cringe. The line that makes you think, like, I can't read that sentence. I'll skip that sentence. That's the line you should read at Cringe because that's the one that's going to - everybody's going to laugh the hardest at.

SMITH: Luckily, people seem to have held onto lots and lots of embarrassing stuff. On this night, Marie Penny(ph) brings up a daily newspaper she used to write about her teenage life.

Ms. MARIE PENNY (Patron, Freddy's Bar): October 24th, I'm so mad. Michael(ph) said that someone told Jason(ph) I have a wart on my nose.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PENNY: I think that it was Heather(ph). She seems to be jealous that I have a 50-percent chance of having a boyfriend.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PENNY: Now, it's 15 percent. I hate my life.

SMITH: Poetry is always a favorite. Karen Zarkony(ph) read from her faux-leather-bound journal from when she was 16.

Ms. KAREN ZARKONY (Patron, Freddy's Bar): (Reading) I hate words.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ZARKONY: (Reading) I used to think they meant something of importance. Why do you touch my skin? You have your own.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: Enim Shakiro(ph) read a daily account of her high school job at a pizza parlor surrounded by older boys.

Ms. ENIM SHAKIRO (Patron, Freddy's Bar): (Reading) Bobby, I'll always love and want, but he's married as far as I'm concerned. Craig(ph), well, he keeps asking when I'm coming over and all, but I think he's totally kidding. I would love to just go somewhere with Stick(ph), Bobby, Scott(ph) or Crack(ph), like to the mall or to the movies or something. That sounds so babyish, but I'm such a romantic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHAKIRO: (Reading) Or we could just find a waterfall.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: During the show, people make fun of their teenage selves. But it's clear that they also carry that insecure kid around inside them. Sarah Baron, who wrote the naive porno, says you have to come to terms with that before you can read.

Ms. BARON: I was such a geek at that age, which I guess everybody feels like they are, but that was the other element of it. There was nothing happening in real life.

SMITH: What would the 11-year-old Sarah think if she knew that someday, this would be performed in front of a crowd?

Ms. BARON: I think I would have cried. I was so ashamed of it. I was just so Unattractive, and like, overweight and I had, like, the headgear and the braces and like the whole nine yards. So I think I would have been really mortified. Like, I don't think I would have found it in any way amusing or liberating. I think it would have been what makes it very sad.

SMITH: So is it wrong to laugh so hard? Nah. One of the audience members, Trent Rosekrantz(ph), says the tenderness makes it funnier than stand-up comedy.

Mr. TRENT ROSEKRANTZ (Patron, Freddy's Bar): You go up here, someone's vulnerable. And they're allowing you into their world. And so you're laughing with them and at them, but it's like you want to give everybody a big hug afterwards because it was just like, it's okay. It was okay. And we were all there and we were all just ridiculous.

SMITH: And so the cringe empire grows. They've filmed the pilot of the show for the cable channel TLC. And Sarah Brown is editing a Cringe book due out next year. And there's always more material. Brown says that when young people today look back at their blogs and MySpace pages in 10 or 15 years, they'll be very embarrassed, and hopefully, able to laugh.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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