Reflecting on Adolescence: How Stories Can Inspire Teen Empathy

Journal entry by Georgia Gootee alongside photos from 1996. (Courtesy of Georgia Gootee)

When Georgia Gootee examines the journals she wrote as a 15-year-old, she sympathizes with her younger flailing self. “You can read through these journals and tell that at some points I'm just so terrified that it'll never come together, I'll never find my place in the world, I'll never feel loved or love anyone myself,” the 26-year-old teacher told me. At the same time, Gootee can chuckle at the overwrought nature of her youthful preoccupations. “It’s a weird duality,” she said.

Gootee knows this material is funny because she heard the audience laugh when she read excerpts from her teenage journal at a Mortified performance in Portland last year. Mortified shows, as they’re called, feature adults reading aloud and on stage from their adolescent diaries. Like Gootee, readers typically share their most embarrassing and wrenching youthful stories on a variety of subjects: crushes, body image, self-esteem, divorce. Sharing these intensely private excerpts provokes laughter and connection between the audience and reader.

Mortified is the brainchild of self-described “angstologist” David Nadelberg, a writer and storyteller who stumbled on the idea of adults reading aloud from their adolescent journals after he shared a hilariously passionate and juvenile love letter with friends, and witnessed their positive reaction. Mortified was launched in Los Angeles 14 years ago, and now 20 cities around the world host their own live shows. The Mortified “movement” has grown to include podcasts, the film Mortified Nation, a couple of anthologies of stories and a Sundance TV series.

Mortified in Schools

Some Mortified fans, Gootee included, have found another medium for these deeply personal stories: the classroom.

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Gootee teaches teenagers at the Youth Progress Learning Center in Portland, which provides services for kids who have experienced abandonment, delinquency, and other serious challenges. She began to use podcasts of Mortified shows with students as a way to offer them perspective on their own difficult lives. “These kids really struggle with empathy sometimes, and they think no one could ever understand how they’re feeling right now,” Gootee said. In her sessions on mindfulness, she invites kids to bring their pillows and blankets into class and to spread out around (and under) the long conference table, while she tunes in to a Mortified podcast. The first story students heard, told by an older woman about her quaint-seeming struggles with a long-ago high school boyfriend, enchanted the students. Gootee selected the podcast—called Why Do I Date A**holes?—because she knew the girls would be able to relate to young love. Not only did they chortle over the woman’s familiar mishaps, they also opened up about their own romantic challenges. “It started a casual discussion about what in their lives they could look back at and smile or laugh, despite it hurting originally,” Gootee said.

Childhood journals
Teenage journals (Courtesy of Georgia Gootee)

Frank Mathews, a veteran social studies teacher at Wilson High School in Portland, also includes Mortified in the classroom. A part-time producer for Mortified, he has intimate knowledge of the show’s content, as well as access to the scripts. Mathews often summarizes the stories he’s heard, and shares excerpts from the readings with the juniors and seniors in his psychology class. Students pounced when he began to talk about his part-time work. “They were obsessed with wanting to know more,” he said. Mathews recently shared parts of #4 Jimmy: Throw in the Towel about a boy’s coming out experience. “The 'coming out' ones always seem very relatable in Psychology because it deals so directly with their identity,” Mathews explained. Another podcast that works with kids is #54 Don’t F*ck with Emiko, he added, because it grapples with addiction.

The Benefits of Journal Writing 

Both Mathews and Gootee also draw on Mortified to encourage journal-writing among their students. Having endured adolescence with the help of her private diary, Gootee teaches her students to write as an emotional outlet. Mathews, who laments his own failure to record his teenage worries, tells his students that keeping a journal will allow them to write their own history and document their life. “This is a unique moment of your life, and you’ll appreciate the document,” Mathews tells his high school students. Plus, he says, in ten years they can do their own Mortified show.

Sarabeth Leitch, a writing teacher in Portland, says that Mortified has inspired her to assign more personal writing with her freshmen and sophomores. While she hasn’t played a Mortified podcast to her students, she talks about the show and reminds them to hold on to their journals so they can observe, at some later date, their personal growth.

https://soundcloud.com/themortifiedpodcast/15-tynan-peace-one-luv

The Mortified podcast 15 Tynan: Peace! One Luv,” is especially powerful, Leitch said. “It has really mixed up the way I think about writing prompts, and it reminds me what sorts of things are most important to youth: their style, their joys, their voice,” she said. Once relying just on literature as a writing prompt, she now assigns more personal narratives; for example, she asks students to write about their personal experiences as a way to clear their minds. At the end of the school year, Leitch will return the assignments so students can read their earlier writings and perhaps gain a little perspective.

For college professor Alina Miller-Padilla, Mortified provides a wholly different learning opportunity. Miller-Padilla taught a class at Oregon State University on Writing for the Media Professional, and used the Mortified documentary and podcasts as illustrations of superior storytelling. “We focused on how they were saying what they were saying, and on the connection between the storyteller and the audience,” Miller-Padilla said. College students enjoy studying it, she said, because of the human experience it captures. “It’s funny, heartbreaking, and light-hearted, it runs the gamut, and we can all relate to it,” she said.

Some Words of Caution

Many Mortified narratives dwell on provocative subjects that some schools and parents might consider indelicate for teenagers. Also challenging, and what keeps podcast enthusiast Michael Godsey from teaching with Mortified, is the fear that teenagers might interpret adults laughing at distant adolescent pain as trivializing.

Padilla-Miller believes that even the more salacious Mortified stories can work with high school kids if teachers prepare their students ahead of time. Classes on cultural studies, social studies, media and culture are natural audiences for the stories. “It can be a powerful tool if you lay down the foundation to talk about race, class, sexuality and storytelling,” Padilla-Miller said. And screening what students hear, as Mathews does, sidesteps the problem. Though the racy nature of the stories initially attracts students, Mathews said, it’s the poignancy of the narratives that keeps kids engaged. As well, the stories reinforce to young adults that revealing vulnerability is a mark of courage, not weakness. “The heart of Mortified is vulnerability, which is also the heart of relating to people,” he said.

Mathews believes that exposure to Mortified, even in expurgated form, helps kids develop some perspective on their own outsized worries.  Rather than minimize teenage misery, Mortified reveals its universality—and survivability. “Learning that other people go through this difficult phase,” he said, “is the biggest gift of the Mortified podcasts.”

What Teachers Gain

Teachers who endeavor to use these podcasts in class learn a bit themselves. Just listening to Mortified helps ground teachers in the reality of teenage life. While adults might be ruminating about common core requirements and testing schedules, teenagers fixate on petty slights and fears of social isolation. Hearing Mortified podcasts reminds teachers that “kids aren’t thinking about the curriculum,” Mathews said. When teachers show some awareness of teenage worries, he added, students engage more in class. For her part, Sarabeth Leitch listens to Mortified to immerse herself in the high school mentality, and trains teachers using Mortified methods. All teachers should listen to an occasional podcast, she said. “Attending Mortified and hearing story after story truly reminded me of that coming-of-age experience,” she said. “It’s such a call to action to remember the human experience.” This summer, she intends to share original, embarrassing memorabilia from her youth with incoming teachers, and invite them to do the same.

When Gootee pored through old journals to prepare for her Mortified show, some of it still felt raw. As a teenager, she considered herself desperately unappealing, a total loser, a girl without confidantes—and bound to fail. But when grown-up Georgia got on stage and shared her ancient worries with the audience, she felt healed by the crowd’s bellowing support. “I was gloriously wrong—and I hope to prove myself wrong for decades to come,” she said.

How did Gootee’s students, who recently watched a video of her performance, react to the show? “While watching they tried very hard to not laugh, but I managed to get a few giggles out of them,” she said.

Mortified at Home

Pages of Dana Jolivet's teenage journal read on stage at a Mortified show.
Pages of Dana Jolivet's teenage journal read on stage at a Mortified show. (Courtesy of Dana Jolivet)

Dana Jolivet, a recruiter and mother of two who lives in Portland, listened to Mortified podcasts with her teenage daughter Dora on the drives to and from school. Jolivet thought the stories might ease the strain her family was under. “It was cathartic for both of us,” she said. A dutiful diarist when she was a teenager, Jolivet read from her own youthful journals at a Mortified show in May, while her daughter sat in the audience. Jolivet and two others that evening shared their teenage wish to kill themselves.

“I thought I was alone,” Jolivet said about her long-ago suicidal thinking. Hearing other adults share the same story from their youth “lit a lightbulb for me,” she said. “We were all going through the same thing,” she added. Jolivet wanted her daughter to understand that

Pages of Dana Jolivet's teenage journal read on stage at a Mortified show.
Pages of Dana Jolivet's teenage journal read on stage at a Mortified show. (Courtesy of Dana Jolivet)

the agonies of growing up are often fleeting, and that what seems overwhelming and tragic when you’re young can be transcended with time. “It was good for her to hear, and for her to hear other people talk about the exact same stuff,” Jolivet said. “It hits home that things aren’t as serious as you think they are just then,” she added.

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Dora seemed to agree. “I went through a really hard time when I was 13,” she said. Now 15, she understands that she’s not freakish or alone with her troubles. It helps “to not have to learn that at 46, but when you’re going through it,” she added. Dora is close to her mother, and able to talk openly about her worries. But for kids who lack that kind of intimacy with a parent, they might find an outlet in Mortified, she added. “The podcasts are great,” she said. “It’s not exactly a conversation, but you can definitely find someone going through the exact same thing as you are,” she said.

Dora and Dana Jolivet.
Dora and Dana Jolivet (Courtesy of Dana Jolivet)