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Shaping 'Teenage Diaries': Intimacies, Difficulties, Life

A little more than 16 years ago, independent producer Joe Richman equipped a group of teenagers with tape recorders to report on their own lives. The groundbreaking series, Teenage Diaries, produced some of the most personal and memorable stories heard on NPR, and helped to pioneer a movement of first-person narratives on public radio. Since then, listeners have often asked: Where are those teenagers now?

"Hi JOE. Hope u remember me. I recorded my pregnancy with my son Issaiah in 1996. I ran into ur email and if u ever wonder about us we turned out ok." — 2011 email from Melissa Rodriguez to Joe Richman

I met Melissa Rodriguez in 1996. She was 18 and seven months pregnant. I gave her a tape recorder and asked her to document the months leading up to and following the birth of her baby for our Teenage Diaries series on NPR. She was game to record everything; she even brought the tape recorder into the delivery room.

Melissa's diary was an intimate window into a difficult life. She had spent her childhood bouncing between foster care and group homes. With the birth of her son, she was hoping to create the family she never had.

At the time, I had no idea how Melissa's life would turn out. But the odds seemed stacked against her.

When I got her email, after being out of touch for more than a decade, it made me realize two things:

  • I still thought of Melissa as a teen mom. She had been frozen in my mind, and perhaps the memory of some NPR listeners.
  • Her son, Issaiah, was now old enough to do his own "teenage diary."
  • As Melissa told me: A lot of life happens in 16 years.

    That email inspired me to try to track down all 12 of the original teenage diarists. Over the years, I've stayed close with some of them; I've lost touch with others. They are now in their 30s, the same age I was when I first worked with them. A lot has changed in my own life — and in the world — during that time. So I figured I'd find some surprising changes in their lives, too. And I did.

    Fast Forward, Pause, Rewind

    When I met Juan* 16 years ago, he had crossed the Rio Grande illegally with his family and was living in a trailer home 300 feet inside the U.S. border; now he has a wife, three kids, two cars, a good job — the American dream — even though he's still undocumented.

    Frankie Lewchuk was a clean-cut high school football star when I knew him as a teenager; he's the last person I would have thought would become addicted to crystal meth.

    For the past year, Melissa, Juan and Frankie, along with Amanda Brand and Josh Cutler, have carried around recorders to once again document their lives. Their personalities, and their stories, couldn't be more different. But the process was the same as it was in the mid-1990s. They recorded more than 40 hours of sound: scenes, conversations and late-night thoughts. All this was edited and shaped into the documentaries that make up Teenage Diaries Revisited.

    As a radio producer, going through hours and hours of raw audio diary tapes is like mining for gold. Ninety percent of what a diarist records doesn't end up on the radio. But every so often they capture moments from their daily lives that are completely unexpected, and say so much. There are some stories that can only be told by those who live them.

    Lucky Accidents

    Over the years, many listeners have asked about Josh, who recorded his teenage diary about his struggle with Tourette's syndrome. One of the things that made Josh a great diarist is that I never knew what he was going to say next. Sometimes he didn't, either. I always thought he was kind of a metaphor for an audio diary. There is something magical about handing someone a tape recorder, because you never know what will happen. Lucky accidents are part of the DNA of radio diaries.

    Amanda was the first diarist I ever worked with. She taught me why teenagers make good diarists. Amanda — in her self-described "industrial gothic" style — drove around with her friends aimlessly on a Friday night; she burped while walking around her house; and she recorded an intimate and difficult conversation with her parents about her sexuality.

    The teen years are a time when people are beginning to discover themselves and their world. They are curious and impatient for their life story to begin. Unlike many adults, teenagers have an inherent belief that whatever they say is important, and that people should pay attention.

    As a teenager, Amanda knew she was gay. Her parents told her it was just a phase. Today, Amanda's new diary reflects how far her parents — and the country — have come since the project debuted in 1996.

    Teenagers All Grown Up

    Another advantage in working with teenagers is that they have a lot of time. That's one thing you lose in the transition to adulthood. The diarists in Teenage Diaries Revisited are busy. They have jobs, some have children. They have less time to play around with a tape recorder. And that's another thing that's changed: They aren't using tape recorders anymore.

    The other difference, this time around, is that the diarists not only created portraits of their present-day lives, they also revisited their teenage diaries. All the diarists told me it was both uncomfortable and mesmerizing to listen in on their teenage selves, knowing how things would turn out.

    As Melissa says in the beginning of her new diary: "[When you're a teenager] you never think what could possibly happen." Teenage Diaries Revisited reveals what did happen over more than 16 years. These are the extraordinary stories of ordinary life.

    *We are not using Juan's last name.

    Joe Richman is the founder and executive producer of Radio Diaries.

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