Beginning in 1996, Radio Diaries gave tape recorders to teenagers around the country to create audio diaries about their lives. NPR’s All Things Considered aired intimate portraits of five of these teens: Amanda, Juan, Frankie, Josh and Melissa. They're now in their 30s. Over this past year, the same group has been recording new stories about where life has led them for our series, Teenage Diaries Revisited.
THEN: Amanda Brand is gay. Her family is Catholic, and when she was a teenager, her parents were convinced she was only going through a phase. Back then, Amanda recorded a diary about coming out to her parents and to the world. "When I was in first grade, I remember one day we were playing a game that was kind of like Sleeping Beauty, where like the prettiest girl on the block fell asleep on a picnic bench. And you know, somebody had to go and wake her up, to like, kiss her and revive her, and it would always be one of the boys. And I always felt like I wanted to go and revive her."
NOW: Amanda sat down again with her mother and father, in the same house where she grew up, to revisit her tumultuous teen years. Not only have her parents accepted her sexuality, they've even helped counsel other families dealing with the same thing. Her mother says, "We were brought up being taught differently, but I think we as a family have really evolved."
Amanda in 1996
THEN: Juan came to the U.S. with his family, who crossed the Rio Grande illegally in 1992, and he spent his teen years in Texas, a few hundred feet from that same river. The family lived in a trailer. At times, there was no food to eat. When he was 18, Juan recorded a diary about life along the Rio Grande, and his dreams for the future.
NOW: Juan has made a life for himself in Colorado that might seem like the American dream: a house, a job, two cars, three kids, a happy marriage. But he remains undocumented. Juan's radio diary chronicles life under the radar. (NPR is not revealing Juan's full name, because he is living in the country illegally.)
Juan in 1996
THEN: Frankie Lewchuk was a high school football star whose picture was in his hometown newspaper every week. He thought he and his family were normal, until he learned that his father was on the run from the law. One day, the FBI showed up, and his dad landed in prison. Frankie's diary explored his relationship with his father, and how his life was both ordinary and extraordinary.
NOW: Years after graduating from high school, Frankie was back in the hometown paper, this time for drug-related crimes. He has struggled with an addiction to crystal meth. Now, Frankie is becoming a dad. He takes his recorder along as he attempts to repair his life and his relationship with his family.
Frankie in 1997
THEN: Josh Cutler has Tourette's syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes uncontrollable tics and verbal outbursts. He took his tape recorder to high school, documenting his efforts to live a normal life. "Girls are a very touchy topic with me," he said. "A lot of the Tourettic things I do seem to drive other people — including girls — away."
NOW: Josh overcame Tourette's enough to become a public school teacher in New York City. But it hasn't been easy for him. He was put on probation by the New York Department of Education two years ago and is currently fighting the charges. Josh's new diary is about his efforts to live a normal life with a brain that often betrays him.
Josh in 1996
THEN: In 1996, after 12 years living in the foster care system, Melissa Rodriguez recorded a diary about getting pregnant and becoming a mother. She was trying to straddle life as a teenager with the coming responsibilities of parenthood. When Issaiah was born, she struggled to create a more stable family than she'd experienced as a child. "I'm the keeper," she said. "When I hold him, I just feel, you know, important to him."
NOW: Melissa's son is a teenager. She and Issaiah have faced many challenges, from eviction notices to his serious health issues. Now, she shares her teenage diary with him and reveals things about her past that she's never mentioned.
Melissa in 1997
NPR and Radio Diaries are looking for a new generation of talented storytellers. We're inviting teens to submit stories, photos and audio diaries to Cowbird.com for a chance to create their own teenage diaries on NPR. Teens have so far submitted hundreds of stories. Here, some that have been told so far.
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?
Joe Richman is the founder and executive producer of Radio Diaries.
"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:
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.
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.
Radio Diaries: Produced by Joe Richman and Sarah Kate Kramer with Sarah Reynolds. Edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. Mixed by Ben Shapiro
NPR: Tanya Ballard Brown, Coburn Dukehart, David Gilkey, Heidi Glenn, Christopher Groskopf, Alyson Hurt, Keith Jenkins, Alison MacAdam and Christopher Turpin
Photos: Present-day photos of Amanda Brand, Josh Cutler, Juan, Frankie Lewchuk, Melissa Rodriguez and Joe Richman by David Gilkey/NPR. Circa-1996/1997 photos via Radio Diaries.