By Christina Wolfe
“When I was in preschool I used to steal the toys.”
“I used to pretend I was with your brother instead of you. I wish I’d met him first.”
“I like to read children’s stories and remember what it was like to think the world was a happy place.”
Welcome to PostSecret.
A place where the most intimate of thoughts are made public, and the public space has become infinitely more intimate. And this place is Frank Warren’s mailbox.
Every week, about a thousand postcards arrive in Warren’s mailbox. But these postcards do not come from friends who have traveled to far-away places — in fact, they are from people Warren has never even met. Each uniquely decorated card is inscribed with a secret from the sender, anything from past experiences, guilty pleasures and amusing anecdotes to heartbreaking personal truths.
Warren then posts the secrets on his blog, accessible at postsecret.blogspot.com, which means that, every week, about 1,000 people find the courage to send their secrets to a perfect stranger to be shared with the world.
On May 6, Warren, the creator of PostSecret, gave a highly anticipated talk at Stanford University. The crowd, which was mostly comprised of young people, milled around in the foyer of the auditorium, holding PostSecret books and craning their heads for a glimpse of the awaited “secret master.”
Coca O’Donnel, who heard about PostSecret from a friend and has been a fan of the site ever since, had never been to a PostSecret talk before and was drawn to the event by her own desire to begin sharing secrets.
“I was struck by how amazingly honest people were but also how sad it was that people couldn’t tell those secrets to people they love and they had to do it online,” she said. Although she had never sent in a secret of her own, she confessed that she planned to soon.
Charlotte Lau, a Stanford sophomore, was another first timer to a PostSecret event. She had heard about PostSecret a year ago and was captivated by PostSecret’s potential for self-realization.
“I think a lot of times … we have our secret secrets [and] it’s kind of awesome to have someone admit what you won’t really admit to other people – maybe not even to yourself,” Lau said.
Long time blog reader Nina Whang agreed that the act of sharing secrets makes PostSecret a place to relate and connect.
“When you go on the site, and you see all the people’s secrets, you kind of relate to it,” she said. “You thought you were the only one going through that stuff, but you see when you go on it, [you feel like] ‘Oh! I’m not the only one.’”
This is a similar feeling to one that Warren had, which he shared in the evening’s talk. He claimed to have had his own secret-epiphany about an event in his childhood through reading someone else’s that had been sent to him. Warren said, “Only through the courage of strangers was I able to face my own secrets.”
When Warren finally took the stage, appeasing the anxious crowd of fans, he opened unassumingly with “Hi. My name is Frank and I collect secrets.”
The stage was decorated simply; only a stool, a table displaying one of his books, and a computer accompanied him. In the background, a screen projected the PostSecret logo in white on black.
Warren spoke as if to a crowd of old friends, his amiability making it obvious why so many people choose to trust him with their secrets. His talk was peppered with jokes as well as secrets and anecdotes.
In addition to postcards, Warren named some of the things he’s received secrets on: hotel card keys, parking tickets, deflated balloons, naked Polaroid pictures of the sender, wedding announcements, and even a bag of coffee.
He refers to the secrets as “graphic haikus” and takes his position as Secret Holder very seriously.
“I’ve been able to create this relationship with strangers,” Warren said. “They know I’ll treat their secret with dignity and respect.”
The project began with an idea Warren had to get a small amount of strangers to share their secrets with him. In 2004 Warren stood in Washington D.C. and handed out post cards that explained the project. He got all kinds of reactions, even people claiming that they did not have any secrets.
“They always have the best ones,” he joked.
He expected the project to be finished when he stopped passing out his printed postcards, but self-made cards began showing up at his door.
The project grew and took on new and different shapes. The blog is the most readily accessible outlet of PostSecret, which Warren describes as a living record of secrets; as you’re reading them, somewhere, someone is still carrying that secret.
But, according to Warren, it’s not just the secret that is alive – the blog has taken on a life of its own as well.
“It’s a feeling, it’s a website, it’s a virtual community, but it’s a real community too,” Warren said.
There are also PostSecret books, in which Warren said he tried to create “a story about all of us, told through our secrets.” There are four books total, PostSecret: Extraordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives, My Secret: A PostSecret Book, The Secret Lives of Men and Women, and A Lifetime of Secrets. And just like the blog that expanded to also have pages in Spanish, French, and German, the books are also available in Korean.
Currently there is a PostSecret art exhibit running from May 17 through July 13 at the Brevard Art Musuem in Melbourne, Fla. The art exhibit displays the tangibility and artistic nature of the secrets, and serves as a chance to see both sides of the cards. Although senders may not be professional artists, Warren feels that their decorated postcards – and mainly the included confession – are powerful forms of expression.
“There is a sub-textual message: that there is an artist in all of us, and that sometimes courage is more important than art training in creating something that moves people,” Warren said.
As for giving lectures, Warren feels they are essential in fostering the secret-sharing community.
“Events like this allow you to feel less isolated with your secret and give you permission in a way,” he said.
As a result of his dedication to interacting with the PostSecret circle, Warren spends much of his time traveling. He justified the effort in an interview with City on a Hill Press (CHP).
“It’s difficult, but it’s the most gratifying part of the project for me,” he said. “It’s really meaningful to hear the stories behind the secrets and listen to the community. And it also is very useful because it helps me understand how I should groom the project.”
As the creator of the project, Warren has the freedom to direct the project in whatever way he thinks it should go. He feels no need to commercialize PostSecret because he runs his own separate business as an absentee owner.
“It’s nice because I don’t have to make financial decisions with PostSecret based upon my own interests,” Warren said. “It allows me to do right by the project because the business takes care of the bills.”
And while the project has the freedom to be as fluid as it needs to be, the essential ideas behind the project remain constant.
“I think there are two main themes in the secrets,” he said. “The idea that when we think we are keeping a secret, that secret is actually keeping us. And, that we all have the potential to face our secrets.”
As an inevitable expert on secrets – or at least on collecting them – Warren has noticed more than just recurring themes. He has realized that the motives behind sending and subsequently publicizing secrets come from a common desire for acceptance for who we are beneath the surface.
“I think the motives are as varied as the secrets,” he said. “[The motives speak] to a deeper meaning, a search for authenticity, or grace, or absolution.”
Warren has also made some disheartening observations about secrets throughout his project. He spoke to the audience about some saddening similarities among the secrets.
“I get more postcards about self-harm, body image, sexual abuse, and suicide, than about other things,” he said. “I think in some ways, suicide is America’s secret.”
Many postcards are sent in with pictures of harm inflicted on the senders by either themselves or other people, and many more cards discuss suicidal thoughts. Recently posted on the blog was a postcard showing a bruise and message of defiance toward whoever harmed the sender.
Warren is active in combating suicide. There are resource centers and hotlines listed on his website for people seeking help, and he is active in promoting and helping the organization 1-(800)-SUICIDE.
At the end of his talk, he opened the floor for people to come up and read secrets of their own or to ask questions. So many people wanted to share their secrets that he could barely bring the night to an end. By the time it did, there were not very many dry eyes in the room.
Most people stayed afterward to have Warren sign their books or take pictures with him. Attendee Daniel Clemens, who admitted he was relatively new to PostSecret, was excited by what he had seen.
“It’s a great outlet for people around the world to talk about important things,” Clemens said.
Zoe Bais, who’s been hooked on PostSecret for about a year and has sent in two secrets, feels that sharing secrets this way released people from “the stress of having people judge them.”
“It was really cool to hear him talk about it – to hear his thoughts on it,” Bais said. “Because you only ever imagine what people feel like sending them in and what he feels like receiving them.”
Warren addressed this unique feeling in his interview with CHP after the talk.
“I feel like a kid on Christmas morning every time I check my mailbox,” Warren said. “For me, secrets don’t get old. They’re infinitely fascinating.”
However, Warren stressed that his relationship with the people who send in secrets is more complex than a kid opening up presents on Christmas – the weight and responsibility of being the ‘Secret Holder’ wouldn’t allow for such simplicity.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m the wrong person for the job,” he said. “But I just try and struggle everyday to make the right decisions for the project.”
As PostSecret continues to flourish as an intimate community, Warren’s decisions seem to have been for the best. For the thousands who have joined the secret-sharing community, the project has managed to transcend the social barriers of what is considered private and to connect them through what they hide.
As he looked out onto his audience of young secret sharers, Warren expressed his own desire to see one of them create a project similar to PostSecret someday; one that would continue to build bridges between people in unconventional ways, and would thus enable a greater unity of humanity.
In a call to embrace and enact this potential, Warren said, “Try to remember, each one of us has a secret that would break your heart. If we could remember that, I think there would be more compassion and more peace in the world.”