Everyone Has a Secret

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Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking

Secrets for everyone
PostSecret founder Frank Warren's wildly popular Web site combines shared selves, anonymity.
ColumbiaTribune.com
November 9, 2008

[Postcards] from PostSecret, which started as a “sociological prank” where participants are invited to “anonymously contribute a secret to a group art project”, [from] more than 300,000 submissions since 2004. Frank Warren, PostSecret’s founder spoke at Jesse Hall at the MU campus, on Thursday.

"You are invited to anonymously contribute a secret to a group art project. Your secret can be a regret, fear, betrayal, desire, confession or childhood humiliation. Reveal anything - as long as it is true and you have never shared it with anyone before."

These are the words that appeared on PostSecret founder Frank Warren's original stack of blank postcards, which he scattered throughout his Germantown, Md., community. But it's not like when you're playing Truth or Dare and when you pick Truth, everyone laughs at your secret. Four years and more than 300,000 secrets later, Warren is not laughing.

"PostSecret started as a sociological prank," Warren said on the phone recently from his home, the exact address of which - if you're curious - can be found on his Web site or in any of his four best-selling books. "As time has gone by the project has developed, and as I've heard amazing stories from people, it feels like it has more of a spiritual meaning now. I wouldn't consider it self-help. I think of it as art, but I think it transcends a lot of different fields. I think art and healing can be the same."

One of the first postcards said, "I'm a white guy, but I like black girls." It was displayed at a Washington, D.C., community art show in 2004, and at some point during the exhibition - Warren isn't sure when - someone took a pen and scribbled the words "That's OK" right on the postcard.

With that, the tone of PostSecret was officially set. This is not the art of galleries and museums, where the air is hushed and alarms go off if you draw near. Whether you are sending in your own anonymous secrets, checking the PostSecret blog in home's privacy or approaching a microphone in Jesse Hall on the University of Missouri campus, where Warren spoke on Thursday - this has become a conversation where everyone is welcome.

"I see myself as a curator," Warren said. Or "maybe a film editor taking these scenes from people's lives and weaving them together to convey this cohesive narrative about all of us, as told through the secrets we hide from others and ourselves."

Like few things in a world that tends toward impersonal mass-production, PostSecret has stayed remarkably small. Imagine it: Warren, the owner of a small document-delivery business, walks more than once daily to the end of his driveway to collect the mail. Back inside the house, he extracts the bills, the junk mail, the political solicitations and the occasional secret his 14-year-old daughter will slip in, spreads the rest on the table and begins to sort homemade, silly, heartbreaking, sexual, cruel, hilarious, touching confessions from all over the world - every single one. He picks 20 or so for publication on his Web site, postsecret.blogspot.com, every Sunday and keeps the leftovers, although where "is going to be a secret I keep," he said.

It is difficult to sufficiently convey the scope of artistry found in these postcards. Collage is one of the more popular forms PostSecrets take; many look remarkably similar to the artwork of Barbara Kruger. People draw their own pictures, appropriate popular images, write on real postcards, use photographs or tape messages typed or written on myriad materials, from computer paper to Band-Aids. Some are rudimentary, just words written on plain paper. Many mimic the found art of Dadaism, using unexpected materials. One confession, for example, is scrawled in permanent marker inside the wrapper of a Reese's peanut butter cup: "In elementary school, I started lying and telling everybody I was allergic to peanuts. This is my first peanut butter cup in years..."

The subject matter cannot be easily summed up either because it has to do with every inch of life. Some have lost their religion. Many are in love, and even more are afraid to tell the one they love about their feelings. Some talk of suicide, others of broken marriage vows, still others of piercings or tattoos parents still don't know about. Many are literal confessions of a sexual deed or prank - "The fax machine wasn't stolen, I TOTALLY went Office Space on it in my back yard last Saturday" - while perhaps more are revealed fears and anxieties, the things we are ashamed to admit about ourselves.

Copycats have sprung up, from foreign versions - such as PostSecret France and PostSecret auf Deutsch in Germany - to other confession sites such as grouphug.us, confessionpost.com and daily confession.com. LifeChurch.tv even began a Christian version called mysecret.tv, where people can anonymously post and respond to one another on message boards arranged by topic, such as sexuality, adultery, addictions and regret.

Of these, however, Warren still holds the gold standard. He strives to wield an invisible hand, determined to set no political, religious or personal agenda. He has not accepted advertising for his site, which still resides on the widely used free blog site Blogger despite lucrative offers. He has not taken out a post office box, even when the mailperson began bringing around 200 postcards to his home daily, and he has not hired a committee to sort through them.

"I'm tied to this project in very deep ways I'm aware of and unaware of at the same time," Warren said. "In some ways, I believe it was a way for me to explore secrets in my own life, by being inspired by the postcards strangers mail me every day."

One of the secrets printed in his second book, "My Secret," stands out from all the others. A message, typed on plain copy paper in Times New Roman, is taped to the cover of "The Catcher in the Rye," the classic book by J.D. Salinger. It reads: "If you feel like you are going insane, and you are trapped in a dysfunctional environment, You Are Not Crazy." More a message than a confession, an encouragement than a secret, this is the work of Warren himself, who inserts one of his own secrets into each book.

Though Warren believes keeping mum can occasionally be good thing - opinions on relatives that are better kept to oneself, for example - "I think we all have too many secrets," he said. "Sometimes when we think we're keeping a secret, that secret's actually keeping us, and it could be undermining our relationships with other people, could be affecting our goals all in way that we're unaware of until we've faced a part of ourselves we're hiding from."

PostSecret has raised more than $500,000 for the National Hopeline Network, the suicide prevention hotline. Warren, who has lost a family member and good friend to suicide, has also struggled through some difficult times himself, he said. The PostSecret Community Web site also includes resources about self-injury, abuse, suicide and eating disorders.

Given anonymity, people will admit to Warren things they've never told a soul. There is an admittedly voyeuristic aspect to paging through one of his books or checking the blog on Sundays - the secrets do not fulfill but rather serve to heighten our curiosities. After reading someone's secret, you suddenly find yourself holding a remarkable piece of that person - but just that piece, like those photographs that show one detail so closely it's impossible to place it in context. "I finally found my way," writes one person on a roadmap showing a roughly 200-mile stretch of Alberta, Canada. Did this person leave the area? Did he or she arrive there? Does it have anything to do with geography at all?

No one, not even Warren, really knows.

"I think when you're allowed to be anonymous, that's when you dig at those deeper truths you haven't shared with yourself yet," Warren said. "For me, anonymity is special for that reason, but also ... I was thinking the other day about how service to a stranger is holier than church service. I think the actions we take when we're dealing with someone we don't know, or who we'll never meet, really reflect deeply on our morality and who we are. I think it's those connections between strangers that can be so beautiful, and the serendipitous connection between strangers can be very romantic and exciting and meaningful."

photos: Frank Warren