Ever keep a secret? Ever keep one that you could never share with anyone else?
In that case, prepare to meet the guy whom you will have no problem trusting. For the past three years, Frank Warren of PostSecret has been working to create a community where secrets come out in the open as art and where people find courage to share their secrets with others and with themselves.
The project began in the Washington D.C. subway when Warren was going through a difficult period in his own life. “This project was a way for me to invite strangers to share their secrets with me and, in doing that, I was able to find the courage to recognize secrets I had been hiding from in my own life,” he said.
“By asking for secrets it wouldn’t limit what people would share with me, I didn’t ask for confessions which might be things that imply guilt, I just asked for secrets, things that for whatever reasons we may not feel comfortable sharing with our friends or family,” Warren said.
At first, he passed out blank postcards to passers-by with his address. He asked that the card be decorated and a true secret be written on it and sent to his home in Maryland. The secrets he collected constituted his entry at an art show in Washington, but even after the exhibit was taken down, the cards kept coming.
Today, PostSecret has become one of the most popular blogs on the Internet, with new postcards exhibited every Sunday. Warren has received over 160,000 secrets to date and, as he makes his selections for the blog, he chooses ones that surprise or express common secrets in a new way as well as those that represent the full spectrum of human emotion. “Every week there are ones that are funny and sexual and shocking and hopeful,” he said.
Warren has also undertaken the publication of various PostSecret books. The latest one of four to come out thus far is “A Lifetime of Secrets,” in which he strives to “allow you to see the interesting way in which our secrets change and develop over time but also the surprising ways they stay exactly the same.” The book includes never-before-seen secrets arranged in loose chronological order from people aged eight to 80 and is designed to “tell a biography of us through our secrets.”
Warren has come to see the project as one with therapeutic benefits for both observers and participants. “The first step in addressing any problem you might have is admitting it not just to the other but to yourself,” he said.
People often write to him to say that “facing their secret on a postcard and then physically letting it go into a mailbox allowed them to take a first step in addressing their secret in a way that was appropriate for them.”
Warren also recognizes that addressing deep-rooted problems in this way is much easier for many people – because the cards are anonymous, they neither feel judged nor experience any “social consequences” after submitting the secrets.
Those familiar with the blog may have noticed that very often the secrets are dark and scary and, when asked why, he responded that what we keep secret are the things we are “embarrassed or ashamed to share with other people. Sad secrets don’t necessarily indicate a sad person, but what we keep as secrets are usually those darker things.”
Throughout the last few years, Warren has received many diverse secrets and he admits that while he is no longer shocked at what he reads (and he reads and keeps every one of the cards), he is surprised every day. “There’s something about secrets that’s inexhaustible.”
Warren also describes himself as being “haunted by secrets every hour of every day. No matter what I’m doing I’ll see something or hear something that reminds me of a secret I’ve read and that’s a good thing, it helps me recognize how connected we all
are.” He has also come to feel more empathy toward people in this recognition of our secret connection to one another.
Warren has no regrets about the massive project and does indeed lead a normal life outside of his work with PostSecret. He insists with a laugh that “I’m still just as boring as I ever was, boring suburban husband, father, business owner.”
Described as “America’s most trusted stranger,” Warren retains a very down-to-earth demeanor that highlights his accidental fame. In a sense, he is everyone’s neighbor as he receives post cards in all languages and from all continents. Amazingly, he attests that, at times, two postcards come on the same day “from two different continents, in two different languages, expressing the same fear, the same hope or desire at a very deep level. Our secrets don’t separate us, they connect us.” As of now, Warren does not plan to end the project and wants to continue his work to help people face their fears and to feel connected.
“The most gratifying part of the project is traveling to college campuses and talking about the postcards and hearing inspirational stories from students about how perhaps seeing their secret on a stranger’s postcard changed their life.”
Before returning to his work, Warren reminded us of the fundamental principle of PostSecret. There are “two kinds of secrets: there are the secrets we keep from other people and the secrets that we hide from ourselves.”
The PostSecret community can be found at Warren’s Web site, http://www.postsecret.com
Dukmasova is a member of the class of 2011.