By Randi Baron
Secrets, secrets are no fun, secrets are for everyone — or at least that’s the idea that Frank Warren has promoted through his widely read blog, “PostSecret.” Warren, originally from Germantown, MD, began project locally three years ago, asking people to send in their secrets on postcards to his home address. The effort has now blossomed into a vast online community, where people from all over the world still send postcards to Warren’s home. To date, he’s come out with four books, the profits of which go to 1-800-SUICIDE hotlines. His most recent book, “A Lifetime of Secrets,” was released this past month.
He also recently launched www.postsecretcommunity.com, which lets users record and listen to audio secrets, watch and post video secrets, and chat online with Warren, among many other features. Warren chatted with Buzzsaw this month about his relationship with secrets and success. Check out other’s PostSecrets at www.postsecret.blogspot.com.
Buzzsaw Haircut: What inspired you to begin PostSecret?
Frank Warren: In my own life I was struggling with secrets I’d been carrying for, in some cases, decades, and this was a way for me to approach it… I didn’t realize I’d face a lot of those secrets I was struggling with. Through the courage that strangers showed me with their secrets, I was able to reconcile with my own internal conflicts. It’s art, but also a form of therapy for me.
BH: What did you originally want to do with your life?
FW: I owned a small business for 20 years, so I consider myself an accidental artist, like this project came and found me… I had no grandiose plans for myself. I did a lot of photocopying in my business; it’s very tedious work. I think one of the motivations for starting Postsecret was the unsatisfying work I was doing 40 hours a week, and it motivated me to stat something more creative. And in a sense I sent out this invitation to the world, to bring me something, to give me more meaning and creativity in my work and in my life.
BH: Why do you think people feel so safe sending you their most intimate thoughts, which then get posted for millions of people to see?
FW: I feel like I have this relationship with strangers where they can trust me by putting my home address out in public, in the website and book. And doing that makes me vulnerable. So maybe I’m taking that first step in the relationship, so a stranger feels like they can trust me with something personal from their life. Also, not including pop-up ads, having it remain noncommercial, and treating everybody’s secrets in a non-judgmental way creates an environment where people can trust me.
BH: Since the start of the website almost three years ago, you’ve won several awards, your books have been bestsellers, and you were named number 14 on the Forbes list of the 25 biggest, brightest, and most influential people on the internet. Does all of this seem a little surreal, or has it settled in?
FW: Parts of it do seem surreal, like the fact that my website has received 100 million hits. To see that one person with a different kind of idea can have a huge impact is an inspiration. When I travel to college campuses and see so many people come out with their own secrets and acknowledging others, it’s very gratifying and surreal at the same time.
BH: What do you do when you’re not working on the website?
FW: Well, I spend about 30-40 hours a week on PostSecret, and when I’m not here reading postcards I’m usually traveling. Last month I visited seven college campuses… Having that personal interaction with people who had a secret or had their lives changed is very important to me.
BH: One of my favorite postcards was the one where a person wondered if the mailmen read the postcards, and if so to rip off a corner of it (and they did). Do you have a favorite postcard in this book/of all time?
FW: It’s funny you said that. Another person who just interviewed me said that that was their favorite too. It’s very hard for me to pick a favorite, but I liked the one on the Starbucks cup that’s posted in the book [“Waking up without you is like drinking from an empty cup”]. And there’s a really haunting one with a picture of the twin towers that says “everyone who knew me before 9/11 thinks I’m dead.”
BH: Why only 20 secrets a week?
FW: Because that’s all my coffee table will hold as I lay them out each week.
BH: Have you ever posted your own secrets on your site or in a book?
FW: I have some of my secrets in every book.
BH: What’s the most popular secret that you receive?
FW: I pee in the shower; I’ve seen that artistically rendered in numerable ways.
BH: What do you do with the thousands of unpublished postcards?
FW: They’re all mailed to my house and I read them all and I keep them all.
BH: When I was in high school I volunteered for the Long Island Crisis Center, which is one of many centers around the country that runs the 1-800-SUICIDE lines. Have you ever worked on one of them, or is there a different reason that you’re dedicated to the cause?
FW: In total, PostSecret has donated over $100,000 to 1-800-SUICIDE. Suicide has touched my life in a number of ways. I’ve lost an uncle and a good friend to suicide, and I’ve been through some dark times in my own life. I’ve been a volunteer on the hotline a couple of times for two years, and I know the good work they do first hand.
BH: What questions have you never been asked in interviews but wish you were?
FW: People don’t ask too much about secrets about suicide or self-harm and eating disorders. I think in this country suicide is like America’s secret and I wish we would talk about it more and acknowledge it more. I think if we did, it would lose that negative stigma and we could come up with better policies and practices to really help all Americans who might be suffering. If we have good news or good feelings or good ideas, we call a friend up and share it. But it’s the other stuff that we don’t feel comfortable sharing, and that’s why so many secrets I think are kind of dark and heavy. I don’t think it’s a reflection on all of us, I don’t think having secrets make us dark and depressed — I just think those are the parts of us that we don’t feel comfortable sharing.
BH: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
FW: I believe that all of us have a secret that would break your heart if you just knew what it was. And if we could remind ourselves of that, there’d be more understanding, more compassion, and maybe more peace in the world.
BOOK REVIEW: A LIFETIME OF SECRETS
“A Lifetime of Secrets” is the fourth installment in Frank Warren’s PostSecret book collection. The book has hundreds of postcards, or just pieces of paper, that were mailed to, and posted anonymously, by Warren; each postcard reveals individuals’ assorted secrets. The theme of this edition shows how lives change over the course of several years, and how some secrets may be burden for a lifetime. Instead of the postcards progressing in chronological order, they are arranged more in clusters of themes. For instance, there are several pages in a row involving marriage towards the middle of the book, several pages involving death towards the end, and age-ambiguous ones (“I am slowly realizing just how beautiful life really is”) in between. The secrets range from haunting recollections of sexual abuse (“I still remember my rapist’s birthday”), to amusing oddities (“I steal spoons from restaurants”), to just plain hopefuls (“If you’re waiting for a sign… this is it. Do it. It will be amazing.”).
No matter what the topic is, each postcard is beautiful in its own way. Some of the artwork is skillfully crafted, while others look like a seven-year-old quickly scribbled it with crayon on the way to school. One of the postcards is simply two playing cards taped side by side, the words, “I have to cheat to beat my DEAF 84 year old Grandmother,” written on top. Another’s secret is an intricate drawing of an old woman praying, saying, “I pray to a God that I don’t think exists.” One person didn’t utilize the 4×6 format — they just mailed in a security envelope and wrote on the front “I wish this had contained a letter instead of a paycheck.” A few postcards have their messages cut off by the postage label on the bottom, leaving some secrets still untold. This is evidence of PostSecrets transformation; the project started out with strictly secrets three years ago, but now has progressed towards ambiguity.
Accordingly, my favorite postcard is the cracked misshapen one that looks like a giant collection of paint chips, covered in various different shades and colors. All that’s written is the word “Someday” in black marker. It could mean that someday this person wants to finish painting their house, or someday they will admit to falling in love with the reader. That’s the beauty of this art project; someday a person may see a secret that reminds them of their own, or someone they know. And someday they may realize that one’s actually written about them.
There’s no denying the appeal of secrets; by living vicariously through other people’s letters, one can free a weight that’s inside them. It can be heartbreaking or cheerful to realize that the sender may have just let go of a secret by allowing millions of people access to it. No matter the analysis, somebody out there is looking at the book and realizing that they are not alone. It’s a form of therapy, a form of art and a place for introspection. Maybe someday you’ll send in your own secret. Maybe you already have.
Randi Baron is a junior TV-R major who has sent over 200,000 secrets to Mr. Warren. He’s published none of them. Email her at rbaron1[at]ithaca.edu.