“Secret. ‘sēkrit /adjective. 1. not known or seen or not meant to be known or seen by others.”
Everyone has one. Some have stores, while others may only keep a few. Some keep them in the deepest recesses of their psyche, in the dusty attics of the mind; hidden away in tightly packaged boxes, long forgotten and cobwebbed by gossamer threads of nostalgia. Secrets are human not necessarily in their content, but in the significance of needing to keep them hidden away.
Perhaps the most painful part of a secret is the need to keep it.
PostSecret is a community art project in which people from around the world are invited to anonymously decorate a postcard and send it in. Frank Warren, the founder, started the initiative in Baltimore-Washington. He printed approximately three thousand stamped and addressed postcards, handing them out in the streets and leaving them between the pages of library books and magazines, encouraging people to anonymously share their secrets.
For ten years, people have been scribbling their secrets onto these small pieces of paper, and for just over ten years, Warren has been dutifully scanning and posting a handful of them on his WordPress site, postsecret.com.
Since its inception in 2005, PostSecret has received over a million postcards from across the globe, and has brought 700 million people to the website. There have been six published books all reaching New York Times bestseller status. On the popularity of PostSecret, Warren said, “I feel very honoured and fortunate that so many hundreds of thousands of people have trusted me with their deepest confessions, stories they’ve never told their families or best friends.”
What had originally started as a personal project became a wildly popular international community.
“I think it’s the truth and authenticity of the secrets people share with me everyday that has made PostSecret so popular,” Warren added.
“The humour, sexuality, hope, and anguish are the power of these confessions and how they connect with people.”
When asked, Warren confided that the most received secret is, surprisingly, peeing in the shower. The runner-up is less mundane, but definitely universally relatable.
“I see so many people searching for that one person who they can tell all their secrets to, where they can feel free and full and be their full selves around.”
He commented that there has not been much of a change in content since the beginning of the project, across time and borders.
“I haven’t noticed much change between languages or continents. It’s still surprising to me that the secrets that arrive from New Zealand are the same as those from Israel, Iraq or Greenland.”
The universality of the themes on the human condition is something that has the power to bring people together across continents and language, cultural and social barriers. The analogue nature of the project and its continued success in a world that continues to become more technological is refreshing.
“I feel it’s paradoxical that at a time when there have never been more people on the planet and we’ve never had this amount of technology to allow communication, there has never been a greater sense of loneliness,” Warren shared.
While we have the unprecedented ability to share our thoughts and identities with the rest of the world who are privileged enough to have access to the Internet and communications technology, we get to decide largely how we will be interpreted. Due to the complete control we have over the information and personas we share, raw authenticity can be hard to come by on the online worlds we spend so much time engaging with.
PostSecret is the complete antithesis to this phenomenon, and perhaps another reason for its great success. Being able to share in the connections that happen over PostSecret can be a very rewarding experience for everyone in the community.
“I think I like the ones that share a hidden act of kindness, or are funny, romantic or sexual,” added Warren.
“One from a girl said, ‘I still have the password to my ex-boyfriend’s email account. I sometimes read his emails and it pisses me off.’ There was another from a guy that stated ‘I know my ex-girlfriend has my password. I sometimes write emails to piss her off.’
There have also been several marriage proposals over PostSecret. These connections happen in amazing and inspiring ways.”
Of course, not all secrets are made equal, and some are inevitably darker than others. “I have been contacted by the FBI and
police about secrets before. I try not to censor the secrets,” Warren continued.
Despite the dedication to non-censorship – a feature that has catalyzed the sense of closeness and community through its sometimes very raw honesty – there is one card he will never publish.
“A secret came to me on a family portrait. The secret read, ‘My brother doesn’t realize that his father is not the same as our father.’ You could see the difference she was talking about. I feel that I don’t have the right to out that man publicly in a way he might not be happy with. I will never share that postcard.”
Warren feels it to be his responsibility to pass on the stories that have been confided in him, and honour the courage that it takes to share these secrets with the world. On censorship, he sais, “I post strong
secrets. For example, I received one that said, ‘everyone who knew me before 9/11 thinks I’m dead.’
“It’s completely anonymous. People trust me with their secrets and I share it. I will continue to post the most controversial secrets, secrets that have brought people together and transformed lives.”
Mental health advocacy has also become a large part of Warren’s work.
Secrets, it seems, lay at the heart of what perpetuates mental health stigma. Because of this still-prevalent stigma, themes surrounding mental health challenges have also become a common theme at PostSecret.
“Without the discussion of voicing how they’re feeling, people feel alone. The most painful part is the struggle to keep what you are truly feeling private. It’s important to talk because it allows you to recognize there are solutions and people who care. Sometimes when you’re struggling with mental health, it’s hard to think clearly. You forget that there are scientifically proven methods and medicines that can make people feel better.
“Because there is still such a stigma around the issue of mental health, I think people feel ashamed about these truths about who they are, when the irony is that if they could just find the right way or person to tell their secret, they would realize they’re not living in isolation and are a part of a larger community that shares that same truth,” Warren explained.
“Even though it might be difficult to feel this in the moment of struggle, they are not alone. The majority of people have struggled with mental as well as physical health. If they could just find the courage to reach out, they would be surprised how close and nearby hope and help is.”
PostSecret has raised over one million dollars for suicide prevention to date. PostSecret is an accessible platform that allows people who are facing these stigmas to name them in a global community that values acceptance, non-judgment, and respect.
“I’ve learned that there are two kinds of secrets,” Warren concludes. “The ones we keep from others, and the ones that we hide from ourselves. Sometimes hearing students share their secrets live can spark the courage in others to share their secrets in a way that becomes the first step in a process that brings you to a better place.”
PostSecret founder Frank Warren will be visiting Peterborough on Feb. 8, at The Venue (286 George St. N.) to present a multi-media address. The event will include a public presentation of student secrets, the presentation of postcards that were banned from the printed books and speeches from Warren himself. Tickets are available at the TCSA for $20.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health challenges, please reach out to your local community counselling centre, or helplines like Four County Crisis (1-866-995-9933) and Good2Talk (1-866-925-5454).
There is help and hope.