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A Site Of Secrets


Active Member
Sep 12, 2004
New Zealand
I think this site is brilliant. There are some funny confessions ("My pranks at work are still anonymous after 17 years!") and some really lovely ones that make you want to melt ("I skipped math to stand in the lunch line with him") and some really sad ones ("I trashed my parents house to look like I had a party while they were out of town .... so my mom would think I had friends")

And the story behind it is this -


The instructions were simple enough. '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. Be brief. Be legible. Be creative.' Apart from those instructions and an address in Germantown, Maryland, the postcards Frank Warren had printed out were left blank. It was November 2004, and Warren was about to make his contribution to a Washington DC art exhibition. He distributed the postcards at bookstores, theatres, train stations and restaurants. Some found their way inside the pages of books in the local library.
It was a few days before the first secrets found his mailbox. For the first few weeks, only one or two would arrive, but slowly more began coming. By the end of the month, 150 postcards had turned up at his Maryland home. The exhibition closed, but the postcards kept coming. Each postcard that arrived was different and yet the same. They were all 4in x 6in, homemade but artistically ambitious, and all sent by people Warren did not know.

Each day more postcards came, bearing anonymous admissions, prompting Warren to set up an online gallery to display the most provocative, profound and artistic. Each week he would reflect upon the secrets and try to share a representative sampling of what he had received. News of www.postsecret.com travelled quickly across the internet. To date, the site has had upwards of 5m hits, and Warren estimates he has received 3,000 postcards from anonymous confessors across the United States and around the world. From its modest origins in a Washington art gallery, Warren's creation is the internet's worst-kept secret.

Postcards have always fascinated Frank Warren. As an 11-year-old boy growing up in the Seventies, he once sent a postcard to his parents while at summer camp in California. Thanks to the sluggishness of the postal service, the card did not arrive until the young Frank was home. 'There was something magical about reading something that was from me, but also not from me,' he recalls, 'something unsettling to be holding something in my hand that seemed to be coming from the past.'

The sensation of dislocation and the suggestion of the magical possibilities of postcards stayed with him. He eventually left home, went to college, got married, became a father and started his own business. As he moved on in his life and moved around the country, his interest in postcards followed:

'I liked what they represented metaphorically, the idea of being away from home and trying to communicate with somebody close to you but not with you. I like the fact that when someone sends a postcard it is utterly exposed: it can be read by anybody between where it starts and where it ends up.'

Geographically, the postcards that arrive in his mailbox come from across the world. Emotionally, they originate from a place populated by the regretful, the confused and the guilty. Couples struggle with the knowledge that their marriage has been emptied of love; grown men mourn for the time they did not spend with their parents; employees worry that their jobs are killing their souls. The same themes recur like untreated wounds: regret, unfulfilled relationships, childhood abuse and self-doubt. 'Sometimes I think my fiance isn't the one,' sighs one postcard, while another sadly admits,

'I know he doesn't love me any more.' The words are scrawled over a wedding photograph in which both the bride and groom's faces have been scratched away. The image is as powerful as the words. A photograph of a smiling man holding a baby is accompanied by the words, 'I'd sell my mind, body and soul to the devil for one more day with my dad.' A photograph of an old woman - maybe ripped from a catalogue or possibly the real person involved - is accompanied with: 'I wish I had called and visited my grandparents more when they were alive.'

When they are not regretting what they didn't do, the faceless confessors are regretting what they are doing. A blurry outline of a wage-slave with briefcase floats in the middle of one card whose sender has written, 'I don't know what I want but I don't want this.' Another person complains: 'I work so much I am not a person any more. I am a machine.'

Whether it is online diaries or websites such as grouphug.us, those who want to confess past or present misadventures find that in cyberspace there's always someone to hear them scream. In some ways, postsecret.com is merely another addition to the chorus of confession that pervades popular culture. But what makes it such a compelling site is the meld between art and emotional honesty. Because Warren insists each postcard is personalised, each confessor has to spend time with their secret, planning the visual imagery to frame the revelation. The end results, described by Warren as 'graphic haikus', are often heartbreakingly powerful. Scrolling through the site is like walking past a crowd of strangers and being able to peer deep into their souls; it is an emotional x-ray machine which reveals what we most wish to conceal.

'All art is a kind of confession,' suggested writer James Baldwin, and the works on postsecret.com are in the tradition of artists such as Kahlo and Emin, and writers such as Dave Peltzer: those who sought redemption in revelation, driven by the urge to, in Baldwin's phrase, 'vomit the anguish up'.

Some of the secrets are shocking, some sad and others silly. Warren says that when he selects which to feature on the site, he opts for those 'which reveal ourselves in our entirety: the sublime, the horrifying, the erotic and the ghastly. I read the postcards daily, and a week later a group will emerge. I don't pick them, I listen to the secrets and they pick me.' For its founder, postsecret.com offers a 'non-judgmental environment, an opportunity to give voice to the voices that are not usually heard'. At 41 years old, married for 16 years, with a 10-year-old daughter and a successful business in medical research, Frank Warren was inspired by the twin muses of 'a tedious job and insomnia'. But there was also another reason. 'I didn't think I was interested in secrets,' he explains, 'but as the postcards started arriving I realised that in part I must have created this because I had my own secret, something that had happened to me a long time ago and which I had not told anyone. One day I wrote it down and mailed it, and by writing it down I physically let it go.' It was included on the site.

The appeal of the entire project is the vicarious thrill of delving deep into other lives. Like the celebrity magazines which claim to reveal truths about celebrities we will never know, the postcards intimate that we know something secret about the senders but their anonymity protects us from truly feeling close to them. That is what makes them closer to art than simple confessions.

Scrolling down the secrets, familiar structures emerge in the telling. Some come at the reader like the opening lines of a short story or song: 'I still haven't told my father that I have the same disease that killed my mother.' Others are like aphorisms: 'I make everyone feel that I like to be different but really I just don't know how to fit in.' And then there are the confessions that come with guilty punchlines: 'I say I don't like the food but really I hate Hooters because I'm gay.' At first sight, the honesty is bracing - these are people who appear to be willing to emotionally strip themselves in front of the world. But the demands of making an artistic postcard mean that the revelation needs to be planned and designed and considered: it is more burlesque than streaking.

The success of the site has already attracted interest. Several exhibitions have been scheduled and a book based on the postcards is planned for next year. Warren has refused all offers of sponsorship and merchandising because he wants to retain the purity of the site. 'I feel like it's a mission and it's something I need to pursue,' he explains. 'The project gives me a deep sense of satisfaction and I am very protective of the secrets that are sent to me.' But for all the project's success, some are wary of what might happen should it become too well known. One visitor emailed Warren saying he hoped 'Oprah doesn't hear about this site'.

Each day, 40 or 50 more postcards arrive in his mailbox. They are all eventually stored in lockable, stainless-steel boxes. 'It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution,' wrote Oscar Wilde, but some of those sending their postcards seem to be putting their faith in Warren. His Maryland home has become, for some, a confessional safe house, an inverted Pandora's Box where the sins of the world are daily delivered to be assessed by the keeper of secrets.

'Why do they send them? Some people seem to be asking for absolution,' says Warren. 'I started to understand that when someone shares a dark secret, they lighten their load. But the other person walks away a little heavier.' Priests and psychologists have contacted him to praise his work, which he describes as 'the answer to an agnostic's prayers'. Frank Warren now probably knows more secrets than anyone on the planet. The responsibility for maintaining the project has forced him to spend more time on his site than on his job; these days he refers to himself as 'an accidental artist'.

Those who send their secrets to Frank do so in the hope that by giving them to him they can be freed; for those who visit the site, the experience of reading the postcards, in the words of one contributor, 'saves me and kills me in the same instant'. And for Frank himself, who like the faceless confessors remains virtually anonymous, the project has turned him into a fisherman of secrets. 'I see strangers differently now,' he admits. 'If I am walking down the street, in a bookstore, in a packed cinema, I tend to feel more connected to the people around me, more interested in wondering what they are not revealing.'

For the anonymous contributors to postsecret.com, for the millions visiting it, and for Frank himself, the most profound realisation that comes from peering so deeply into the troubled souls of the postcard-senders is simply this: that the things that make us feel so abnormal are actually the things that make us the same.