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Every time Frank Warren gets his mail, he learns at least one secret. In fact, on a Friday evening in February, he returns home from work to find six, all written on the backs of homemade white 4-by-6-inch postcards.
Each carries an intimate, anonymous admission. The first of today’s batch reads, “I sometimes hurt myself or exaggerate illness or injury because I like the attention I get.” Next is a rough drawing of someone with a finger up his nose, done in colored pencil: “I still pick my nose and eat the boogers. I know, ew.” Another card has been decorated with a meandering pink thread. “People think I’m hardworking,” it reads, “but all I am is an efficient procrastinator.”
“Aren’t they wild?” says Warren. “Not only are the contents so idiosyncratic, but the way they arrive is just full of variety as well. They really put you inside that person’s mental state.”
The cards are part of PostSecret, an ongoing project that the 40-year-old Germantown, Md., resident debuted at D.C.’s Artomatic exhibition this past November. On a table next to a group of horizontal display wires, Warren left stacks of blank, self-addressed postcards inviting people to anonymously reveal a secret. The cards could be turned in during Artomatic or mailed to Warren anytime afterward. There were only two rules: The secret had to be true, and it had to never have been shared before.
Warren got six responses on the first day, and the project quickly gained momentum. During Artomatic, he would sometimes leave his exhibit for a moment and come back to find postcards clipped onto the wires. By the time the show closed in early December, Warren had around 150 cards. Postcards taken from Artomatic continue to trickle in, but others, responses to the Web site that Warren has created to catalog the cards and solicit new ones, come on an array of media: 4-by-6-inch note cards, cut-out pieces of cardboard, notebook paper folded into quarters.
“A strong pattern I notice is the guilt people feel about the way they treated their siblings when they were young,” says Warren. “Also, people have peed and had sex in very strange places.”
As diverting as some of the confessions are, they’ve become a little oppressive for Warren. He used to check his mail with all the eagerness of a child on Christmas morning, reveling in the excitement of peeking into people’s most private thoughts and feelings. But as the project grew, the secrets began to carry with them more and more emotional weight.
“Some people seemed to be asking for absolution,” says Warren. “I began to understand that when someone shares a dark secret they lighten their load. But the other person walks away a little heavier.”
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There is one postcard in particular that Warren has yet to post on his site. It’s not because he believes it’s untrue; it’s because he’s not yet sure how he should display it. Written in clumsy block letters, it declares, “I wuz molested when I was four by a 13 year old guy. I’m male also. After that, I used to molest my younger brother.”
Now, Warren steels himself before looking at a new collection of secrets. He describes checking the mail as akin to reaching into a beehive: “You don’t know if you’re going to pull out a delicious piece of comb or a wounded hand,” he says. “It hasn’t gotten tiresome, but it comes with more responsibility than it used to.”
Postcards have been a longtime interest for Warren, a medical researcher who describes himself as an “accidental artist.”
“There’s something really vibrant about postcards,” he says. “I like what they represent metaphorically, the idea of being away from home and trying to communicate with somebody close to you but not with you. Also, when the postcard goes through the mail, it’s completely exposed. It can be read by anybody between where it starts and where it ends up.”
Indeed, two of Warren’s pre–PostSecret projects involved postcards. The first, imagined during a bout of insomnia, was a set of three slightly altered postcards depicting Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince. In exhibition, they were placed on a desk next to an old red telephone and a sign inviting viewers to call a number at which they would hear a recording of a man calling his wife from Paris. Warren even invented a backstory for the piece: The man falls asleep in his hotel room with the three postcards on the nightstand. He has a dream in which he wakes to find that each card has been changed in some small way and has a message on the back.
One of those messages—“Answers can deceive, especially those that are true”—inspired Warren’s next project, which involved a collection of old bottles containing postcards cut into the shapes of hands and bearing equally cryptic inscriptions. The bottles appeared in Gaithersburg’s Clopper Lake throughout the summer of 2004, mystifying park rangers and neighborhood residents—not to mention Montgomery County’s Gazette newspapers and the Washington Post. When the latter paper ran a story on the bottles, Warren commented anonymously, through fictional “intermediaries” and riddles.
It’s illegal to throw anything, even art, into Clopper Lake, so though Warren admits to making the bottles, he’s careful to say that they somehow “ended up” in the lake. When he exchanged e-mails about the project with Post reporter Cameron W. Barr, Warren assumed the pseudonym Hobby Horse—all part of an attempt, he says, to examine “how an oracle would respond in modern times.”
From there, it was a small step to PostSecret. “One of the drivers behind the project was to stand the typical notion of a secret on its head—to bankrupt it,” explains Warren. “I wanted to create a possibility for people to go public with private secrets, restructure secrets to be inclusive rather than exclusive, and flood the market with secrets in order to devalue the feelings of shame and isolation that are so intertwined with them.
“At some point, everybody who created a card had to touch it for the last time,” he continues. “There was that moment of physical release where they had to tell their fingers to drop the card into the box and see it fall, knowing that they couldn’t retrieve it even if they wanted to. They literally had to let go.”
What Warren didn’t anticipate was the way his project would help him confront his own secrets. “Once I started receiving postcards and reading them, it invoked in me some memories of things that I’d been keeping hidden,” he says. “In hindsight, it almost seems as if the project came about to serve me, as opposed to serving the people who were sending me the postcards.”
Warren has since contributed his own confessions to the project, posting them on his site along with the others. Naturally, he won’t say which ones are his—though “I HAVE THRoWN 47 BOTTLES INTo A LAKE” is a good possibility. “This project is the most gratifying work I have ever produced,” says Warren. “Through it, I found a way to express a painful experience that I had kept completely private for over 30 years.”
“I see this project as an exploration,” he explains. “Each postcard is like a candlelight illuminating the dark corners inside of me while at the same time showing this general map of everybody’s patterns of what they don’t share with other people. The more postcards that come in, the better topographical representation of whatever that thing is.”
The therapeutic value of Warren’s work hasn’t escaped Anne C. Fisher, a clinical psychologist who’s also the owner of the eponymous Georgetown gallery. She saw PostSecret back in November and selected it for the gallery’s “10 Most Wanted” exhibition, a celebration of her favorite Artomatic artists. At the show, PostSecret was displayed alongside both of Warren’s earlier projects.
“Frank’s work balances on a line between art and psychology,” Fisher says. “Without getting too psychoanalytical, viewing these secrets breaks down our projections and we get caught up in the web of our own secrets. I think Frank is doing a great public service.”
After the close of “10 Most Wanted” last month, Fisher extended a small part of PostSecret at her gallery, and Warren started concentrating more on the Web. A Google search now turns up more than 40,000 Web pages mentioning PostSecret. A month ago, it turned up four.
With the explosion of awareness about the project, Warren’s mail increasingly bears postmarks from places outside of Washington, from as far away as Utah (“I have absolutely no interest in having sex with anyone”) and California (“I use my parent’s condoms for…well…my own pleasures”). Warren has also responded to requests for blank cards from Canada, Ireland, and Australia. He’s currently trying to copyright the word “PostSecret” and looking for opportunities to publish the secrets in book form.
Of course, not everyone is ready to share his or her pain. “This is a very self-selecting group,” remarks Fisher. She notes that when she offers blank postcards to older gallery visitors, they usually decline. But then again, she’s quick to note, some of her clients held on to her business card for almost 10 years before finally coming in for treatment—which bodes well for the longevity of Warren’s project. “What Frank’s doing is going to live on,” she concludes. “I imagine he’ll be getting postcards for a long time.”
There’s certainly a precedent for it. In 1980, New York artist Allan Bridge founded the Apology Line, which allowed people to call in to leave recorded apologies that others could then respond to. The project ran for 15 years and received more than 10,000 calls, ending only when Bridge died in a diving accident.
For the moment, at least, Warren is equally committed to playing confessor. Recently, one of his daughter’s friends asked him if he could keep a secret. Little did the boy know that he was dealing with an expert. Warren, understanding the burden that would come with his agreeing, launched into a protracted explanation about what he was prepared to do for the boy.
“‘I want you to feel like you can share anything you want with me,’” Warren recalls telling him. “‘But if what you tell me can harm someone, we know I will have to tell someone else.’” Warren continued with his disclaimer until the exasperated boy finally broke in. “‘Aw,’” he said, “‘forget it.’”CP