Frank Warren brings his PostSecret project to George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium this Friday, Jan. 23, at 7:30 p.m. In anticipation of PostSecret’s homecoming, City Paper interviewed Warren about the project’s origins, faith, suicide, absolution, and why no one has anything bad to say about a Web site that publishes its readers’ deepest secrets for all the world to see.
CP: PostSecret ran in City Paper in its early days. Can you talk a little about the chronology of the project?
FW: It started four years ago at Artomatic in Washington, D.C. I printed up hundreds of self-addressed postcards and handed them out in the streets of D.C., soliciting secrets from strangers. Slowly these secrets—these amazing, extraordinary, hopeful, soulful, sexual secrets started finding their way to my mailbox. What really shocked me is that when the Artomatic show closed and I stopped passing out postcards, I thought the project would just naturally find its own end, but somehow the idea of PostSecret spread virally in the real world, and I started getting postcards from Texas, California, London, and Brazil. People were buying their own postcards and decorating their own secrets. And they just kept coming and kept coming, and after the Artomatic show closed, I wanted to keep sharing them with people, and that’s why I started the blog.
CP: What has it been like to be the PostSecret guy? Your fans greet you at events the same way the devout greet really important religious figures.
FW: I think of PostSecret as a collection of these extraordinary secrets that I share with people different ways: through the books, which I think of as telling these long narratives about us, by using our secrets; the PostSecret Web site, which I think is a great way to share living secrets, secrets that people are kind of carrying in their life at that moment. There are the art exhibitions that tour; and my favorite, really, is this traveling to college campuses and sharing the stories behind the secrets.
CP: What can people expect from a PostSecret event?
FW: I talk a little bit about how PostSecret got started. I share the stories behind the secrets, I talk about a secret in my own life that I kept from myself for 30 years that I think, really, is the reason I started the project in the first place. And then I show post cards that were censored out of the books by the publisher, kind of the “secret secrets” up on a big screen and talk about those a little bit. But my favorite part, really, is for about half the presentation, I’m just sitting on a stool on stage and inviting members of the audience, you know, strangers, to come up to the microphone in front of hundreds of people, and share stories about themselves they’ve never told anyone else before. And it can be amazing. People will come up and tell funny stories, they’ll expose humiliations from their childhood; they’ll talk about struggles with eating disorders, drugs and alcohol. It’s such an amazing thing that comes over the audience and I feel like, in some ways, I’ve been able to take that sense of support and non-judgmentalness from the Web site and bring it into the real world at these events, and it’s quite a wonderful feeling for me.
CP: It’s pretty amazing that that trust follows you into such a public forum. The public sharing of secrets reminds of evangelical Christianity’s emphasis on testimony. Implicit thing is that what you say isn’t going to leave the room.
FW: I think what you say is really insightful about what I’ve been doing lately—in fact the next PostSecret book is called PostSecret: Confessions on Life, Death and God, and as the project has grown and matured and developed over time, I do feel, in a sense, as though I’ve been on this journey that’s gone from this project that, when it started, felt kind of like a sociological experiment or a prank. But as time has passed, and I’ve seen more and more secrets and this community has grown up around PostSecret, that it does feel spiritual.
CP: It sounds like though it started as performance art, at some point you realized you were filling a need in people’s lives.
FW: When I was in high school I was a member of a Pentecostal church, and it’s a very exciting church, it’s a very charismatic church, and in fact I was at the altar most nights praying to try and speak in tongues for evidence of the Holy Ghost, and I feel parts of that, parts of those revival meetings that I attended in high school, kind of living through the spirit kind of in a modern, interesting way of what happens at a PostSecret event, where people get a chance to stand up and share their stories and hear their voices in ways that they don’t get a chance to do in everyday life, and also people in the audience get a chance to understand the strangers they walk past every day on the streets in a way that I hope brings a greater sense of compassion and empathy. You discover that the burdens other people are carrying can be as great or greater than the ones you have in your own private life.
CP: I love checking the site and sometimes, actually more often than I want to admit, I’ll see a card that I really identify with and it does remind me— not to bring all these back to the church— when I would hear a sermon and feel like it was aimed at me. It’s really freeing. Probably not as freeing for people who get to send in the cards, but it’s really freeing to know that other people are struggling with the same small problems. At the same time,when I see somebody else has put them on a postcard, I realize that it’s ok to treat them like they’re big problems or big ideas.
FW: There’s an intimacy to those secrets on the Web site, and at the PostSecret events there’s nothing more heartwarming than to hear, like, a young woman talk about an issue of abuse in her life and see her walk back to her seat after sharing her secret that she’s never told anyone before – friends or family – she’s walking back to her seat, the audience is applauding, and she’s being embraced by people on her way back to the seat. And I’ve gotten that same feeling on the Web site at times, too. I remember Artomatic, about two weeks into the project I got this one postcard that read “I’m a white guy, but I like black girls.” And I posted it in the art exhibit and while I was away somebody wrote some graffiti on it, they defaced the card. But what they wrote I’ve seen come up again and again in many different ways through the project. What they wrote was “That’s OK.” And I see that kind of communal acceptance of people when they’re brave enough to stand up and share that one feeling or hope or fear that they’ve ever said before. There’s like this natural compassion you feel towards that, and I think it’s also inspirational. It allows you to not only feel as though your burdens are a little bit lighter, but it gives you – that courage is contagious, and it can inspire you to share your secrets with others and create this great, virtuous cycle.
CP: What do you feel your role is now in the project? Do you still see yourself as kind of a curator? Do you need to solicit anymore or is this stuff just pouring in?
FW: I get about a thousand post cards every week from around the world. They come to my home address and I read every card and I keep every card, so that’s pretty overwhelming. I don’t have to really solicit anymore than that. Another point that you mentioned, you talked about how seeing secrets on somebody else’s card can really touch you. I had an experience about three weeks into the project, that again, parallels that exactly. I received a post card from a man I never met, I probably never will meet, courageously sharing the most humiliating experience of his life that happened when he was in elementary school. And when I read his secret, it in some ways articulated a similar experience I had in my own life in the fourth grade, something I never thought of as a secret, but something I’d never told anyone my whole life. And it helped me come to this understanding that there are two kinds of secrets: the secrets that we keep from other people, and the secrets that we hide from ourselves. And when I had that epiphany, I wrote my secret on a postcard and I mailed it—in my case, it came right back to me. But I found that process therapeutic, and I put that postcard in the first book. And in many ways I feel as though it was the struggle I was having with that secret at a subconscious level that moved me to start PostSecret in the first place and discover my own secret by inviting strangers to share their secrets with me and feeling that courage so I could look inward myself and have the strength to do that.
CP: How do you let go of the possibility that a human component of your secret will see the secret and know that it’s about them? There’s some stuff about which I’ve thought, “This has to be unique to me, and if anybody ever found this out, they’d know I’d said it.” I admire contributors who aren’t scared to be specific. And they use pictures!
FW: I received one post card from a young girl and she wrote on her card “I’m a junior at university and I worked all my life to get here. I’m at Harvard. And now that I’m here, I hate it.” And I put that on the Web site. Two days later, i got an e-mail. She identified what was on the back of the card so I knew it was hers, and she said “Frank, that secret is mine. I wrote that postcard, but my parents and friends have identified my handwriting. I’m in all kinds of trouble now. Please take it down.” So I removed the postcard immediately, but I e-mailed her back and said “Even though you’re feeling this pressure and stress in the short term in your life, maybe in the long run you’ll be motivated to transfer to a college you like better, find a place that’s a better fit.” And I think that can be true for all of us. When we find the courage, finally, to share our secret, it’s not easy when we out ourselves about anything. But maybe that pressure that we feel by coming out, by exposing ourselves, is in the long run going to lead us in the direction where we make healthier decisions about our lives.
CP: Secrets with families—how much of those secrets do we own?
FW: I think, you know secrets can operate in different realms. I think individuals have secrets, I think families have secrets, I know when I was growing up my family had some secrets that we wouldn’t talk about with other people, and there’re probably some secrets in my family that I didn’t even know about. And I think social groups can have secrets, too. I think in some ways, I talk about this a little bit at PostSecret events, suicide is one of America’s secrets. And I think you can see this reflected by our popular culture. If you read national newspapers, if you watch local television news, you’ll see story after story about homicide, crime, murders and violence, but you’ll see very few stories about suicide. And the fact is, in what, the 10 minutes we’ve been talking now, two Americans will have been killed or murdered, but four Americans will have taken their own lives. And I go on in my talk to talk about how that’s even more tragic on college campuses, and how we know what works to help, but because we ignore and look away from the problem we only exacerbate it.
CP: Suicide is a damning secret because it leaves so many people in its wake feeling like there was something they should’ve done, but then, the suicide narrative tells them there’s nothing that they could’ve done.
FW: There’s this shame that surrounds suicide. I’ve lost a friend to suicide, I’ve lost a family member to suicide; I’ve been in dark places myself. And one of the things people talk about at PostSecret events is the shame, the guilt—they wish they could’ve done more; they feel like they ignored signals they might’ve seen. What’s liberating is that when you hear one story like that, so many other people go the microphone, because they feel unburdened.
CP: Where do you see the project going? Secrets aren’t ever going away.
FW: (Laughs) Yeah, secrets are inexhaustible. The journey has been an amazing one. There’s a book coming out next year and there’s a PostSecret event tour that has 20 or 30 events through 2009, but beyond that, I try not to really plan or set goals for the project. I try just to be sensitive and follow where it leads. It’s this whole thing that I accidentally tapped into, and it’s mysterious, wonderful, precious, and I feel this great burden to not screw it up. So I try to make decisions everyday in an attempt to protect its purity and integrity, and also to keep alive what I think is so special about the project, which is that it finds new way to reveal that deeper unity which connects us all, but that we forget exists in our everyday lives.
CP: Has anybody ever criticized PostSecret?
FW: When I started the project, I thought people would. I explained what I was doing to my father and my mother, and they didn’t understand it at all. My mom called PostSecret “diabolical,” which means “of the devil!” (laughs) But I’ve really been surprised by how little criticism I have received, especially on the web.
I thought I’d receive emails from parents, for example, upset by some of the politically incorrect secrets, or the nudity on some of the postcards that people use to reveal their secrets. But I think that when people visit the website and understand what the project is about, and realize, “sure, there are some really raw feelings and emotions expressed,” they also realize that it’s not done in a gratuitous way, that there’s a lot of purpose to it. I think when people understand that, they give me a lot of latitude in what I’m able to share.
Look for part two of City Paper’s interview with Warren on Friday, Jan. 23.