By Jill Diver
Imagine revealing your darkest secret to a complete stranger.
Now imagine allowing that stranger to publish that secret in a book — a very popular book — for widespread reading and scrutiny.
The PostSecret project, a social experiment, asks people not just to imagine this scenario, but to actually follow it through.
The brainchild of Frank Warren of Maryland, PostSecret began five years ago when Warren distributed 3,000 self-addressed postcards to strangers around Washington, D.C., explained what he wanted them to do, and then waited.
He wanted secrets to be anonymous. And he wanted sentiments to be genuine, be they witty, happy, sarcastic, sad, mocking, traumatic or tormented.
“I was shocked when people began to trust me with things they had never told anyone else before,” Warren said in a recent interview.
All shock and surprise aside, PostSecret has become a social phenomenon.
Since the project’s inception, five books of postcards have been published, a Web site has been launched, and Warren has taken his show on the road.
Each of the published books has a theme, and is comprised nearly exclusively of images of the postcards themselves. Book titles are “My Secret,” “A Lifetime of Secrets,” “Confessions on Life, Death, and God,” “The Secret Lives of Men and Women,” and “Extraordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives.”
Today, Warren no longer has to distribute postcards to keep the project alive, because people from all over the world just send in their own.
Online, more than 1.5 million people visit the Web site www.postsecrect.com weekly, with an influx seen when a set of “Sunday Secrets” from new postcards from all around the world are published.
The postcards have no prompts, rather they are simply a forum for people to unload those things they keep inside of them.
“When another woman steals your man the best revenge is to let her keep him,” one sender asserts.
“Before I go on a trip, I write a letter to my family just in case I die,” another confesses.
“Please don’t kill yourself tonight,” begs another postcard featuring the image of a young man holding a notebook with that message scrawled in pen.
Sometimes called “the most trusted stranger in America” and listed by Forbes.com as the No. 4 top Web celebrity of 2009, Warren covets the faith the public has placed in him.
“Five years later I’ve received half a million postcards from around the world,” he said. “I feel when a project like this takes over your life and turns it upside down, there are probably reasons that you’ll never know. In hindsight, one of the reasons this project found me was because I needed to find secrets that I was hiding from myself.”
He did not elaborate on his own secrets in this interview.
Warren’s fifth book, “PostSecret: Confessions on Life, Death, and God,” achieved No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller List, which encouraged him to bring his show on the road. That tour brings him to Pinkerton Academy in Derry, the University of New Hampshire in Durham, and UMass Amherst, in February.
At the events, Warren shares the stories behind some memorable postcards, his thoughts on why his blog is important, as well as why he has made suicide prevention part of his life work. There are postcards on display and the public always gets the chance to speak.
“What is exciting for me, more than anything else, is how the talk evolved,” Warren said. “I am trying to give voice to those who are unheard and share untold stories, and with that every event is different.”
He said that at these events, people stand and share secrets.
“At the end, I realized the more I do this the more I truly understand what PostSecret is trying to cover at a deeper level,” he added.
For some people, like Joe Cotton, CEO of the Psychological Center in Lawrence, Mass., the idea of PostSecret and public sharing of secrets is not necessarily a positive thing.
“There are all kinds of people and it seems to me that some people have a need to share things that are below the threshold,” Cotton said. “It gives them a sense of competence that they can share these things and gives a kick or thrill when one violates social norms. The purpose is shock value and it gratifies some people to be outside the norm.”
There may be a price to pay for what he perceives as a lack of judgment, Cotton said.
“Going public with a sordid secret is not beneficial all the time,” he said. “And there are mentors, benefactors, coaches, therapists, for people to share with in a confidential way, thereby getting a yield.”
Warren, however, believes PostSecret has turned into something “magical.”
“I feel as though this whole community of people who reads the Web site every week, over 1 million people who visit and share secrets, I feel like it’s turned into an online conversation,” he said.
And it’s an important conversation, he believes, that is strengthened by the associated events like the one coming to Derry.
“It’s a jump, a spark that can happen, when an online conversation becomes a community in the real world, sharing secrets and building relationships,” he said. “Every day I’m surprised by secrets that arrive in my mailbox and at PostSecret events, too, when somebody is standing, sometimes trembling, sharing their deepest secrets. It’s touching and sometimes funny, too.”
Today, along with traveling and hosting events across the country, Warren is working hard to raise $1 million for a peer-to-peer Web-based crisis center.
“PostSecret has had a tradition from the start for raising awareness and funds for suicide prevention,” Warren said. “I’ve never had a paid ad on my site, but I have put up the 800 number for suicide prevention.”
Cotton isn’t surprised that in the age of blogs, Tweets and Facebook, most people are willing to put highly personal opinions and feelings into the hands of their Internet peers.
“Part of a social Web site is venting, for instance writing about not having to live paycheck to paycheck for an entire life,” Cotton said. “People form coalitions to feel supported and feel they have identity and their identity is being validated by other folks. Coalitions are important despite the norm, for instance for people in prison and in different lifestyles. People have an innate need to feel understood, and to belong.”
Warren believes PostSecret also gives people a sense of belonging to something much larger than themselves.
“It helps me appreciate living a little more, just knowing that when I get on the airplane tomorrow and fly to my destination; and when I meet strangers or the person I’m sitting next to on the plane, they all have some extraordinary interior story of heroism or interior frailty happening at that moment,” Warren said.
IF YOU GO
What: PostSecret Event, featuring founder Frank Warren discussing his project with postcards on display, including some banned from the books. Guests will get to share their own secrets at a microphone.
Where: Stockbridge Theater, Pinkerton Academy, 5 Pinkerton St., Derry.
When: 7 p.m., Friday, Feb. 12.
How: Tickets are $22 for adults, $18 for seniors, $15 for students, and $10 for Pinkerton students. There will be a book signing after the event. Call 603-437- 5210 or visit www.stockbridgetheatre.com.
Where: Memorial Union Building, in the Granite State Room, University of New Hampshire, 83 Main St., Durham.
When: 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 24.
How: No tickets. Free and open to the public. Early arrival to get in line recommended.
Where: The Fine Arts Center Concert Hall, UMass Amherst, Amherst, Mass.
When: 7 to 9:30 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 10.
How: Free and open to the public. Public must pick up advance tickets at the Fine Arts Center Box Office. Tickets will not be available the night of the show. Call 413-545-2511.
This piece ran in the Lifestyle section February 7, 2010 in The Eagle-Tribune Newspaper and on February 3, 2010 in NH Lets Go.