Frank Warren, creator of the Web site PostSecret.com, calls it “shared recognition of ... pain.”
That's what motivates a thousand people to mail anonymous, soul-baring postcards to Warren each week. And it's what draws hundreds of thousands more to his site to read them.
“Sometimes we feel our own pain so acutely that we lose sight of the fact that everybody has a secret, at least one, that can break your heart if you just knew what it was,” Warren said. “And feeling that connection that we share with people and how we?re reminded of it through the Web site and PostSecret Project only helps to increase the compassion that we have for others and the sense of empathy that can grow within us.”
The secrets are sad: “The real reason I don?t want to have kids ... I?m afraid if my husband and I divorce, no one will want to be with a woman who has children.”
“I'm 25 and have never been kissed. It?s not that I don?t want to ... it?s just that no one else does.”
“My mom chose my stepdad over me.”
They are joyful: “Sometimes, secretly, I actually enjoy life.”
“I believe that I will change the whole world one day. (I’m going to do it too!)
“Dear Birthmother - I have great parents. I’ve found love. I’m happy.”
They are grim: “Everyone who knew me before 9/11 believes I’m dead.”
“Jail isn’t anything like the movies.”
“I like to remember my Dad as a boy, so I won’t remember him suffering.”
They are funny: “I steal from every doctors office I visit ... even things I’ll never use.”
“I steal other people’s pictures from my job at a photo lab.”
“All my life I wanted to look like Liz Taylor. Now Liz Taylor is starting to look like me.”
And they are always illuminating, a 3 -by-5-inch window into a stranger’s soul. With no artistic training or background, Warren has created an online safe haven where people can divulge their deepest hurts, fears, loves, regrets, angers, and triumphs to a worldwide community of strangers. Since beginning this quasi-confessional, quasi-voyeuristic project five years ago, Warren has received more than half a million postcards ? all of which he has kept, and many of which have appeared in one of five published collections.
“I feel like I accidentally tapped into something that had been there waiting. And once it started making itself seen, I was able to be sensitive to how it wanted to emerge and develop online as a project,” he said.
The project has grown into a full-time job for Warren, who spends 60 to 70 hours each week working on PostSecret. He also tours college campuses and concert halls with a two-hour presentation - what he jokingly refers to as “the PostSecret Spectacular: The Cavalcade of Secrets.”
During his appearance he dishes on some of the funny, inspirational stories behind the secrets; offers a selection of postcards banned from the books by the publishers, and - the emotional heart of each event - opens the floor to attendees to publicly share their secrets.
Warren appears at 7:30- 9:30 p.m. Friday at the Michigan Theater, 603 East Liberty in Ann Arbor.
PostSecret is an online phenomenon, created by an “accidental artist,” a former entrepreneur whose skill set in running his own business for two decades has manifested itself well in the project.
But ask the 45-year-old his motivation in creating the site, and he?s still not sure.
“I think with a project of this nature that really takes over your life and turns it upside down, usually there are multiple reasons why it comes into your life, some you’re aware of, some you are not,” Warren said. “I think one of the reasons I started the project is because, all my life I’ve had this rich, interior life and I just imagined other people might have something similar. If I could create a safe, nonjudgmental place where people could share those inside jokes and funny stories and painful experiences, it could be really special. And it was. But I?ve been shocked by the millions of other people who think it’s a fascinating conversation as well.
“Another reason I might have started the project, and I didn?t realize this at the time ... I think I might have been struggling with secrets in my own life, secrets I was keeping from myself,” he added. “And through the courage people were showing me on the postcards every day, I was able to find the strength to face a part of myself that I had been hiding from. And when I did, I wrote it on a postcard, I mailed it, and it came right back to me, [and] I eventually put it in the first book. And so maybe this entire community art project was a journey for me to find my own healing.”
It’s not just Warren who was positively affected by the site. He said he receives e-mails from many visitors who found comfort in what others wrote to him or by what they read.
But there are those notes of desperation that show up in his mailbox from lost, nameless souls who say they are contemplating suicide.
“Almost every postcard I receive arrives anonymously, so even if I wanted to reach out specifically and offer help I wouldn’t be able to,” Warren said. “But what I try and do with those natural feelings that I have of wanting to help is channel them toward promoting awareness and raising funds for Hopeline, which is the National Suicide Prevention hotline. There’s been a lot of activity on the Web promoting that, and I’m very proud to say that the PostSecret community has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for 1-800 SUI-CIDE, the national suicide prevention hotline.
“In my own life I lost a friend to suicide, and I always felt like I could do more. So maybe in some ways all this activity is over-compensation for that sense of guilt.”
On the phone during this interview, Warren has a personable, soothing voice, like a sensitive psychiatrist or an understanding priest. He?s warm, thoughtful, and comes across as the trusting soul you would expect of someone who deftly handles the emotional baggage of thousands.
It’s a persona relatively new to Warren.
“In my personal life before PostSecret, I don’t know if I really was that person. But I think in some ways I?ve grown into that role. I was born and given the name Frank, which I think is kind of ironic ... like truth, no BS ... I think people do connect me with that.”
When asked to describe himself, Warren pauses to consider the question.
“I can go a lot of different directions in this. I would say that one thing about me is that I’m pretty independent. You could almost probably classify me as a recluse. I still kind of live inside myself quite a bit, and in some ways this project has made me feel closer to strangers I’ve never met than maybe my own neighbors and friends,” he said.
And the strangers trust Warren.
During an event in Winnipeg, he recalled one woman in particular who opened up: “I think I might be bisexual, and I?m afraid to tell the most important person in my life,” she said.
With all eyes darting across the room, the woman?s mother stood, looked across the audience to her daughter, and replied, “I just want you to know I?ll always love you, no matter what. I might not like the woman you?re living with, but I will always love you.”
Warren said such vulnerability and courage shared publicly is inspiring to those who experience it.
“It’s amazing when you hear them. It’s like nothing you’ve never heard before,” he said. “It can do more than bring a sense of healing to the person sharing it, it can also inspire and enlighten the whole community they’re a part of.”
Such shared secrets have given Warren “a great sense of mission” in his life.
“I’d rather not be doing anything else in the world than” PostSecret, he said. “It’s not really a need, it?s just a wonderful feeling that I feel like I’ve found a place in the world.”
Frank Warren appears from 7:30-9:30 p.m. Friday at the Michigan Theater, 603 East Liberty St., Ann Arbor. Tickets are $15, $20, $25, $35. For more information, visit PostSecret.com or TicketMaster.com.
Contact Kirk Baird at:firstname.lastname@example.org