In 2004, Frank Warren began a community art project to explore and display the secrets of anonymous people, on their own postcards. A year later, Warren began PostSecret.com, a blog devoted to posting 20 new secrets every Sunday. Warren has since been compling secrets into books, and his fourth PostSecret book, “A Lifetime of Secrets,” was released Oct. 9. Senior Writer Liz Taddonio talked with Warren about the power of the project and the weight of carrying so many secrets.
Liz Taddonio: With this book, you’d post a lot of secrets from people in high school or on the brink of graduating college, and then you’d go into people in their 50s, who’d all be experiencing the same things. Do you compile books thinking you want a theme to come out of the secrets, or is it a random compilation?
Frank Warren: This last book is … really about trying to select and arrange hundreds of never-before-seen secrets, in order to hopefully show the fascinating way that secrets change over the course of our lives, but also to reveal the surprising ways that our secrets remain exactly the same. And with each book I’ve tried to have a different perspective or bring the secrets to a different level, because I think that allows different aspects of our secrets to emerge.
LT: What kind of challenges are involved in keeping the project communal and not “selling out”?
FW: Well, I say there aren’t any ads on the Web site, and what I mean by that is that I don’t accept money to put ads on the blog. But I still certainly promote the project and promote the books. I think for me what’s given me the most gratification is being able to have raised awareness of 1-800-SUICIDE and have raised over $100,000 for that good charity over the past three years.
LT: I don’t know if you’d consider yourself an artist, but I think the project creates an interest in local, amateur and folk art. Do you think that is an offshoot of what you started with it, or was that a goal of yours? What were your goals when you started out?
FW: Well, my only goal was really to try and create a project that looked into our rich interior lives in a different way that exposed the humanity that goes unseen. I knew if I could do that effectively it would be something really special for me and something I would value. And the biggest surprise has been how it’s resonated with so many other people. Two weeks ago the PostSecret Web site got its hundred millionth hit — that’s phenomenal.
LT: Do you wonder about the truthfulness of the secrets? There are some very amazing things that people have admitted — does it really matter if it’s real or true?
FW: I always ask people to mail in secrets anonymously — true secrets. And I think that the fact that they’re anonymous might take away some of the motive for people wanting to make something up. But I will share one story with you. I received a postcard from somebody once, and it had been damaged through the mail process — it had lost some of the text. The meaning of the secret had changed from that, it had become more open-ended, and I liked that so I put it on the blog. The person who had mailed it to me e-mailed me and he identified what was on the back of the card so I knew it was his, and he said when he originally made the postcard, he had made it up because he thought it would have been a good PostSecret secret. He said the way the secret had changed, through the mail, and the new meaning of the secret as it was posted on the blog was actually true for his life. So it just demonstrates how, when you’re given this art — and I think of each one of these postcards as a work of art — truth can have multiple layers.
LT: When you get intense secrets dealing with suicide and rape, is it ever a burden to carry so many secrets?
FW: No, I don’t think so. I like to focus on, hopefully, the therapeutic process the person went through when they placed their secret on a postcard and then let it go to a stranger.
LT: Some secrets are very uplifting, but some can be really sad. How do you stay happy after reading so many secrets that are so intense?
FW: Well I think there are two kinds of people. There are people who read the PostSecret book and they might have had a pretty safe and secure life, and the postcards make them sad when they read them. But other people, like myself, have had difficult childhoods and trials throughout their lives. So for us, when we read the sad secrets, we feel a sense of solidarity — like we’re not alone with our own secrets. I think it’s a different reaction with people who identify with people who are mailing in those sad ones.