PostSecret Comes to Campus

By Elyse Gustafson

Frank Warren, the keeper of America’s secrets, was on campus [last March] giving a talk about his immensely popular PostSecret project. Warren began the project in 2004 by distributing 3,000 postcards asking strangers to share a secret. The secret could be anything, just as long as it was true and had never been shared before. Warren put his own address on the postcards and left them on park benches and in library books. Out of the 3,000 distributed cards, Warren got 100 back, which he then used as part of an art exhibit.

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To Warren’s surprise, that was not the end of the PostSecret project. People began sending Warren their own postcards, which he then posted every Sunday on the project’s website. The project exploded, and Warren now receives 1,000 postcards a week. The project has produced four books, an extensive speaking tour, a music video, and a new website that has received well over 200 million hits in the last year and a half.

The secrets range from the quaint — “Sometimes, secretly, I actually enjoy life” — to the mildly criminal — “I love the self check-out. Over the past two years, I have probably saved over $500 by ringing up all my produce as bananas” — to the heartbreaking — “My mom chose my stepdad over me” — to the devastating — “Everyone who knew me before 9/11 believes I’m dead.” For some the secrets are a form of entertainment; for others the secrets offer just enough encouragement to get through the day. Warren’s volunteer work with Hopeline, a national suicide hotline, led him to see suicide as one of the great tragedies of the younger generation. He sees PostSecret as a contribution to suicide prevention.

Warren . told us how the project got started, how it grew, and where it seems to be going. . Eventually, he opened up the floor for audience members to share their secrets. He knew it would take a few minutes for people to gather the courage, so he told us to turn to the people sitting around us and say hello.The divinity students in the crowd were a bit confused (doesn’t the peace happen after the confession?), but we did what we were told. Eventually, one brave woman worked her way to the microphone. Then a dozen or so others followed. We learned how one woman lied on her application to get accepted into Duke. Another said she hated her major. Another had been sexually abused since she was a child. As they cried, Warren told them that they are brave and that they are at last free from their burdens. After the last woman revealed her secret, Warren thanked us for coming and closed the evening with a kind of benediction: “Free your secrets, and become who you are.”

. The PostSecret project works because it is anonymous. No names, no faces, no risk. It can be both entertainment and encouragement at the same time. The face-to-face divulgence of secrets felt like too much. Suddenly the people themselves, not just the secrets, were on display, exposed in front of hundreds of people.

As we were walking out of the auditorium, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had just gone too far on a first date. I felt like I was going to have to spend the next month avoiding someone . because there was no way I could be held responsible for what I had just learned. “Free your secrets, and become who you are” [is] a perfect thing to say when you do not have to see the person the next day, when you do not have to deal with the pain and humiliation those secrets have caused.

I am mostly sympathetic to PostSecret. I think its popularity is due in part to how most people are unwilling to see things that make them uncomfortable. The PostSecret website provides just enough space to let people breathe a little. However, I do not think that that means PostSecret knows what it is doing. I think it is wrong to stir up people’s deepest emotions in such a precarious context. Confession is intimate. It requires a safe place and trusted people. An audience of strangers has the potential to leave people naked and alone. PostSecret is great for what it is: a space to work up the courage to tell the truth. But I think that when it tries to be more than that, when it tries to be a “community,” it risks causing the damage it claims to be trying to prevent.

This essay appeared April 17, 2009, in Confessio, an online student journal of theology and ministry at Duke Divinity School. Elyse Gustafson is an associate editor of Confessio and a third-year M.Div. student.

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