Secrets, Confession, and Reconciliation


I have been a reader of PostSecret for about seven years now, I think, if not a bit longer. PostSecret, for those of you who do not know, is a website run by Frank Warren, who solicits postcards not only from people across America but also from across the world. Warren asks individuals to write down a secret on a postcard and to send it to him. He takes about twenty of these each week and posts them on the site on Sundays. The posts are moving, amusing, lovely, painful, familiar, shocking, and almost always powerful. Rarely are they banal or mundane. Many people make their perusal part of their weekly rituals, every Sunday or Monday.

The directions that Warren gives for the project are rather simple. He hands out cards that read:

You are invited to anonymously contribute a secret to a group art project. Your secret can be a regret, fear, betrayal, desire, confession or childhood humiliation. Reveal anything – as long as it is true and you have never shared it with anyone before.

Warren encourages people to send a number of cards, but to always share the secrets anonymously. He began passing these cards out in the Washington, DC area about 10 years ago and soon people began sending the cards in to him and he began publishing them. He now gets tens of millions of hits on his site each year and it has become enormously popular. He has published five books of secrets and the latest went to #1 on the NY Times bestseller list. It’s been an impressive run for him.

In the last few years Warren has begun touring the country – and even overseas – talking to audiences about PostSecret and about secrets and his work. Well, when my friend and colleague Mark Rice asked me to join him in attending one of these events in our local area recently (Mark is also a longtime reader of the site), I felt compelled to agree to attend. It was a fascinating experience, but not in the way that I had expected it to be.

Warren began the event by talking about how he imagines secrets as a box full of postcards that we carry around. The question he has is what to do with that box? He wanted to encourage us to share the contents of that box, suggesting that there is something transformational in the act of sharing.

Warren was a good speaker, practiced in his anecdotes and his gestures. He clearly had done this a number of times – and by this I don’t mean to put him down in any way. He was a pro and he knew how to hit the right notes in his performance. But that’s part of what was interesting to me: it was a performance and I don’t think I expected that.

He showed us images and shared stories and personal details, including things about his relationship with his mother and even a message she left on his voicemail rejecting the offer of a free copy of one his books, a book she had called “diabolical.” He knew how to work the stage and how to alternate the pitch and tone of his voice, how to exhort us and how to quietly and intimately connect with us. He was selling books and his site, but the profits seemed to go for the good – much of what he does goes to suicide hotline and prevention centers, a cause he has taken up as central to his work on PostSecret and a cause we pretty much can all get behind.

Soon after Warren began, he told us he was going to share secrets that “the lawyers” wouldn’t allow him to put in the PostSecret books. It felt like we were being welcomed into the inner circle. Some of the “outlawed” secrets had potential copyright infringements in terms of their images, others had images or words that the lawyers deemed potentially upsetting or scandalous. The first secret had an image of a woman’s breast. It was a close-up, with a focus on the areola and a pair of tweezers plucking a hair from it. Apparently, this woman does not have perfectly hairless areolae and is admitting to plucking the hairs. Now I’m not sure how scandalous this image was, nor why it might potentially upset anyone – a bare breast? But still, the card was banned from the book. The postcard had one word on it – “Confession.”

During my drive home, as I thought back to the event, I connected that image of the breast and the word “Confession” with how Warren ended the formal part of his presentation. This ending was what Warren called his “testimony.” He spoke about the crucial importance of opening up, not only to others, but to ourselves, about what we keep as secrets. He suggested that secrets can be heavy burdens upon us and that it can be transformational to confess them. This ending had a Fundamentalist feel to it – he even ended it by asking of the audience, “Can I get an Amen?” He was both joking and not. For Warren, there is something deeply spiritual in what he sees as his project and this talks that he gave: even if he understood that this was not a formal church setting, he also recognized that there was something powerful going on in this space, something communal and shared and perhaps transcendent for those of us in the audience. This was also part of the performative aspect of the event, much as church itself is often a performative space – as is a classroom, if I’m going to be completely forthright. (Worth noting: Warren is currently working on something he calls “PostSecret: The Play,” holding auditions in New York.) Warren’s testimony was a performance of sincerity and authenticity, he returned to the story of his mother and gave us more insight into his childhood and his suffering and his path to where he is now and told us that he would not trade anything in what he had experienced. His journey is important to him, suffering and all, in helping him locate himself in this present time. And the rhetoric of suffering only reinforced the religious or at least spiritual undertones of the event and the value of the secrets revealed, confessed and spoken aloud in a moment that leads to transcendence. “Confession,” that early image had offered us as an audience, and confession was now positioned as something deeply valuable and communal for those of us in the room.

This should make some sense for longtime readers of the website. PostSecret is a deeply confessional space where people admit their fears and their weaknesses, their love of others, their shames, their hopes. In sharing these they share something that feels essential about themselves. The readers of the site recognize this and often feel part of something larger – it’s what readers of the site call the PostSecret Community. That community has only gotten larger with the lecture tours and the publication of the books. Visitors to bookstores often leave secrets in the books for others to find, continuing Warren’s project literally beyond the pages of his books.

But my response also led me to a few questions. Warren has called PostSecret “a group art project.” What about it is “art”? I’m not sure. He certainly has an archive of artifacts, though he seems less interested in them as artistic representations or as artifacts as he is about them as secrets that have been revealed. The postcards can certainly be creative, but other than his selection as to which secrets to publish on the site or in the books, we don’t really have a sense of what about their creativity Warren values. The criteria of his subjective preferences remain hidden. Will he unveil these criteria? What will he do with the artifacts that he has collected? What will come of the archive? Finally, and in a somewhat different direction, are the secrets that the public doesn’t see as fully realized as confessions as those published? This last seems important, as Warren goes out of his way to present the secrets and his own stories as “authentic.” That authenticity is part of the performance of PostSecret, and don’t get me wrong, I’m not necessarily against it. But the performance of authenticity is something that viewers and listeners and readers should be aware of. There is no way to know whether someone is lying or fabricating a secret. Warren’s acceptance of all the postcards and his publishing of them suggests not only that he takes them all at face value but that they all are somehow equivalent to him.

And this idea of equivalency is my last point. On the site, all the secrets are posted by themselves, with no commentary from Warren, though with an occasional comment from a reader that he has placed as an accompaniment. For the most part, each secret stands alone, all equal in importance and potentially in impact. I thought of this aspect of the site when Warren told us the story of how he was approached by the band, The All-American Rejects, about using postcards from PostSecret in the video for their song, “Dirty Little Secret.”

At first Warren rejected their request before eventually agreeing to share thirty of them. In the video, though, Warren told us, the band ended up adding three secrets of their own, all of them anonymous like the ones Warren had provided. He then showed us one of these three. It read, “I cheated on the SAT and got a scholarship.” Many people in the audience laughed, perhaps because they found the idea of cheating familiar, perhaps because they found it shocking or ironic or funny. I had a different response, however. I found the secret deeply upsetting. By cheating and getting a scholarship, this young man was certainly angling for something better for himself, but he didn’t seem to understand that there was a cost for someone else. Colleges and foundations do not have an endless supply of scholarship money or opportunities. When someone gets one, another person does not. That scholarship that went to him was refused to someone else, someone who may have needed it to attend college, someone who may then have had to go to a different school and may have had a painful or difficult experience. I’m not claiming to know, but I am claiming that his cheating had consequences, and consequences beyond himself. And I’m claiming that his secret is not the equivalent of others, like “I’m a virgin” and “I’m afraid that no one will ever love me as much as my dog does” that show up in the video and on the site. Those secrets reveal something powerful about the individuals who wrote them, elements of their lives that they have chosen to share. The band member’s confession of cheating is not the moral equivalent of these.

This isn’t to say that there might not be value in the confession – value for the confessor. The testimony might be healing and cleansing for him; it might make him feel better to get it out there. But I don’t feel closer to him for the confession. I don’t feel something communal or transcendent. I feel angry and frustrated at his selfishness. The confession doesn’t allay that; in fact, it seems to me to be rather a continuation of the same selfishness. He feels better. Great for him. Wonder what he’d say to the kid who he blocked from getting that scholarship, the one who didn’t cheat? Make THAT confession to THAT person and maybe I’ll start to feel something for you and not just about you.

Warren started a PostSecret app last year and it was enormously successful for a number of months, but then he had to shut it down. His insistence on anonymity for the users of the app – similar to how he advises submissions to be anonymous – actually led to abuse and bullying and other sorts of behavior on the part of users, which got so bad that he decided that he needed to stop it. I can understand the anonymity – it’s somewhat freeing, after all, and allows for some to feel comfortable sharing. At the same time, it also operates as a permission to say whatever you want knowing there will be no punishment, no consequences. Warren wants the project to be about community and about forgiveness and about transcendence and these are honorable goals. But he needs to think harder about how this operates. Not all secrets are equivalent, at least not morally or ethically, and not all experiences are either. That’s okay, actually, and really only a problem when you present them as such. And when you offer whoever confesses absolute reconciliation, which maybe isn’t your place to do.

I’ll keep reading PostSecret and I’m sure I will continue to laugh at some of the cards, and tear up, and stare in amazement, and wonder about the things that connect us. But I’d be lying if I told you it’s ever really going to be the same for me. The secret is out.