The Most Trusted Stranger in America
We all have secrets.
Some are innocent and hopeful, born out of shyness or humility. Others are borne on guilt or anger. And then there’s that dirty little secret. Be they all of the above or all points in between, we all have skeletons in our collective closet.
Some, however, are artistically rendered on postcards and mailed to Germantown, Md. Those are the thousands that wind up in Frank Warren’s mailbox.
Dubbed “the Most Trusted Stranger in America,” Warren is the creative mind behind the PostSecret Project, a collection of deeply personal and artfully decorated postcards mailed anonymously from around the globe. From there, they’re posted on Warren’s blog — the largest advertisement-free blog in the world —published in several PostSecret books and screened at his live lectures the world over.
One of his next stops is Boone, where he’ll present at Appalachian State University Oct. 8, as part of the 2013-14 Performing Arts Series.
Warren admittedly loves his job, but it’s not something he takes lightly.
“It feels like, to me, a great honor,” Warren said. “I feel very fortunate that so many strangers have trusted me with their secrets — deep secrets they may have never told to parents or a spouse or a priest, and I try to take that relationship very seriously.”
That’s why, for example, Warren doesn’t accept paid advertisements on his website. It’s also why he insists on using his home address, rather than a P.O. Box, “although that drives my wife a little crazy,” he said.
But it helps foster a common experience that’s innately human. When discussing his work with others, some secrets come across as strange, funny or even obscene, but, eventually, something strikes a chord.
“They start seeing other secrets, saying that could be my friend, or my grandfather went through that, or my girlfriend has said that,” Warren said. “And then they see that one secret that grabs them by the heart, because it articulates something they’ve been struggling with better than they can say it themselves. They’re sharing with a stranger they never met.”
But that’s not always the case. Warren recalls a presentation he delivered in Brighton, England, wherein one of the postcards he projected on screen depicted a local street. The secret read, “Sometimes I walk this street, and I hope cars hit me.”
At the time, PostSecret featured a mobile app that allowed users to respond to secrets in kind. Someone replied to that particular secret, saying, “I live on this street, and if you ever want to talk, please come find me.”
“About two weeks later, once I returned from the U.K., I got this email from a girl, who said she was at the event … and she was in shock because she saw her secret come up on the screen,” Warren said. “That was her secret. When she saw it, she was so taken aback by it that she grabbed her best friend’s arm, who was there next to her, and said, ‘That’s my secret.’
“At the end of the event, her friend let her know that she was the one who had written that hopeful response, not knowing it had come from her best friend. Just an amazing connection like that makes me so hopeful about how the web can bring people together in a real meaningful way.”
Like so, through its popular online presence and multimedia formats, PostSecret has raised significant sums of funds for suicide prevention resources, including $50,000 toward IMAlive, a text-based suicide prevention website, and more than $1 million for the Kristin Brooks Hope Center’s Hopeline.
“My hope is that PostSecret has this higher purpose, and I hope also that the web has more of these sites and communities that bring people together and build connections,” Warren said. “Some of the secrets are offensive or obscene, but some are very revealing in a way that, I think, very naturally makes you want to reach out and help a person.”
Postcards from the Past
PostSecret started some eight years ago in Washington, D.C. Warren had his own document-delivery business, which he described as lucrative, but monotonous. On the weekends, however, he’d pursue these postcard projects that held more meaning to him.
“PostSecret was the third (project) I worked on, and it really just caught fire and turned my life upside down,” he said. “Maybe the reason I started was because of the boring job.”
Looking back on it now, however, Warren realized it was something else.
“I was struggling with secrets I was keeping from myself,” he said. “And this art project became a way for me to create this virtual space where people could share their deepest secrets, and I surprised myself by joining in that conversation with secrets I’ve buried long ago.”
When he stared the project, Warren hoped to receive a hundred postcards. He ended up with hundreds of thousands. At present, Warren estimates he’s received, at least, half a million total, and they still arrive weekly by the hundreds. About 5 to 10 percent of those make it to his blog, http://www.postsecret.com, which he typically updates weekly.
“Every Sunday, you’ll see something that’s laugh-out-loud funny, erotic or sexual, or filled with anguish or hope or long, or searching for grace,” he said. “I try to connect them in a way that … you’re not just hearing single secrets, but this chorus. You’re part of a conversation … that pulls yours out of your heart, too.”
People have tried to email their secrets, but Warren prefers physical to digital.
“I think if you spend time to purchase a postcard, decorate it, put some artwork on it, choose the words carefully for your secret and take ownership of it and then physically let that artifact go to a stranger, I think that ritual can have an impact that might surprise a person,” he said. “The connections that come from a secret shared, honestly, can create amazing stories.”
Warren will share some of those stories Oct. 8 at ASU, he said, “stories that are funny, heartbreaking, hopeful, romantic.”
PostSecret in Person
PostSecret live events are Warren’s favorite part of the project.
“I get to travel and show secrets that have not been seen before, secrets that were banned from the books by the publisher,” he said. “I tell stories behind the secrets.”
His presentations are multimedia events, featuring video, music and surprises aplenty — especially when audience members are invited on stage to share a secret over the microphone.
“And that can be very emotional and certainly is the most powerful part of the night,” Warren said. “The secrets people share, they can knock your socks off.”
One story, from an event in London, England, involved a young man who faked an illness to get out of school for the day, a white lie that snowballed into an appendectomy. When Warren shared that story, at a presentation in Australia, a woman raised her hand and said, “Me, too.”
“When we find the strength and courage to be vulnerable and open up and let our secrets go, the realization … is that secrets aren’t walls at all. They’re bridges.”
To this day, Warren is still excited to visit his mailbox, likening it to a kid on Christmas morning.
“I don’t think I can even stop if I wanted to,” he said. “I’ve stepped into something that’s as inexhaustible as a bottomless well. My wife has this fear that 20 years from now, we might be retired in Palm Springs, and secrets may still chase us down. But I hope they never stop.”
“Frank Warren: PostSecret” comes to ASU’s Schaefer Center for the Performing Arts at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 8. Tickets, which cost $20 for general admission and $10 for students, are available by calling (828) 262-4046 or visiting http://pas.appstate.edu.
For more information on Frank Warren and PostSecret, visit http://www.postsecret.com. Got a secret? Mail it to PostSecret, 13345 Copper Ridge Road, Germantown, Md. 20874.