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Would You Share Your Secret? Visiting the PostSecret Exhibit
This March, I had the opportunity to visit the PostSecret exhibit at my campus library. The exhibit was tucked away in the basement of the library, like the school's own special secret, but I heard about it in the local newspaper. My sister, a friend, and I, both frequent visitors to Frank Warren's weekly blog, went to see the collection of postcards, many never before published or seen by the public.
What is PostSecret? It's an online community art project started by Frank Warren. He left blank postcards in public places and handed them out to strangers, inviting them to mail back an anonymous secret. There are no limits to what people can share, but the secrets must be true and never shared before.
No one could have predicted the tremendous response--Warren received hundreds of postcards sharing stories of secret pains, joys, regrets, hopes, and fears. People took his instructions to be creative to heart. Some of the postcards could be considered art, making use of traditional art media. Some use collage, photographs, or advertisements. Even postcards with the most rudimentary art--childish stick-figures, for instance--often have a heartfelt or humorous touch.
The All-American Rejects and PostSecret video
Some messages are handwritten, neatly letter or casually scrawled across the postcard. Other postcards have printed text cut out and glued across the picture. However the secret senders decide to put together their postcard, they all have something they feel they need to share--something deep, emotional, or wryly observant.
The atmosphere at the PostSecret exhibit was quiet and reflective. People slowly circled the room, studying the postcards hung on the walls or in glass display cases. Some postcards were double-sided, requiring us to walk to the back of the glass partition to read the entire story. The All-American Rejects's "Dirty Little Secret" music video played quietly on a screen set up for the exhibit, along with clips of an interview with Warren.
What were people sharing about themselves? There have always been postcards detailing painful struggles with difficult situations, such as rape, abuse, abortion, mental illness, substance abuse, and family problems. There is no doubt some sense of catharsis for these secret senders, being able to release some of the pain, shame, or fear that they have kept bottled up. "I still drink out of my dead son's sippy cup," writes one person. "It doesn't make it any easier." There is some catharsis for the reader, too, no matter how heartbreaking some of the stories are.
Just as many secrets are more bizarre, revealing something of the idiosyncrasies of human nature--strange habits and behaviors and secret obsessions.
- Whenever I see a pigeon, the only thing I can think about is kicking it.
- Sometimes, I put the toilet paper on "backwards" just to annoy you.
- When my friends leave their things at my house, I sell it on eBay!
- When I feel bored or overwhelmed at the office, I sit in the toilet and play video games until I feel better.
One postcard, featuring an illustration of an ambulance and two paramedics, reads: "My partner and I have sex to pass the time on slow nights."
Confessions of guilty secrets are quite common. A person writes: "As a child on my aunt and uncle's farm, I fed a chicken nugget to a chicken. I still feel guilty about it."
Predictably, secrets tend to revolve around issues of God, religion,
sex, and identity. Over the years, some secret senders have made it a
goal to be as cryptic or ambiguous as possible with their postcards,
inviting readers to puzzle over and debate their meanings.
Some make observances about life in general: "After my first day of kindergarten I told my mom, 'It wasn't as exciting as I thought it'd be.' Story of my life."
Not surprisingly, many people reveal feelings of sadness and alienation. "I just feel so invisible and alone," says one postcard. If there's one benefit to PostSecret, it's that readers may see these secrets and realize that they're not as alone as they think. Frank Warren works with a suicide hotline, 1-800-SUICIDE, because of the number of messages he gets from depressed, isolated people. While he cannot contact individual secret senders--he respects their anonymity and wouldn't be able to find them if he tried--he wants people to know that there are resources and organizations that can help them with their troubles.
Another thing Warren shared about his experiences with PostSecret? The sheer volume of postcards confessing to peeing in the shower! He chuckled when he described the numerous visual depictions of this habit. People think their behaviors are unique, when really they're not. That's the crux of PostSecret's success. We read these secrets and identify with them, even when they sadden, anger, or repulse us. The secrets unite us through their depictions of hope and fear, joy and tragedy. And the relief we feel when we read a secret and privately think, "Oh, good! I'm not the only one who does that!"
Frank Warren's blog is updated most Sundays with new secrets