The most trusted stranger in America

The creator of PostSecret, Frank Warren, talks with The NewsHouse about why people trust him so much, his work with suicide prevention and his all-time favorite secret.

Since Frank Warren founded on Jan. 1, 2005, he has received hundreds of thousands of postcards from complete strangers all over the world bearing their deepest secrets, never before spoken to another human being.

Some secrets are funny, some uplifting, some heartbreaking and some are even borderline frightening. Frank believes these secrets connect people across the globe who may feel alone, but through reading the secrets posted on the site every Sunday, can take solace in knowing they are not. Today, the site has been visited by more than 377 million people.

Frank is currently touring colleges around the country for PostSecret Live and will be at Syracuse University on Wednesday, Oct. 20 at 8 p.m. in Goldstein Auditorium in the Schine Student Center.

Frank talked with The NewsHouse about why people trust him so much, his work with suicide prevention and his all-time favorite secret.

The NewsHouse: So you will be here on Wednesday evening, where are you now? 

Frank Warren: I am home in Germantown, Maryland.

NH: How has your college tour been going so far?

FW: It’s been going terrific. I’ve been hearing some incredible secrets from young people and the nights I haven’t had to sleep in the airport it’s been fantastic.

NH: Yeah, I actually saw your tweet about that. 

FW: Yeah, that was a rough night, but actually it wasn’t as bad as I thought. It’s the first night I ever slept in an airport and it’s not that bad.

NH: Well, that’s good. So what have been some memorable moments so far on the tour?

FW: A couple weeks ago I was being driven to the hotel after an event by this student who’d organized it and her father was in the car and they both shared secrets with each other while I was in the car that were pretty emotional.

NH: What is about speaking to college kids that you find so important?

FW: Well, I specifically ask my speaker’s bureau to set up events at colleges and universities because I do find young people just more interesting to talk to. When you’re younger you’re more alive and you’re more concerned and authentic about searching for what’s real and what’s bulls---. And I think as you get older you get more tied to your perceived identity and you stop asking important questions.

NH: Do you think that PostSecret is a way to break out of that perceived identity, to share a part of themselves that nobody knows?

FW: I think it can be. I think when you really openly hear and listen to these voices on the postcards telling their truth, it allows you to look inside and maybe ask yourself the same kinds of questions.

NH: I’m always really interested in how you choose to put up which secrets on Sundays. I’m sure you have a lot of secrets that are kind of on the same wavelength. Is it the artwork that really catches your eye a lot of times or how do you choose?

FW: I think it’s just how the secret hits me, if it just has that ring of authenticity to it. And I also like secrets that are hidden acts of kindness that people do, that can be a great secret, or funny secrets or sexual secrets or just really, really wise or insightful secrets.

NH: Does it take a lot to surprise you now since you’ve seen so many?

FW: It takes a lot to shock me, but I get surprised every day.

NH: One thing I’ve always wanted to ask you is what do you think about those postcards you get that are murder confessions or talk about a serious crime? Do you get a lot of those and what do you think about that?

FW: That’s a question I get a lot from reporters, but I don’t get that many of those secrets. But what the reporters don’t ask about so much are secrets that have to do with loneliness or self-harm or eating disorders, and I get a lot of those secrets.

NH: What do you feel like you get the most secrets about, what topics?

FW: Probably the ones I just mentioned and maybe also secrets from people some place on their journey trying to find that one person they can truly tell all of their secrets to. Maybe in some ways I’m kind of that proxy until that one person can be found that we can be our true selves with.

NH: Why do you think that people do feel comfortable sharing their deepest secrets with you?

FW: I don’t understand it fully, but I truly appreciate it. I think it might have to do with the fact that I ask people to mail their secrets to my home. It’s not going to a P.O. box or a committee of people, it comes to Frank at my house and I read every postcard and I keep every secret. I think each one is precious. I think people understand that I’m going to treat their secret with respect and be non-judgmental and that’s helpful. I think also, not loading the website with ads. I’ve never taken one dollar for a paid advertisement on the website and the website’s had hundreds of millions of hits. I think when people see that I use that space just to share secrets and talk about suicide prevention, people respect that as well.

NH: So how did suicide prevention become such an important part of PostSecret for you?

FW: Well, I don’t think suicide and secrets are directly connected but my life has touched the issue of suicide in a number of ways. In fact, when I started PostSecret I was answering phones on Hopeline, the suicide prevention hotline 1-800-SUICIDE, so I knew the important work they were doing. I wanted to use any connection with people online as a way to promote that.

NH: I see posts a lot, where you post up e-mails, where they say this saved my life or this really helped me, so do you feel like you’re making a difference as far as promoting that phone line and promoting suicide awareness?

FW: Well, I try not to post those e-mails too much, although I do get them frequently. I will say one thing that’s made me very, very proud of this whole project is how the PostSecret community has come together and over a few years raised over a half million dollars to support the Hopeline and the message of hope and suicide prevention.

NH: When you say you’ve raised half a million dollars is that directly through the site?

FW: That’s through appeals to people who’ve visited the website and their direct donations to Hopeline.

NH: So you have a new video coming out about veteran secrets. Why did you want to pursue that project?

FW: A lot of e-mails came to me after Memorial Day saying, hey how come you didn’t have soldier secrets up for Memorial Day, and I just kind of got the ball running and we created this idea for a video for soldier secrets to come out before Veterans Day. We put it on Kickstarter which is this website that allows people to make donations to a project and it got fully funded so we were off and running.

NH: I’ve seen a few of the videos before and I really enjoy them. I think they’re great and really emotional. Do you work on these videos yourself or do you hire them out?

FW: I work with an outside firm called Fireman Creative. I supply them with the images and ideas and they do all the hard work to put them together.

NH: How has [PostSecret] affected your family?

FW: I think it’s made my family feel blasé about secrets. [laughing] I still really appreciate each one, but my daughter has been receiving secrets at our house for five years now so for her I think it seems very normal and typical, which is ironic.

NH: So is this something you see yourself doing for the rest of your life?

FW: Well, I hope the secrets never stop coming but I think my wife has a fear that 20 years from now we’ll be retired someplace like Boca Raton, Florida and secrets and postcards will continue to chase us down. We’ll never be able to escape them. But I hope they never stop coming.

NH: Do you have an all-time favorite secret?

FW: It came in the mailbox on a coffee cup, a Starbucks cup, and the secret said, “I serve decaf to customers that are rude to me.”

NH: I’ve seen that one. At your college talks, I’ve seen a few times where you have couples proposing or standing up sharing their secrets, do you always have a chance for people to stand up and share their secrets?

FW: I never know if it’s going to happen, but in two years it has every time. I think there’s this pent-up reservoir of secrets that we just are looking for the right time to release or share and at PostSecret events they seem to come out in a very emotional and supportive and cathartic way.

NH: Are you working on another book at the moment or any other projects?

FW: We’re working on a PostSecret app and maybe a PostSecret film but no other books are in the works right now.

NH: When you say a PostSecret film do you mean a feature film or based on a secret in a postcard or a documentary?

FW: Well, we’re trying to find a way to bring the stories behind the secrets to film or television, so that’s still in the early stages.

NH: Well, you’ve shared a lot with me today. Is there anything else you’d like to add about PostSecret or speaking to colleges and universities?

FW: When I come to Syracuse I’ll be sharing some of the funny and inspiring stories behind the secrets. I’ll be showing images of postcards on the big screen that were banned from the books and talking about my own secrets and secrets that have changed people’s life. And then the best part is always listening to the audience. And then there’s a book signing afterward.

NH: I did want to ask you one more question. Has anyone ever tried to contact you about taking one of their secrets down from the site or trying to get their secret back from you?

FW: Yes. I had a secret on the website that said, “I worked all my life to get into Harvard and now that I’m here I hate it.” And I got an e-mail from a person who identified what was on the back of the postcard and she said that secret was hers. And she said please take it down because my friends and family have identified me and I’m getting all sorts of grief over this. And I took it down immediately, but I e-mailed her back and I said, hey send me another message in a couple of years from now and let me know how this story ends. Because I think it’s common that when you find the courage to share a true secret, it’s uncomfortable, it’s pressure on you. But maybe she’ll use that pressure to transfer to a school she likes better or find a better place at Harvard that fits who she is in a new way. And so I think in the long run it’s usually healthiest to share those secrets even though in the short run they can put pressure on us.

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