Secret's out

PostSecret creator Frank Warren brings the comedy and confessions to Syracuse University.

Frank Warren has a ton of secrets.

No, really. Warren stores in Tupperware bins every single PostSecret message ever mailed to him. And yes, he estimates that all the secrets — more than half a million in five years — literally weigh at least a ton.

In 2005, Warren started PostSecret, a continuous art project where people anonymously mail secrets to his home in Germantown, Md. They range in topic, from loneliness and suicide to love and jokes. He posts new secrets online each Sunday.

“When we think we’re keeping a secret, that secret’s actually keeping us."
- Frank Warren

Warren brought his “PostSecret Live” traveling show to Syracuse University Wednesday night, speaking to a sold-out Goldstein Auditorium. The 1,500 tickets sold out earlier on Wednesday. An hour before show time, the line to get in stretched down Schine Student Center’s outdoor steps and around the building.

Just after 8 p.m., Warren walked onstage to applause and the song “Dirty Little Secret” by The All-American Rejects blasting. (The song’s music video features PostSecret postcards, including three written by the band.)

“My name is Frank,” he began, “and I collect secrets.”

The confessions, which now roll in at a rate of 1,000 per week, usually come on one side of a postcard, decorated with art or a photograph. But it doesn’t end there: Warren’s had secrets mailed to him on seashells, funeral announcements, naked Polaroids, sonograms, In-N-Out Burger bags and once, a 6-foot by 4-foot painting.

It all started five years ago, when he printed up 3,000 postcards — one side was blank, and the other side gave simple directions: write something that’s true, and that you’ve never told anyone before. He ventured into the dark streets of Washington and handed the cards to complete strangers.

“Probably the most common reaction I got was people saying, ‘I don’t have any secrets,’” Warren recounted. “But I made sure they took the card, because they’ve got the best ones.”

Warren himself thought it was a crazy idea. His dad called it “voyeuristic,” and his mom said it sounded “diabolical.”

Five years, five books and an art exhibit later, Warren stood on stage encouraging students to use their own “crazy ideas” to start an online conversation, one that could change lives, he suggested, or even change the world.

“When we think we’re keeping a secret, that secret’s actually keeping us,” he explained. “And it can be undermining our relationships with other people, blocking us from being who we truly are, in a way that we don’t even recognize or see until we fix that part of ourselves that we’re hiding from.”

Warren knows this idea well. He told the audience of the one postcard that changed everything for him. It was mailed to his home on a photograph of a broken bedroom door, and said, “The holes are from when my mom tried knocking down my door so she could continue beating me.”

He posted it immediately, and soon people started to reply with photos of their own broken doors. Some people e-mailed him to say it helped them feel more connected, knowing they weren’t alone.

“When I was young, I had one of those doors too,” Warren confessed. “For the first time, I understood that there are two kinds of secrets: the secrets that we keep from other people, and the secrets that we hide from ourselves.”

Warren said receiving the postcards has allowed him the strength to face the haunting secrets from his own past.

“My family broke up at a very young age. I saw my best friend fall to his death in middle school. I was kicked out of my house as a teenager, and homeless for a while. I lost a friend and a family member to suicide, and I didn’t find meaningful work for myself until I was in my 40s,” he said. “So I learned to have patience with the world, and patience with myself. Because I know there’s always hope. It just doesn’t always come on the time schedule that we’d like it to.”

And despite all the hardship, Warren said if he could go back, he wouldn’t change anything. It’s made him more compassionate, he said, as he stressed the idea of being proud of your scars.

“The children almost broken by the world,” he said, “become the adults most likely to change it.”

After sharing the history of PostSecret, Warren revealed a few of the messages that he was banned from publishing in his most recent book. “This is where I get my revenge on HarperCollins,” he joked. One photo showed a very close-up shot of someone using tweezers to pull a hair from a nipple.

The last part of the night gave audience members a chance to share a secret with the entire crowd. About 15 people came up to the two microphones, sharing secrets about parents who died, being raped, personal insecurities and attempting suicide.

“I came to college wanting to have lots of sex, and I think I turned down the one opportunity I’m gonna get,” a student announced, pitching the crowd into a fit of laughter.

Another student spoke of his father, who died of cancer. “I wish that I would have sat down and watched TV with him, the very last day he was conscious and able to talk to me,” he said.

One freshman shared that he had always been an “A” student, but felt like a failure when he was rejected from 10 of the 13 colleges he applied to. Someone in the audience shouted, “You’re not a failure!” to roaring applause.

After the event, the freshman said he felt a weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

“Personally, I’ve been dealing with this for quite a long time,” he said. “And I just felt like there was nowhere I could really go to talk about it, without feeling worse than I did before. So for me, just being able to do this anonymously, it just compelled me.”


(Photo: Danielle Carrick)

Life Changing

This Post Secret event reminded me that there are still compassionate people left in the world. When the students went up to tell their secrets, the room was fully attentive, and supported those people, despite being strangers. I was truly moved by this experience and I will forever continue to open up people's eyes to the world of Post Secret.

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