PostSecret by Frank Warren

One of the things that I really enjoy about picking up books from thrift stores (charity shops to you Brits and Aussies) is the randomness of it: will it be a good read? Is the author going to be one to whom I return? Will this book be one that stays with me? Well, there is no doubt that PostSecret is going to be one that I will never forget which is high praise indeed for a book that I just happened to choose because the front cover looked like a parcel.

PostSecret is not a book of fiction but a collection of artworks, managed and orchestrated by Frank Warren, an artist from Maryland, U.S.A. and published by him as an art installation initially but now, due to its popularity, he uses his books and his blogspot as a way of sharing his project with the world.

What a project it is. The picture that opens this blog tells you a bit about what his idea was: to leave postcards in random places so that a random stranger could share a secret, send it to him and he could use it in his installation. He mentions decorating it, making it their own but this is incidental.

He was inundated and has been ever since and the book that I picked up is just one of many that have been published containing the postcards that have been sent to him from all over the world.

I’m not sure that I can really describe the way I felt whilst leafing through this book. I know that the book is a keeper – it will not be leaving my shelf although I read it in under an hour, it merely being a collection of the latest postcards that Warren has chosen to publish, this book being from 2005.

But describing the book as a collection of postcards is trite. It is so much more than that. It is a snapshot into someone’s life on such a greatly personal level that it cannot fail to touch you. You are sharing in someone else’s emotions and the range of secrets exposed, divulged, whatever you want to call it, is astonishing.

For example, some are simple one liners like “she never gave me a chance”(sic) or “I want to die a hero”. There are others that are more descriptive: “I’ve always wanted to rob a bank” or “I gave my vegetarian sister a meal with beef” (see image above). And then there are the ones that get you and metaphorically poke you in the eye, willing a response from you: “When I was in the Fourth Grade, a new kid moved into our neighborhood. He was a charismatic leader who quickly became popular. Soon after, he convinced two of my friends to pin me to the ground and hold open my eyelids. They took turns spitting in my eyes.”

Reading deeply personal revelations like that cannot fail to stir you as a person. I found myself wondering who the person confessing is now: someone well rounded, compassionate and forgiving or someone bearing a grudge? If that horrendous experience is something that they’ve already dealt with or if, by sharing this secret now, this is something that they are beginning to confront? I also found myself imagining the life of the “charismatic leader” and how they might have grown up, praying that their ways have changed somewhat and that they are using their powers of charm and personality for good.

I have to say that there is something voyeuristic about viewing other people’s secrets that makes this experience feel a little bit naughty. Some of these secrets are hair-raising, ranging from the expressly forbidden and sexually intimate to the wishes of the sad and suicidal. All human emotion and experience is here: regret, happiness, sexuality, longing, humour, love, lost love, guilt, violence, crime- the list goes on. Some secrets stem from different times in a person’s existence – from childhood, from family relationships, from romantic relationships, from college, from marriage, having children, from people dying, from reflection on the past.

What I get mostly from this book is a sense that this project is doing some good. It has to be cathartic for whoever is sharing their deepest, darkest secrets to know that it is not a truth that only they hold. Their burden has to feel like it has been lifted in some way in the voicing, or in this instance, writing of their feelings or thoughts or detailing a certain episode. There has to be a cleansing in some way from the confession. And I really like this idea that you can throw out something that has been gnawing away at you, possibly for years, a lifetime, that you felt was never going to leave you alone, that like a carbuncle that constantly makes its presence known, it was something that formed part of your everyday existence with little chance of relief at any given time.

Frank Warren confirms this and has said that he has received comments from people whose secrets have been read out or published and that this acknowledgement has helped them.

And still the postcards keep coming. His blogspot has received more than 820,000,000 views to date, including me, and is a global phenomenon. I can’t see that PostSecret is going to end any time soon. After finishing the book, I went to the blogspot and saw there was a Facebook page and immediately “followed” it. If mine is a typical reaction then the longevity of this site is assured. And who knows? Maybe I’ll add myself to the eclectic collection of clandestine confessions….

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