“Imagine your secrets in a box. Everyday you have the choice of what do with them,” began Frank Warren, the founder of PostSecret. PostSecret is the world’s largest ad-free blog and an ongoing community art project, updated weekly with anonymous postcards displaying secrets sent from all over the world. From whimsical stories to somber confessions, the diverse postcards sent to Warren’s home address have drawn a consistent and sizeable readership, prompting a play of the same name and a best-selling book series.
Warren visited Southern Connecticut State University’s John Lyman Center last week as part of PostSecret Live, an interactive multi-media show that allows him to publicly share some of the 500,000 secrets he’s received.
I have followed PostSecret since my teen years. The project’s aims — sharing secrets and building community around the healing power of revealing them — made a lot of sense when my world consisted primarily of pre-calc, prom and pimples. And though PostSecret Live did not resonate with me as the site once did, it was still an emotionally powerful and well-intentioned performance.
Most striking about the PostSecret project is the way it turns a private and emotional process into a visceral and shared one. This particular strength was further showcased in PostSecret Live, where interaction with the audience and visual displays augment Warren’s discussions.
Warren asks the audience questions, breaking down the wall between audience and performer: Members of the audience reacted to his queries, interacted with audience members nearby and shared their secrets in an open mic session at the end of the night.
Warren successfully created an atmosphere of mutual respect in which the audience felt comfortable but also compelled to share their secrets. Similarly, the audience maintained an appropriate tone and attitude while listening to open mic participants.
A series of voicemail recordings played to the audience provided a particularly climactic moment. The voicemails included a grandmother singing an off-tune happy birthday, a grandfather congratulating a grandchild on a college acceptance and a brother calling to simply share an article with his sister. But the sign-offs — “I will see you soon,” “ I love you” and “Miss you” — were haunting: These voicemails were the vestiges of people that had since died, moved away or otherwise become unreachable.
Despite its intense moments, the show provoked as much collective laughter as it did personal reflection. Warren moved from a discussion on suicide, something often indirectly or directly implied in the secrets sent to him, to a joke about a man considering suicide. And while I’m still not sure how I feel about this particular instance, the general success of humor in PostSecret Live reminds us that the confidential can often be the most laughable.
Dealing with such a touchy subject, it’s easy to fall into clichés. But if anyone has earned the right to be cliché, it is Frank Warren. He describes wandering the streets of Washington D.C. soliciting secrets; he claims that PostSecret ultimately reminded him of one of his own long-forgotten secrets; he believes that secrets are “the currency of intimacy.” When Warren asserts that “We think we keep secrets, but really it’s the secrets that keep us,” he’s not pandering to the audience — he truly believes what he says.
Still, it is easy to doubt the enduring power of the confessional open mic at the show’s closing. Though sharing secrets might seem valuable and cathartic for those at the microphone, it is not an assurance of resolution or final emotional peace, and it feels misleading that the show suggests otherwise. Secrets often involve ongoing negotiation for genuine reconciliation. My hesitations about this aspect of the performance are likely to some extent a reflection of my own discomfort in addressing intense emotional issues in public venues.
PostSecret’s success capitalizes on the opportunity provided by social media — it gives people a venue and immediate audience for thoughts, feelings and inquiries. As shown by the many Yalies who use Yale PostSecret to share secrets, humorous moments and personal demons, we sometimes need to say things that we feel we can’t say publicly. It’s a need that, by definition, few recognize. And for all its imperfections, PostSecret Live succeeded by acknowledging the need to say the unspeakable