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Postcard confessional An anonymous art project involving people's deep, dark secrets has morphed into an Internet phenomenon for Frank Warren

Frank Warren had a secret.

In elementary school, when he was young and impressionable, schoolyard bullies grabbed him and did something so disgusting that his brain mercifully buried the memory.

As a man fascinated by the power of secrets, Warren started handing out postcards to strangers near Washington, D.C., in 2004. He asked them to write down a secret and mail it to him anonymously.

Warren's small, anonymous art project has blossomed into an Internet phenomenon and a publishing hit, and making Warren a go-to guy if, say, "Good Morning America" wants to talk about secrets.

He will appear at the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts on Thursday, presenting pieces from the collection of over 100,000 postcard secrets and explaining how he became an accidental artist.

>Here come the cards

When the cards started arriving, 4-by-6 inch windows into lives touched by regret and shame and rage and joy, one knocked loose his memory of schoolyard cruelty. So Warren wrote it down and sent it to himself, feeling the hurt ebb as he drained its power by drawing it into the light.

"The very act of writing your secret on a postcard can be transformative," said Warren, who only reveals specifics of his "schoolyard bullying" secret to his live audiences. "The way you describe it and choose your words may allow you to frame it in a way where you're not such a victim. Where it doesn't have such power over you."

He stopped handing out postcards, but they kept coming anyway.

"I have to shave my toes ... (I am a woman ...)"

"My mom killed my dad long before he killed himself."

"I love to pee when I'm swimming."

"We haven't spoken since that night. It was an accident, I swear!"

"Dear Birthmother: I have great parents. I've found love. I am happy."

Sometimes they hold a life wedged into one sentence:

"Every time a 40-year-old guy tucks a dollar into my G-string, I wonder: Could that man be my dad?"

>You're invited

One blog started it all. Each Sunday, 20 cards chosen by Warren are posted for the world to see on the Internet, at postsecret.com, with an invitation to send yours to Frank's house in Maryland. The postcard trickle has grown to a flood of 1,000 a week.

Now Postsecret.com is a hugely popular blog, even though it has no archives. The best of the back catalog is only available in four best-selling coffee-table books, all in the top 1,500 sellers on Amazon.com.

Secrets are his career, now, you could say. A medical records researching business kept him busy before being run by other people. Now Warren spends a good part of his year crisscrossing the country to stand before auditorium crowds, talk about secrets, and invite people in the audience to share their own.

"When I share what I believe to be the essence of the project, it kind of brings that nonjudgmental, supportive feeling of the Web site into a place, and a time," said Warren. "Once it starts, that kind of courage to be vulnerable seems to be contagious, and people keep coming up. I have to cut it off, or we'd be there all night."

>Letting it out

Everyone has secrets of one sort or another, as a natural byproduct of the daily task of trying to present a true self to the world, said Catherine Cook-Cottone, a psychologist who teaches counselors in the University at Buffalo's School of Education.

When what's in your head and your heart don't match up with what people want to hear, or what you want yourself, a secret can be born.

"To mail that secret somewhere and actually see it online, in a way, says 'I can be me,' " she said. "It can take some of the pressure off of having to protect 'me' day to day."

People feel pressure to "present a self to the outside world that can truly represent the thoughts and needs of my body," said Cook-Cottone, who focuses on treating people with eating disorders and trauma in children.

"So when you try to do that interface, there are pieces of yourself sometimes that you either hide, or kind of contain," Cook-Cottone said. That stems from the natural desire "to be attuned to the people in our lives -- our families, our community, in school, at church, in our culture."

That's a culture that "prescribes a very detailed image of what it means to be OK," especially when it comes to the shape of women's bodies and other hot-button issues, said Cook-Cottone.

Put it all together, and presenting a fully honest portrait to the world -- a life without secrets -- is a "very complicated thing to do."

>Oh, what a relief

Depending on your individual psychology, holding a secret can create stress, said Cook-Cottone, especially when it involves deceiving people close to you, or situations where you believe you've done something seriously wrong.

"It's easier to confess to a crime than to be guilty and have no one know," she said, citing a study that examined the effects of revealing secrets. "It's actually like a physiological experience. Your blood pressure can go down, and your heart rate -- it's a relief."

That doesn't mean telling a secret is automatically the right thing to do, said Andrew Mattle, AIDS Community Services' director of mental health services and veteran counselor.

When it comes to personal areas like sexuality, letting go of secrets often can help lead to a healthier person. But there's one secret that's a more difficult decision, he said.

"Sometimes people are trying to decide whether to disclose an affair, an indiscretion," Mattle said. "People struggle a lot in therapy trying to decide, is this something I need to tell my partner?"

The answer depends on the secret holder, said Mattle. People who can square the act with their conscience and stray no more might be fine.

For others, "the harm of keeping that secret is greater," Mattle said. "The secret could start eating at them, and it could manifest in many ways" -- drinking, gambling, even anger at the person they've secretly wronged.

"People don't know what to do with the accumulated guilt, because it just keeps piling on," Mattle said.

Under that pressure, sometimes telling the world any way they can helps their peace of mind.

"I've had more people cry and say they were sorry, even though I'm not the person they should be crying to," Mattle said. "For some people, that's enough -- getting it out is enough for them."

***

PREVIEW

Frank Warren

8 p.m. Thursday in the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts, Amherst. Tickets are $20, $15 for students, and are available through Ticketmaster or the Center for the Arts box office.

For more information, call 645-ARTS or visit www.ubcfa.org.

e-mail: agalarneau@buffnews.com1

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