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Secrets – we all have them. Most stay locked away in the safety of our own heads, but many have found their way into the minds of millions via Frank Warren’s now-infamous PostSecret project. What was just a blog back in 2004 is now a worldwide phenomenon that’s spawned multiple books – the latest being “PostSecret: Confessions on Life, Death, and God” – and a tour, which stops at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 4. Warren spoke to us from the road, discussing why people find the project intriguing, what makes sharing secrets personally fulfilling and the really gay – and really bizarre – ones he’s received.
You’ve printed many gay secrets in the books, and Affirmations, our local LGBT center, has done an exhibit that was similar to your project. How does it feel to know that PostSecret is reaching so many people?
What really gives me a great sense of gratification is that the project reaches and resonates with people who truly need it the most – young people, the gay and lesbian community and other groups that sometimes feel as though they’re forced by society or their family to keep secrets. I think this project allows them to know that other people have the same secrets, too. Just knowing that can sometimes, though it doesn’t make your secret go away, lighten that burden in you when you know someone else is sharing it.
Since you started this project, do you think you’ve collected enough gay secrets to make an entire book?
Absolutely. There’s a great one on the Web site this week that says “I secretly wish the military would find out my girlfriend is gay so she could come back home to me.” What I love about the Web site and the project is it shares these secrets that are almost part of a hidden newspaper. I kind of feel like I’m a reporter, but the stories I report on are the ones that are hidden, that you don’t see in the Washington Post or in the New York Times. But they’re just as real and just as connected to our humanity as the important stories that a typical newspaper reporter would cover.
This is just an assumption, but are the gay secrets you get typically about coming out?
I feel like sometimes people share secrets with me and with the project as a way of coming out to themselves, and that can happen a number of ways. I think sometimes the most amazing postcards are the ones that feel as though the secret teller is sharing the secret with themselves about their deepest identity, and that can be sexual orientation, it could be belief, it could be political affiliation, it could be family relationship. It could be a thousand different things. But I think when we see that and feel that kind of courageous revelation, it inspires us to look deep within as well.
Tell me about touring and what people should expect from your appearance in Ann Arbor this Friday.
It’s my favorite part of the project. I feel like I can somehow bring that feeling of openness and safety that people feel on the Web site to a real place and just for a night invite people to step out of their everyday lives and share the secrets, or the stories behind the secrets. Also, share postcards that were banned by the publishers. I’ll be projecting those on the screen behind me and talking about those stories. During the last 30 or 40 PostSecret events, in the second half of the event audience members will come up to the microphone and share their own shocking, sexual, hopeful or painful secrets in front of their community in a way that’s highly emotional.
This project is part of a blog (www.postsecret.com), books, an All-American Rejects video. Where else would you like to take it?
I like to follow where it leads. I don’t like to specifically set goals for it. I feel like in some ways, the PostSecret community is self-defining, and I listen and go with the way that feels most organic. But maybe if there was a way to tell some of the longer narratives behind the secrets in film or on cable television, that could be interesting. I always look to examples like Ira Glass and how he was able to bring “This American Life” to cable television in such a way that preserves the integrity of the project.
What were your expectations for this project when you first started it in 2004 as a blog?
I had a rich interior life ever since I was a kid, and I figured if I could create a safe, nonjudgmental place for people to share those inside jokes, or sexual peccadillos, or hidden fears or hopes, it could be pretty special. What I didn’t expect is that I’d be able to earn the trust of so many – thousands of strangers, and then millions more every week, would be coming to the Web site to share in these extraordinary works of art.
What are some of the most bizarre secrets you’ve received?
Every week there seems to be a sexual, funny, hilarious or shocking secret (laughs). I’m a father, so one of the ones that stayed with me for years was a postcard with about six different hair samples attached to the card. The secret said, “When I babysit children I take a hair sample before I leave.”
Some of the others are just as funny, like the one on the Starbucks cup that said, “I serve decaf to customers who are rude to me.” And there are the romantic ones. There’s one on the back cover of the new PostSecret book that was mailed to me on a Polaroid picture and it says, “I’m a Christian who’s falling in love with someone who doesn’t believe in God.” I think it’s a beautiful love story.
This is actually from the latest book. It came on a postcard that just had a church steeple on it, and the person wrote on the card, “I’m too much woman for all the pansy-ass guys at my church.” (Laughs)
Why do people find these secrets so intriguing to read?
It’s the level of sincerity and vulnerability that people share in such an articulate and artful way. We have these roles and masks that we wear, and so when we see something that’s really authentic, it really grabs our attention – and maybe our heart, too.