V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Post cards from the edge

Published in the Toronto Sun and Sun Media papers March, 2007.

A pretty girl in a snug, sapphire-blue formal dress smiles confidently from a 4-by-6 inch postcard while her dark, wavy hair blows away from a young, painted face. On it, someone has written this: “Bulimia isn¹t making me as thin as I'd hoped.”

Two hands are shown clasped along the sides of a swollen belly. In lower case, cursive writing, another five-line secret reads like this: “two months after cheating on me, my boyfriend got an email from the girl he slept with-- she wrote to tell him she was pregnant. I erased the email and he has NO idea.”

Beside a picture of an old, bespectacled man, someone else has written: “My boss is blind. When we meet in the hallway, I stand very very still, so he won¹t know I¹m there.”

It’s a five-minute trip through 20 homemade postcards that takes visitors of www.PostSecret.com through the arc of human emotions. They are confessions of lust, love, hate and shame. The secrets make your heart sink, guffaw with laughter, recoil in shock, and smile inwardly at some of its poetry.

The keeper of these secrets is Frank Warren -- some would say a very powerful man. After all, not everyone can say they have gained the confidence of 100,000 strangers from around the world, including Canada, who bare their souls and expunge their most shameful secrets.

Second to the U.S., Canadians and South Americans make up the largest contributor to what he calls a ‘community art project.’ “I select cards that speak to me, that have a range of authenticity,” Warren, 42, said in a phone interview from his Maryland home. It’s an address the local post office knows well, for he receives up to 200 postcards a day.

“I think of myself as a film editor and lay them out to tell a cohesive story.”

The project started out modestly in November of 2004. During an art festival near Washington D.C., Warren -- who by day operates a business retrieving medical documents -- printed 3,000 self-addressed post cards and handed them out to strangers inviting them to share a secret with a few caveats.

The secret had to be true and something they’ve never told anyone before. Slowly, about a hundred anonymous secrets started to arrive in his mailbox: blank cards embellished into personalized pieces of art to “further express this part of themselves they were hiding from.”

Though the festival came to a close, the postcards continued to pour in. “When I stopped passing out those postcards... I thought that would be the end of the project. But the project wasn’t finished with me. Somehow the idea of PostSecret spread virally across the country and now around the world.” The blog has a cult following. According to this week’s ranking by Technorati, a blog-tracking service, PostSecret.com has secured a spot in the top 10 most popular blogs -- that’s out of 70.5 million blogs.

Warren said it’s also the largest advertisement-free blog on the web, drawing between three to four million visitors a month -- 10% of which he estimates are Canadian. “I think one of the reasons the project has grown and developed the way it has is because of the small decisions I make to protect its purity, its integrity. And one of those is never appearing to exploit people’s secrets.”

And so, despite the many “lucrative” offers he’s fielded, Warren said he hasn’t accepted a penny to run an ad on the site. Instead, when the rock group All-American Rejects offered him $1,000 for the use of the images on their video “Dirty Little Secrets,” he asked them to make a $2,000 donation to a national suicide hotline in the U.S., 1-800-Suicide. “Treating people’s secrets with respect and dignity allows me to have this relationship with strangers where they can trust me with feelings, fears, experiences that they wouldn’t tell their closest family or friends.”

Warren is a soft-spoken man with a gentle laugh. Though he’s well rehearsed, having made the same spiel hundreds of times to hundreds of different journalists around the world, his conversation is humble, genuine and poetic. He draws inferences and life lessons from these postcards, taking his responsibility as the vault of human behaviour very seriously.

Take for instance one of his favourite postcards, which happens to have a 48 cent stamp from Canada. On a blacked out card is written: “I am a peaceful person who happens to be filled with violent rage.” “I love that one,” he said enthusiastically. “It’s complex and I think it reveals this contradiction...It reveals the rawness and authenticity that’s inside of us and for a person to share a secret like that to me is so courageous...They’re on this journey of self-awareness and I find that so poignant.” Warren may well find this particular postcard -- which compared to others have significantly less shock value or sexiness -- so poignant because he himself made this same journey while creating the site.

Early on in the project, while sifting through postcards, he came upon one particular card that hit close to home. His wasn’t a happy childhood, he said reluctantly, having come from a broken family.

“I recognized through a stranger’s secret a secret in my own life that I’d been carrying in my own life for over 30 years,” he said. “It was a humiliating childhood experience and when I recognized it as a secret I’d never told anyone I shared it with my wife and daughter.” And then, he took himself up on his own invitation, made a postcard, and mailed it to himself.

“I really feel as though looking back at the genesis of the project, that the reason I started it was because at a level beneath my own awareness, I’ve been struggling with this secret for most of my life and I wasn’t able to face it until I saw the courage strangers were showing me in revealing their secrets to me.”

With gentle prodding, Warren chuckles and offers that his own secret is published in the first of three bestseller books, PostSecret, and is decipherable by the “careful reader.”

Another favourite postcard arrived on a Starbucks coffee cup. In bold, black marker was written a simple confession that still draws laughter from the collector: “I give decaf to customers who are rude to me.” “The lesson there is always treat your servers with respect.”

Warren admits he can’t be sure the secrets are all true. When last week he posted a card of a girl claiming to be the “bee girl” from Blind Melon’s 1993 one-hit wonder song “No Rain,” readers emailed in saying the numbers didn’t add up. “I’m the little Bee Girl from Blind Melon album. I’m now 18 years old and still trying to find where I belong.” The roly-poly little girl in the video, however, is Heather DeLoach who is now 24. She became an icon in music video in 1993, when she deftly portrayed a tap dancing social misfit dressed as a bumble bee. The writer could be the bee girl featured on the album cover -- who was actually the younger sister of band drummer Glen Graham.

But regardless of the author, Warren said it’s always the message that resonates, “beyond the truth or falseness of the card.” “I think one of the reasons this music video spoke to so many young people is that they saw themselves as the bee girl who didn’t fit in,” he said. “And here’s somebody who still has that connection whether it’s the actual bee girl or somebody who just understands it and identifies with her.”

Leslie Chan, professor of new media studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus points to the uproar around YouTube, when a video of an outrageous Bridezilla was discovered to be fake. “It’s not necessarily the secrets that are drawing people. They’re wanting to connect,” Chan said. “People want to be part of something and need a sense of belonging. A lot of these online communities provide that. We are social beings desperate for communication.” It’s not about 60 million “nosy neighbours,” Warren added. “I think it’s deeper than that. I feel as though people mail in postcards or come to the website and are emotionally affected because they’re searching for authenticity or absolution, or on a journey looking for grace.”

When one postcard arrived for example, torn in a way that altered the original secret’s meaning, Warren decided to post it online as it was because it “showed evidence of its journey...like the card had a life of its own.” What happened next was unexpected, Warren admitted, for the author emailed confessing he had fabricated the secret just to land online.

“But the way it was damaged in the mail, the way the card has a new meaning now, that secret is actually true in my life,” Warren said, paraphrasing the author’s email. “That shows how through art there’s all these different layers of truth.” Though there’s a universality among the messages, Warren acknowledged there’s a subtle gender difference among writers.

“One thing I’ve learned is that both men and women keep secrets, but women keep the best secrets,” he said. “Men are kind of dull -- and I include myself in that.” Maybe part of it has to do with social power, he surmises. Men still have more power and may feel more freedom to express their sentiments compared to women.

The project may have started out as a collection of independent voices, but Warren said it’s now evolved to become more like a conversation between strangers. Cards expressing the need for forgiveness are followed by messages asking to be forgiven. Longing is coupled with fulfilment and pain set off by humour.

“I always had this vision of where this could go. I always recognized that people have these rich, interior lives that are fascinating and if I could just find this non-judgmental place and create this virtual place where people could share these experiences, thoughts and feelings it would be amazing.” The project is a marriage of the old and the new: there’s a certain poetry in affixing a postage stamp to a homemade card, walking it to a mailbox, sending it afar and seeing it published in cyberspace.

It’s also the homecoming of Warren’s young and older self, for his fascination with postcards started as a young child when he arrived home from camp to receive a postcard he had mailed to himself -- a scenario he would repeat later in life. “I feel like I now know everyone has a secret that would break your heart. If you just knew what it was and if we could just remind ourselves of that there would be more tolerance and compassion in our world.”
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