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The secrets people reveal

Story Highlights

• PostSecret a Web site that showcases anonymous secrets
• Frank Warren began PostSecret as a public art project
• Warren treats project as trust, maintaining anonymity
• PostSecret has spawned exhibits, books
By Todd Leopold
CNN
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Frank Warren doesn't want to talk about himself.

He'll admit that he started PostSecret.com, his Web site of postcard-submitted, artistic, sometimes enigmatic personal admittances, after he went through a period of personal travails. But he dismisses any further probing.

He'll soft-pedal concrete details about his life -- his regular job as the owner of a document delivery company, his family (a wife and a 12-year-old daughter), his background -- if he mentions them at all.

"I try to take myself out of PostSecret as much as possible," he says. "The power comes through the voices on the postcards." (Watch Warren describe the scope of that power Video)

One has to take Warren, 42, at his word. With his short hair, glasses and earnest demeanor, he looks, perhaps, like a Midwestern clergyman and speaks in the calm cadences of a therapist. But in a world (and cyberworld) full of deadpan mockery and fašade building, is his weekly postcard posting at www.postsecret.com a joke?

No, he says. In fact, that's the last thing on his mind. He's turned down appearances on talk shows because he's been concerned hosts would highlight the sillier cards, or make fun of the more somber ones. He considers the endeavor, which began in late 2004 as something of a public art project, a sacred trust, and he's careful not to violate that covenant. (Gallery: Some of the secrets of PostSecret)

"[The project] allows people to remove their social masks," says Warren, sitting in a break room at CNN Center. "I want to respect that. ... I've tried to earn this trust strangers have placed in me."

'The secrets are a gift'

The voices presented on PostSecret can be troubling, tender, hilarious or heartbreaking. Some of the art and graphics may have taken "less than 10 seconds," says Warren. "Others take hours of time and effort."

Among the submissions reprinted in the newest PostSecret collection, "The Secret Lives of Men and Women" (ReganBooks/HarperCollins), are:

  • A rendering of a high-flying bird with the legend, "You will never know that you absolutely changed my life. Thank you."
  • A photo of ballet shoes and the note, "I gave up my dream because of one bad teacher."
  • A picture of a baby labeled, "When I was 16 I had an abortion/When I was 33 I had a miscarriage/I think God was punishing me."
  • A map of Boston with the brief phrase, "Ask me, I'll come."
  • Warren finds that PostSecret affects different people in different ways. People who have had more fortunate lives may look at some of the submissions and "feel a sense of shock and sometimes repulsion," he says. "That's good -- it shows those folks there's another side [of things]."

    And for people who are coping with difficulty, he adds, "It allows a sense of solidarity. When I see humility, guilt ... I feel a connection. Maybe my own burdens are lighter.

    "I feel secrets are a gift," he says. "They help me."

    Secrets and freedom

    PostSecret has opened up a new world for Warren. The project started with 3,000 self-addressed postcards Warren handed out to strangers, asking them to mail back a secret, anonymously. He received about 100 and thought he was done. But "the idea spread in a viral way," he says, and with postcards continuing to trickle in, he started posting several every Sunday on the Web site.

    PostSecret has now received more than 100,000 cards, up to 200 a day, which have toured the country in exhibitions and appeared in two other books: "PostSecret" and "My Secret." It's enough of a job that Warren now leaves others to run his document delivery firm and spends several hours a day on PostSecret-related business. (He checks his mailbox two or three times a day and adds he has a "great relationship" with his mail carrier -- "but some at the post office probably do hate me.")

    His family has been extremely supportive. Warren impishly notes that his wife has tried to sneak in some of her secrets, but he's always recognized them. As for his daughter, "This is all very normal to her."

    He's seldom fazed by people's anonymous revelations anymore, though he has run e-mail messages urging people to seek help. (The Web site includes a link to hopeline.com, a suicide-prevention hotline.)

    He does hear back from some people, not always happily. In one case, he received a card from a student who was unhappy with the Ivy League education she'd worked so hard to achieve, which Warren posted on PostSecret.

    "I got an e-mail a couple hours later," Warren recalls. The student's handwriting had been recognized and her life, she said, was in turmoil. Take my card down, she requested. Warren did.

    But what happened next? Warren doesn't know, and that's part of the secret of PostSecret, he says.

    "Even though sharing a secret is difficult, in many cases it provides motivation to take charge in life," he says.

    Above all, he says, the release of a secret is like the release of a heavy weight. "It's the first step on a journey a person decides on themselves," he says.

    "We think we're keeping secrets, but the secrets are actually keeping us," he adds. "With one courageous decision, you've freed a part of your life."


    Warren

    Frank Warren began PostSecret as a community art project in 2004.

    GOT A SECRET?

    PostSecret remains a thriving concern. If you want to send a secret, create a postcard and mail it to:

    PostSecret
    13345 Copper Ridge Road
    Germantown, Maryland 20874-3454
    USA

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