Secrets for Sale: What Does PostSecret Really Accomplish?
There is Power in Telling Your Story, But It Probably Won't Fit on a Post Card
“It’s taken me ten years,” the woman at the mic said, “to admit that I blame myself for my rape, my molestation, my children with special needs.” The audience applauded as the woman returned to her place among the hundreds of people in the gym, sitting either in the rows of plastic chairs facing the stage or on the bleachers perpendicular to it. The speaker moved onto the next comment, and my friend Nick leaned over to whisper, “someone should give that woman a hug.”
As someone who teaches nonfiction for a living, I believe in the value of disclosure and of being vulnerable on the page. I believe in saying what must be said, or rather I believe in writing it. Secrets are one way to get at what matters, but in writing, as in life, self-exposure for its own sake is not enough. A secret counts for less than what you do with it. Disclosure only flips the coin on its head, making visible what hadn’t been. I’m more interested, to carry my flawed metaphor forward, in the disclosure that turns the quarter into 25 pennies. I’m interested in the atomized secret, the secret its sharer transforms.
I often tell my students that to write, as Edwidge Danticat says, is to revolt against silence. Danticat primarily means political silence, as might be imposed under a dictatorship—she has in mind her native Haiti’s Duvaliers—but the implications of such disobedience are inevitably much broader. In the context of my classrooms, for example, no young woman has ever been forbidden to speak, and yet year after year I encounter some who seem to have internalized a directive to be reserved, sometimes to the point of being painfully shy. And then there are the many students over the years who, in one way or another, have come out in their writing: I never ask what took them so long because the prohibitions they’ve faced are always obvious. For these students, writing about their experiences represents a triumph of their own agency and authority. It is a refusal to be silent.
On the surface, the woman in the audience had also revolted. But had she really? Or had the public admission merely pointed to a private suppression? Had she flipped the coin over only to flip it back again? It hardly matters. Her refusal to be silent was immediately swallowed by the silence it rejected. Hers was only one voice in a gym packed with strangers, and though she had made that voice heard it sounded more like the gasp of a drowning woman than the relief of a survivor.
The speaker that day was a charismatic man named Frank Warren, and 12 years earlier he had started collecting secrets mailed to him on postcards, which he then uploaded to his popular website. His speech was about the liberating power of sharing those secrets, which Warren called the currency of intimacy. But it was another kind of currency I was thinking about as he spoke: the money Warren had made, however indirectly, off other people’s secrets. Considering how much he had been paid to speak, how often he makes such appearances, and then adding in his bestselling books, he must earn a healthy living. The truth is that by mailing postcards to the house in Maryland where he no longer lives, everybody from disaffected teens to victims of abuse is, in a sense, helping him pay for his new life in California. No wonder there were postcards on every seat in the gym.
To reveal a secret, in other words, may be a way to keep it concealed, particularly on Warren’s PostSecret site, where concealment is a promise and precondition of disclosure.
The beauty of the arrangement is its anonymity. Warren can’t reimburse the contributors because he doesn’t know who they are, and yet his livelihood appears to depend upon what people provide for free. Initially, he had recognized a gap in the market, the need to unburden ourselves, but rather than an upfront fee-for-service model, he bundled the disclosures together, like loans perhaps, profiting on the back end—albeit under a Samaritan’s guise.
Warren’s feel good message about the healing benefits of disclosure, about self-actualization through confession, may elide a painful truth about secrets: once shared, especially anonymously, they become secrets again, hidden by and in the very excesses of the internet that made them possible. To reveal a secret, in other words, may be a way to keep it concealed, particularly on Warren’s PostSecret site, where concealment is a promise and precondition of disclosure. The site guarantees a measure of transparency, but what it really guarantees, paradoxically, is to keep your secrets for you. The larger point is that even if the site weren’t anonymous, the internet is so large, the number of updates, of clamoring voices, so innumerable, that it might as well be, at least some of the time.
A secret is only powerful—indeed, it’s only a secret—to the degree that it threatens, or doesn’t, one’s social relations. If there’s zero chance of that happening, then the secret really isn’t a secret, at least not in the anonymous venue where one might hypothetically disclose it. If the site were not anonymous, on the other hand, it would certainly require more chutzpah, and yes, the chance of people getting hurt would increase, but it’s also likely that many, even most, individuals would never become aware of what had been disclosed. To post a secret to Facebook would be another matter, but only because the audience would be limited, unlike the internet as a whole, to those very social relations in whose presence a secret, because of its potential to cause trouble, becomes a secret.
There may be plenty of instances when, because disclosure would do more harm than good, one is perfectly justified in not disclosing a secret, times when the secret can stay a secret, at least in part because some secrets aren’t worth sharing. Then there are secrets like my friend Dana’s, which she has repressed for most of her life, and which often played itself out in all sorts of damaging ways—not to the point she couldn’t function but far enough that she could see what was happening. She had to find a way to tell it, to free herself from its power. So she went to therapy. She told her secret—to me, among others. On its own, the telling is less interesting than the fact that she continues to tell it. She’s even writing a book about it. Not because she is self-obsessed or deranged, but because her secret is one of those that, despite or because of the pain it has caused, possesses a liberating power.
I don’t doubt that some people feel liberated by posting secrets to Warren’s site, but I took him at his word when he said that the most common secret he received was far more pedestrian: an admission to peeing in the shower. The second most common was, in various forms, a desire for someone to whom to tell one’s secrets—many of which, presumably, would be about peeing in the shower. I’m not convinced that these secrets represent any real burden, nor do I believe that those sharing them receive much psychological relief. These are not secrets on the order of the woman in the audience. I’m not sure, given how I’ve defined secret relationally, that they’re even secrets.
While it should come as no surprise that people are uncomfortable with their own bodies, for all sorts of valid and invalid reasons, I don’t know what to make of the scatological or prurient edge to many of the secrets in Warren’s books or on his site. Admitting to urinating in the shower, for example, may be little more than a sidewise act of self-exposure: here I am, the urinating bather seems to say, showing you my genitals by streaking anonymously across a postcard. Surely this isn’t what Warren, in his presentation, meant by living “an authentic life,” but maybe it’s an indication that bodily nakedness is the only form of exposure many of us can imagine. And yet to be a body, clothes notwithstanding, is to be exposed. History, memory, predilection, pathology—these are the things we can fundamentally hide, at least some of the time. Our bodies are another matter, but that many of Warren’s secret sharers fixate on the purely physical—rather than, say, the body’s reverberations through the mind—may speak to a culture that prizes exteriority and that diminishes, in myriad ways, the rewards of an interior life. Perhaps those who admit to peeing in the shower are being entirely ingenuous: they confess to it because they have nothing else to confess. This almost scares me more than the alternative, maybe because I think people are entitled to their secrets and that a life lived without storing up a few may not be much of one.
This could be part of the reason why the woman’s disclosure in the gym felt desperate and sad to me. I could not understand the impulse to share my traumas with an anonymous crowd unequipped to deal with them. She badly needed to get her guilt off her chest, but it was tragic that this was the venue in which she felt comfortable doing so. Nick was right: she needed a hug. But she needed a good therapist even more. What therapy could offer her that Warren could not is the ability not just to tell her story but to own it, to transform her guilt from a source of shame to a well of strength. Doing so might not be quick or easy, like mailing a postcard, but my own experiences, both in therapy and outside of it, lead me to believe that it’s possible.
I left the gym with mixed feelings, with the woman’s dyed green patch of hair burning bright in my retinas, and her words weighing heavily on my heart. As the day went on, I only felt worse about what I’d seen, about what I had been party to. You could make the argument, and Warren certainly did, that to reveal a secret was to lift a burden, that sharing one’s experiences proved one was not alone, but the woman’s confession did not, could not, make her experiences go away. Her secrets are hers, and hers alone, to live with—even if she shares them. The painful truth, and perhaps she knows it, is that they’re never going away. She will always be a victim of rape and molestation, always the mother to children with special needs, and there is no virtual or geological mountaintop tall enough for her to shout these facts away.
Trauma is like that. You have to make a home for it. You can’t slip it into the mailbox and expect the postman to take it. This is what I most resist about PostSecret, that it presents as disclosure what is really a dodge, that what it offers as bravery might be a way to keep from being brave. What bravery would look like for the woman in the gym is another, probably circumstantial question, one that, because I don’t know her, I’m not equipped to answer. I wonder, though, what would happen is she were to give her blame a causal edge: I blame myself because I don’t like myself, I blame myself because I believe that events are under my control. This line of thinking would lead to others—Why don’t I like myself? What can I control?—but of course thinking doesn’t make for a good postcard.
It does make for good writing, however, and maybe even a richer life. As a writer, I can see how each of Warren’s million postcards presents an opportunity to articulate and to think through a pressing dilemma in a person’s life—not just for their own sake, but for the sake of others who might profit intellectually or emotionally, as opposed to financially, from what they have to say. This is what the so-called personal essay, and much memoir for that matter, does at its best: it builds a home, thought by thought, for one’s traumas or triumphs, however large or small. Rather than disposing of those experiences, casting them off into the information abyss, writing allows, even cultivates, a kind of ownership of or residence in them.
By contrast, Warren strikes me—I might as well say it—as a snake-oil salesman, selling confession as a panacea. Near the end of his talk, after reiterating that his books were for sale, the gym briefly transformed into a revival tent, and Warren into the traveling pastor asking the crowd if he could get an Amen, brother, and then if he could get a Preach it, Frank! In that moment, Warren wasn’t so much doing the lord’s work as miming the gestures of those who claim to, and much as he proclaimed himself, at the beginning of his talk, “the most trusted man in America”—for me, a sign not to trust him—through his ministerial maneuvers he was asserting his virtue again at the end.
There were other equally troubling linguistic sleights of hand. In a glib reworking of an old saw about TV, he asked, do we keep secrets, or do our secrets keep us? The implication was unmistakably biblical—the truth will set you free—but I wondered where, precisely, my own secrets were keeping me. A prison? A safe house? A morgue? More to the point, I don’t believe that the relative transparency of my secrets equates with their truth value, or that freedom from them is a function of their conspicuity—at least in part because I don’t believe it’s possible to be free from one’s past, although perhaps it’s possible to be freer.
More misleading yet was the set piece that bookended the speech, which related to Warren’s possibly specious linkage of secrecy and suicide. Taking out a small metal box, Warren told the crowd that everybody has such a box and that the question is what to do with it. He asked, holding the prop near his navel, would we bury it deep inside, like a coffin? His meaning was plain—secrets will be the death of you—but the metaphor was sloppy and unconvincing, at least in part because obviously it would be impossible to “bury” anything inside of oneself, let alone a coffin.
In a pinch, I can believe, as Nick does, that Warren’s intentions are good. I can believe, at very least, that Warren believes his intentions are good. By his own admission, though, Warren made a living as a businessman prior to starting PostSecret, and whatever he used to peddle, he’s found a more marketable product: our secrets. Much later that day, as I was getting ready for bed, I wondered whether Warren would make money off the woman’s children, her rape and molestation too. Then a shiver ran through me. I realized that he already had.
So forget Frank Warren’s intentions. Forget Frank Warren. Focus instead on the vital thing he’s tapped into, something social networks understand and profit on too: the need to share our stories. Focus on the power of those stories, the power to make meaning. And remember, whatever you do, that a postcard is thin and small, like a tweet, and that because it cannot contain your story, it may actually be a form of silence.