"Every week I still feel like a kid Christmas morning, with all these kind of gifts to go through," said Frank Warren, who receives about a hundred postcards in the mail each week, from strangers. And written on each postcard is a stranger's secret – a confession of sorts, sent to Warren anonymously.
Personal secrets likes this: "When people I love leave voicemails on my phone, I always save them in case they die tomorrow and I have no other way of hearing their voice ever again."
Warren told correspondent Lee Cowan, "I read every postcard. I keep every secret. I think it's a precious and singular archive … an archive of our hidden selves."
It's an archive that now numbers well over a million regrets, fears, betrayals, desires, confessions or childhood humiliations, such as this: "My older neighbor let the weeds grow knee-high in his yard. It looked terrible. Then he died, and it dawned on me that he just needed help. I'm sorry."
It all started back in 2004, when Warren was working at a suicide prevention hotline. Hearing plenty of strangers' secrets, he soon realized something: "Sometimes I think that maybe one of the reasons I started the whole project is because I felt like I needed a place to share my secrets and stories, and so thinking I was creating it for others, maybe I needed it the most, myself."
He started his project of curating other people's secrets by giving out postcards, with simple instructions. "I would take a postcard and hand it to somebody. I'd say, 'Hi, my name's Frank, and I collect secrets.'"
"People look at you a little weird?" Cowan asked.
"It still feels kind of weird to say it, to be honest with you!" he laughed.
But the idea grew, and grew, and grew. "There are no limits to the artwork that you can put onto a postcard," he said. "And I've seen all kinds. I've seen people include a photograph, a collage, drawings, sometimes people send me objects, not even postcards. I've received secrets on coconuts, a purse, a license plate frame, a flip flop. You name it, if it fits in my mailbox, somebody's probably mailed it with a confession on it to me."
Every Sunday for the last 14 years, Warren scans a few of them and shares these strangers' secrets on his blog, PostSecret.com. One thing he's learned, he said, is that "everybody has at least one secret that can break your heart."
Secrets like: "I tell people I'm new in town to explain why I have no friends. I've lived here my entire life."
Or this one: "I'm getting weight loss surgery next month, and what scares me the most about it isn't the dangers of complications, but that I will finally find out whether people dislike me because I was fat, or if they just hated my personality."
Warren said, "In some ways, I think when we keep a secret, that secret's actually keeping us."
In what way? "Maybe haunting us. Maybe inviting us to reconcile with part of our past we're hiding from. Maybe keeping us from having intimate relationships with others or ourselves."
PostSecret has become a phenomenon. It's one of the most popular ad-free sites in the world, having had more than 800 million views to date. It's spawned five bestselling books, and several exhibitions, including one currently at the San Diego Museum of Man, where you'll find it as quiet as a church.
Warren said, "There is a sense of, I think, respect and reverence for the courage it took for everyday people to really open up and share something with a stranger they've never done before."
Among them are humorous ones: "I work at the Apple store and judge you by which color iPod you pick."
But many of them are pretty tough to read: "I pray every night that I won't wake up in the morning. I don't think God is listening."
Here's another: "Dad, I know you keep your gun loaded and unlocked."
Erika Katayama, the director of exhibits at the Museum of Man, said the responses to the show have been unlike anything she's heard: "This is incredible, I can't believe what I've read, this is really special."
"It is a little overwhelming, too, right?" Cowan asked.
"It can be. It can be. You often read one that hits close to home that really is something that feels like it could be your secret."
Visitors are encouraged to leave their own secrets, and each week the museum's mailbox of secrets is overflowing. Some of those may one day be posted on Warren's blog, too.
One fan of PostSecret, Natalie Starr, was introduced to the project by her therapist: "There's always at least one every week that hits you, either right here in the gut, or right here in the funny bone," she said.
Leafing through the published PostSecret books, she started putting Post-It notes next to the secrets that resonated with her, but one in particular she says changed her life: "'I tell people that I don't believe in God when really I just refuse to worship a God that let my grandfather hurt me like he did.' I was sexually molested when I was four by my maternal grandfather."
She had been in therapy for years, but not until she saw the pain of others, mailed to Warren from all over the world, did she realize it was okay to not be okay.
"I can't tell you what it's like to be sexually assaulted; you wouldn't understand," Starr said. "I mean, I could tell you, but you would never really get it. But there's somebody out there who does. That means I'm not a freak. It means I'm not broken, I'm not a failure, I'm not wrong."
Warren now takes his secrets on the road, mostly to college campuses, such as at North Carolina State. On stage he read one secret: "This one says, 'I'm in love with someone who has been given four years to live. We're both 19.' This one came from campus."
He talks about the power of releasing a secret, and then asks students to try it. One student offered: "I grew up with an autistic brother and a brother who is gay, and I secretly wished that I had something that, like, I stood out so that my parents would pay attention to me more."
Warren said, "Sometimes just by saying the secret out loud, you make it go away."
He doesn't know how long he'll continue to be the seeker of secrets, although he admits stopping may not be his choice. The secrets keep showing up at his door, and he keeps reading – inspired, humbled, sometimes saddened, but always comforted in the knowledge that we're not as alone in our thoughts as me might think.
"I think secrets are inexhaustible, like poetry or songs," Warren said. "And just when you think you've seen the funniest one or the most romantic one, the most hopeful one, the most crushing one, you'll get one that still takes your breath away."
For more info:
- Exhibition: "PostSecret: Private Secrets, Shared Publicly," at the San Diego Museum of Man, San Diego, Calif.
Story produced by Aria Shavelson.