Strangers Share Secrets Through Postcards

Some people collect stamps. Others acquire art. Frank Warren collects secrets.

Strangers from around the world send him postcards with their confessions, their disappointments and their hopes for the future.

It all started about 10 years ago.

“I wanted to find out if people had secrets and if they did, if they’d share them with me,” Warren explained.

So he printed up 3,000 self-addressed postcards with his home address on one side and a blank space where people could write down a secret – “something they never told anyone before” – decorate the card with artwork and mail it to his home anonymously.

He handed out the cards to strangers on the streets of Washington, D.C., and waited.

Flood of postcards

“I didn’t know if I’d get 10 or 20 or none at all,” he confessed, but he needn’t have worried. The response exceeded his wildest expectations.

“As they came to my mailbox with secrets on them, I would scan them and put them on the web,” he said, and soon, more than a million people were visiting his website, PostSecret, from all around the world, and the idea started to spread virally.

“So people from Ireland, Japan, South Africa, the U.K., Greenland, Australia; they started buying their own postcards and making their own postcards and mailing their secrets to me, sometimes in different languages,” Warren said.

In the 10 years since, he’s received more than 1 million of them, many with colorful designs, original artwork or photographs. Sometimes even written on everyday objects like ballet slippers or balloons.

And they’re still coming.

Secret messages

The messages range from the funny and joyful to the sad and heartbreaking.

“Dear birth mother, I have great parents. I found love. I’m happy,” reads one postcard that features a newborn baby on the same side as the message.

“I give decaf to customers who are rude to me,” reads another, which was written on an actual paper cup from a popular coffee shop chain.

Said Warren of the endeavor: “I believed that if I could create a safe, nonjudgmental place where people could share these hidden fantasies and fears and hopes, desires, humiliations and funny stories, hidden acts of kindness, it could really be something special.”

His project, PostSecret, has become something special.

Beyond the card

What started as a social experiment has evolved into a multifaceted global phenomenon.

His website is now the most-visited advertisement-free blog in the world. And Warren’s talks have generated sold-out crowds in large auditoriums all around the world.

He’s written six books about his postcard project, and there’s even a play about it currently on stage in Canada.

More than a half-million of his postcards are on display at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C.

A giant pyramid, made up of bricks of colorful postcards, reaches to the ceiling and others are positioned in clear displays so the viewer can see both the front and back.

“People love this exhibit,” said Emily Murgia, an education program specialist at the museum. “We’ll come in and it’s just full of people who will stay here for hours even, going postcard to postcard. … People will smile at some, laugh, we see people crying. … They find a piece of themselves inside these secrets.”

Walls or bridges

Warren reads – and keeps – every single postcard.

“Secrets can take many forms,” he said. “They can be shocking or silly or soulful, they can connect us to our deepest humanity, or with people we’ll never meet.”

“When I get these secrets translated, it seems like no matter what continent, no matter what language, the secrets are sharing the same fears, the same hopes, the same desires,” he added.

“Jail isn’t anything like the movies,” reads one postcard. And another that stops people in their tracks simply reads, “Everyone who knew me before 9/11 believes I’m dead.”

The background image shows a gray, shadowy image of the crumbling Twin Towers in flames.

Why share?

By sharing their secrets, Warren believes people feel connected to others, and it makes them feel less alone. The reasons people write on a postcard and mail it to a complete stranger are as varied as the messages themselves, he says.

“For me, it’s a privilege that so many people – hundreds of thousands – from around the world have trusted me with their deepest and true secrets.”

During a talk in 2012, Warren ended the evening by reading one of his favorite postcards: “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.”

When he posted that secret, he said, one young girl posted the last message she ever heard from her grandmother.

He then played a recording of that message, in which the grandmother sings a happy birthday song for her granddaughter’s 21st birthday.

“Have a real happy birthday,” she’s heard saying at the end of her message, “I love you. I’ll say bye for now.”

There were few dry eyes in the auditorium as the audience stood up and responded with thunderous applause.