Though he's received more than half a million postcards from anonymous senders telling him their deepest, darkest and strangest secrets, Frank Warren, founder of Post Secret, told the audience at The Morrison Center on Feb. 16 that he still hears something totally new every time he does a public appearance. That night, it was an admission from a college-age girl that, as a child, she repeatedly peed in her mother's potted plants.
Comical admissions like that one are the quirky hooks into Warren's long-running art project, Post Secret. But what quickly became clear during Warren's presentation of postcards and the corresponding discussion of the project's history and philosophy, and an open-mic secret slam, was that the majority of the material is much, much darker.
A picture of holes in a child's bedroom door with an attached note that they were from the child's mother, who was breaking down the door to continue with a beating, was followed by numerous nearly identical images and stories. The open mic yielded tearful tales of being gang-raped on camera as a child and of a woman's fear to have children because she knows they would be ugly and she wouldn't love them. A high-school student shared the real reason she was wearing a neck brace: She saw the car coming and didn't avoid it.
Even the seemingly comical bits had a darker edge. Warren and a secret-sharer joked back and forth about having the same tooth chipped from an abusive parent. A large close-up of a pair of tweezers menacing a single hair sprouting from a human nipple led to a discussion of Walmart's ability to censor products because of its girth in the retail market.
Though on the surface, it would be easy to paint the event as misery porn, it seemed to tap into something much deeper. It was almost like a revival, a censorship- and judgment-free zone in which anyone could share anything, moderated by Warren, whose manner was as soothing and supportive as a parent tending to a skinned knee. Dozens of hands went up when Warren asked who had driven more than two hours to take part in the event, and the line of people wishing to share their suicide attempts with the audience was so long, Warren had to cut it off.
Warren started the project randomly, by printing 3,000 postcards that he handed out on the streets of Washington, D.C., asking for secrets to be mailed to him anonymously. Some people tried to tell him they didn't have any secrets, but Warren said those are the ones who generally possess the juiciest.
When those secrets started rolling in, and kept rolling in—especially the dark ones—Warren started putting them on his website. Volumes of letters have since come in, saying that his website and books have helped people by showing they are not alone in the burden of their secrets.
"It gives the power to connect to people who feel alone," Warren told the audience.
The giant whooping cheer at a young gay woman's confession that she was ready to come out to her mother was evidence of what Warren spoke about.
"Free yourself and be who you are," he said.
And since you're all wondering: Warren said the most-common secret he receives is a confession of peeing in the shower.