Why Would You Share A Secret With A Stranger?

Jan 23, 2015
Originally published on March 9, 2016 12:51 pm

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Keeping Secrets

About Frank Warren's TED Talk

"Secrets ... can be shocking, or silly, or soulful," says Frank Warren, the founder of PostSecret. He shares a few of the half-million secrets that strangers have sent him on postcards.

About Frank Warren

Frank Warren is the creator of The PostSecret Project, a collection of personal and artfully decorated postcards mailed anonymously from around the world, displaying secrets that might never be voiced otherwise. Since November 2004, Warren has received more than 500,000 postcards, with secrets that run from sexual taboos and criminal activity to confessions of hidden acts of kindness, shocking habits and fears. PostSecret is a safe and anonymous space where people can share untold stories.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz.


RAZ: Frank Warren collects secrets right here at his home in suburban Maryland.

So what time does the mail come usually?

FRANK WARREN: The mail comes, normally, between 12 and 2 o'clock.

RAZ: Around that time every day.

Do you know your mailman?

WARREN: There've been a few mail carriers, yeah. Eric is the current mail carrier.

RAZ: Frank walks down his driveway to what is easily the most famous mailbox in all of Germantown, Maryland.

WARREN: And you can see there's some writing on the mailbox. People come from all over and leave little messages on the mailbox. Sometimes I look out my window and I see people taking selfies with them and the mailbox.

RAZ: That's because this mailbox is where for the last decade...

WARREN: Every day but Sunday.

RAZ: ...Frank's gotten over half a million postcards, each with a secret written right on it.

WARREN: So here's the mail - pretty typical mix of postcards, personal letters, bills, packages.

RAZ: It's pretty simple how the postcards get here. Frank asks people to send them publicly, using his home address. And then he scans them and shares them on a blog that you may have heard about, it's called PostSecret. And every single day more postcards arrive.

WARREN: Yeah, every day. Every day there's mail.

RAZ: Wow.

WARREN: And the secrets can take you on this emotional journey, you know, sometimes you don't know what to prepare for when you open up the mailbox. Some make you laugh, some get you emotional, some remind you of other secrets or maybe a family member.

RAZ: A lot of the postcards look homemade. They have cut-out letters and tape and old family photos and tracings and drawings and handwriting of all kinds. And the only thing they have in common is they're all anonymous. And Frank, he reads every single one.

Can we take a look at some?

WARREN: Sure. Let's lay them out on the table. So even though I've been doing this for more than a decade now, I still feel like a kid, Christmas morning. Every day the secrets come and strangers are trusting me with these confessions they've never told anyone else before. This one looks like it's a cut-out of a page from a children's book.

RAZ: "The Giving Tree," actually.

WARREN: "The Giving Tree."

RAZ: Yeah.

WARREN: I had an abortion, and to this day, I wonder if my baby forgives me.

RAZ: Wow.

WARREN: That's quite a secret to start with, today. So a secret like that really reminds us that there's this world of hidden life and relationships and ideas and behaviors out there all the time. This one says, everyone knows a different version of me, but only I will ever know the whole story, if I can remember it all. Some things are best kept secrets.

RAZ: Wow.

WARREN: It's the tip of the iceberg. It's like - what's that out in the universe? - the dark material that makes up 90 percent of what the universe is, and we can't sense it or detect it in any way? We just see how it behaves based upon the effects on other objects.

This one says, I'm glad you lied because God knows, I couldn't be a Mormon. There's a picture of a ballerina on this postcard. It says, I quit because seeing myself in a leotard every day was killing my self-esteem. This one says, I watched six of my friends get married in 2014. I'm single and don't even think about marriage. I'm happier and more in love with life than any of them.

RAZ: Why do you think people share secrets with you?

WARREN: I think in some ways, they're not sharing them with me, as much as they're sharing them with themselves. I've gone through postcards on this table, and I've seen pictures of circumstances. I've read stories that have reminded me of parts of my life that I buried long ago. Every day we make that decision - what do we conceal, what do we reveal? It's a very human condition.

RAZ: Our show today is all about keeping secrets. We all have them - small ones, embarrassing ones, scary ones. Sharing a secret can be cathartic or intimate, and keeping it buried can be corrosive. And sometimes we're not really given a choice, right? - our secrets aren't secret. Later in the show, we'll hear from journalist Glenn Greenwald on that idea. But first, back to Frank Warren, who explained in his Ted Talk how PostSecret came to be.


WARREN: It all started with a crazy idea in November of 2004. I printed up 3,000 self-addressed postcards just like this. They were blank on one side, and on the other side I listed some simple instructions. I asked people to anonymously share an artful secret they'd never told anyone before. And I handed out these postcards randomly on the streets of Washington, D.C., not knowing what to expect. But soon, the idea began spreading virally. People began to buy their own postcards and make their own postcards. I started receiving secrets in my home mailbox, not just with postmarks from Washington, D.C., but from Texas, California, Vancouver, New Zealand, Iraq. Soon, my crazy idea didn't seem so crazy.

Secrets can remind us of the countless human dramas, of frailty and heroism, playing out silently in the lives of people all around us, even now. What I'd like to do now is share with you a very special handful of secrets from that collection, starting with this one.

(Reading) Everyone who knew me before 9/11 believes I'm dead. I used to work with a bunch of uptight religious people, so sometimes I didn't wear panties and just had a big smile and chuckled to myself.


WARREN: (Reading) Inside this envelope is the ripped-up remains of a suicide note I didn't use. I feel like the happiest person on Earth, now. That Saturday, when you wondered where I was, well, I was getting your ring. It's in my pocket right now.

Some of the postcards come in envelopes, even though I ask that they all come on postcards. I think there's something significant about how a secret is exposed through the whole mail-carrying process on a postcard. But some people, I think, want to guard or protect, cover their secrets until they reach my home.

RAZ: So what's this one? Wow. (Reading) I lost my virginity when I was 30.

WARREN: You can see how secrets are so expansive. They can be hopes or dreams, confessions, and because they're only on a postcard - six inches by four inches - it's a very finite amount of space - you really have to condense your thoughts and feelings, and so they can be pithy, they can be poetic. They're like these wonderful, visual haikus.

RAZ: You know what's interesting looking at, like, all these postcards that you get, is that you would never see this kind of stuff on Facebook, right? Like, no one would ever post these things on Facebook because we're, like, conditioned to put this facade forward, right - like, this thing that is only part of who we are.

WARREN: Yeah, PostSecret is kind of like the anti-Facebook.

RAZ: Yeah.

WARREN: It's not what you would put on Facebook. It's the stuff you wouldn't put on Facebook. And I think that's what makes it so compelling for people to see. And maybe there's so much on Twitter and Facebook that the value of that, when we see it, isn't as high. But it's those hidden stories, those secrets, those feelings and fears that are so rare that we ever get a glimpse of, that when we see them, when we're exposed to them, they really make a deep impression on us.

RAZ: I wonder, like, if a lot of people have secrets that they don't even know about. They're so buried, they're so deep inside of them, that it's almost like your body and your mind are trying to protect you because it doesn't want you to confront those secrets because maybe you won't be able to handle it.

WARREN: One of the saddest things I've learned in this project is how, in many ways, the secrets that we're keeping aren't the greatest burden. They're not the ones constricting and restricting us. It's all the energy that we put into concealing them, the walls and barriers we develop between not just us and other people, but who we are and who we accept about who we are. And so for me, I think it's great to see somebody share a secret and see that feeling of not just letting the secret out, but also, all that guardedness, all the defensives that were installed to protect that secret.


WARREN: This is the last postcard I have to share with you, today. 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 I posted this secret, dozens of people sent voicemail messages from their phones - sometimes, ones they'd been keeping for years - messages from family or friends who had died. They said that by preserving those voices and sharing them, it helped them keep the spirit of their loved ones alive. One young girl posted the last message she ever heard from her grandmother. Secrets can take many forms. They can be shocking or silly or soulful. They can connect us with our deepest humanity or with people we'll never meet again.

COMPUTER GENERATED VOICE: First saved voice message.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) It's somebody's birthday, today, somebody's birthday, today. The candles are lighted on somebody's cake, and we're all invited for somebody's sake.

You're 21 years old today. Have a real happy birthday, and I love you. I'm saying bye, for now.

WARREN: Thank you.


RAZ: So after Frank Warren collects all those postcards from his mailbox, he scans some of them to post on postsecret.com, and then others, he saves for his books. He's published about five of them so far. But many of the secrets feel too personal to share, and only Frank has seen them. And so in the end, he takes about 250 of them at a time, and he neatly rubber-bands them into a brick.

WARREN: Here, feel one. It's about - what would you say? - a pound of confessions.

RAZ: Oh, more than that. I'd say about two, two or three. And he stacks these bricks into a giant pyramid. It's against a wall in his basement, and he showed it to us - me and our producer, Brent.

WARREN: This is the main room, here...

RAZ: Wow.

WARREN: ...And you can see there's a pile of secrets right there against the wall that's taller than all three of us.

RAZ: There are hundreds of thousands of secrets in this pyramid of postcards. It's incredible.

WARREN: Each one has a picture, a drawing. This one has a leaf taped to it, a photograph, a necklace, a ring, a picture of Jack Nicholson, Wonder Woman, Marilyn Monroe, a mask that somebody wrote a secret on and mailed to me.

RAZ: Wow, wow. I'll tell you a secret. I can't tell you on the tape, though.

WARREN: Do you want me to stop?

RAZ: Yeah. Here's a secret.

I'm Guy Raz. More secrets in a moment. It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.