Confessions Are Good for the Soul

Psst . . . Anonymous writers let you in on their secrets big and small in the Washington Project for the Arts/Corcoran exhibit
Psst . . . Anonymous writers let you in on their secrets big and small in the Washington Project for the Arts/Corcoran exhibit "PostSecret" in Georgetown. (Frank Warren)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 23, 2005

Not all secrets revealed in "PostSecret," a Washington Project for the Arts/Corcoran presentation of anonymous, confessional postcards, are of the stop-the-presses variety.

"I gave my vegetarian sister a meal with beef," reads one missive, glued in cut-out magazine type like a ransom letter.

"I think Little Richard is creepy as hell," reads another. Hey, join the club, pal.

Others throb with ancient, undulled heartache, like this one, which raises as many questions as it answers: "I annually attempt suicide on December 12, because it's the anniversary of when Child Services didn't take me away."

"PostSecret" is the 2004 brainchild of Frank Warren, a document delivery service owner and part-time artist whose best-known previous project involved leaving enigmatic visual messages in bottles in a lake near his Germantown home. Calling himself "PostSecret's" "founder and curator," Warren has hit upon something much more powerful for his latest art project, whose rules are elegant in their simplicity: Share a secret with him, by postcard, as long as it is both true and something never told to anyone before. (Naturally, there's no way to verify either of these things, but why would anyone lie when it's all anonymous?)

Of course, Warren's correspondents were not just sharing their secrets with him. By displaying several hundreds of the 10,000-plus cards he has received in this former Staples store in Georgetown, where the bulk of them hang from low-tech clothesline in unadorned plastic photo sleeves -- not to mention on his ever-changing Web site ( ) and in his recently published anthology, "PostSecret: Extraordinary Confessions From Ordinary Lives" -- Warren is airing someone else's secret with the world. In fact, a whole lot of someone elses, and a whole lot of secrets. Rather than slowing down the flow of mail, the exposure seems to have only increased the volume of submissions.

Which just goes to suggest that people have a real need to confess, whether it's to one person or to 100, and whether it's to having had a secret abortion, having been raped, wishing that your spouse would die, lying, cross-dressing or merely to harboring an embarrassing crush.

That's no surprise. The need to unburden oneself of something bad, or dirty, or just plain weird is very human. It's also emphatically not what makes "PostSecret" work.

Sure, there are some uplifting stories attached to the project. In e-mails on view at the exhibition, you'll learn of people who seemingly turned their lives around, just by sending in a card. Of a woman, for example, who found the strength to dump an abusive husband by confessing her unhappiness to a stranger. "Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to give myself permission to feel good about myself," reads one such note.

More interesting, though, are the messages from folks whose lives have become worse as a result of confessing. One writer complains that, though things with her boyfriend were bad before writing, they have only deteriorated after he learned that she had written in. "PostSecret," in other words, does not pretend to be a panacea. It is, however -- and to its credit -- real.

There's no secret to what makes it click. It isn't the beauty of the individual cards (though some are quite beautiful and poignant, especially those that are perfect in their pain). No single postcard is powerful enough to drive home the message that all of them are capable of, with their multiplicity of voices.

That's because "PostSecret" is less about the benefits of confessing than it is about the benefits of hearing someone's confession. As one of Warren's correspondents from New Zealand summed up nicely, "The things that make us feel so abnormal are actually the things that make us all the same." Or this, from Egypt: "I never knew that people are so identical. They just pretend they are not."

Sure, that guy or that girl standing next to you may have written the postcard that just made your heart -- or jaw -- sink: "The drink that is slowly killing me is the only thing keeping me from killing myself." Satisfied in the knowledge that they've just gotten something off their chests, they probably feel a lot better.

But not as good as you do. After all, standing in the midst of all this naked shame and guilt and anger and, yes, hope, you're suddenly not so alone.

POSTSECRET Through Jan. 8 at 3307 M St. NW. 202-639-1828. Open Wednesday-Friday 6 to 10; Saturdays and Sundays 2 to 10. Closed Saturday and Sunday. Free.

Public programs associated with the exhibition include:

Friday from 6 to 10 "PostSecret" founder and curator Frank Warren will sign copies of the book "PostSecret: Extraordinary Confessions From Ordinary Lives."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company