If you could tell the world just one secret about yourself, anonymously, what would it be? This is precisely what PostSecret founder Frank Warren wants to know. His project asks total strangers to draw or write on blank postcards, revealing one thing about themselves that they’ve kept hidden from the world. For the participants, these anonymous postcard confessions are part community art project, and part therapy. They reveal not only personal secrets, but shared feelings of grief and immense guilt that nearly all of us have experienced at one point or another.
The PostSecret project was founded in 2005, and began as a mail-in service for people who wanted to participate. Frank Warren originally gave 3,000 random strangers blank postcards, instructing them to draw or write whatever they wanted on them. The only rule was that the content had to be a secret of some kind that the participants had never discussed with anyone ever before. Today, the project has received more than 450,000 postcards from strangers around the world, and has its own website that accepts anonymous submissions every week.
The series of anonymous notes touch on a wide range of topics, from declarations of unrequited love to confessions of crimes committed decades ago.
However, the most powerful of these anonymous postcard confessions are those that deal with death, and the complex emotions that surround it. Often, when people go through a grieving period, it can be difficult to express exactly how they feel. Talking about feeling immense sadness over the loss of a loved one is considered “acceptable” or “normal.” But more complicated emotions, like anger, shame or even relief, aren’t always expressed as frequently.
Inability to express oneself fully can be a frustrating and isolating experience for people who are grieving after a loss. In some cases, lack of expression stems from a desire not to burden others with emotional problems. At other times, it comes from anxiety over whether the world will understand those emotions. Is it alright to feel angry at a loved one after their death? Is it normal to still cry over a loved one 50 years later?
With artistic, anonymous postcard confessions, participants never have to ask these questions. They just express themselves completely, without worrying about whether other people will understand.
In this sense, PostSecret is an art project that gives us an unedited look at how people really think and feel. It offers an outlet to those who are in the throes of grief, showing them that they’re not alone in their thoughts and emotions. Great art has the power to shine a light on the deepest inner workings of our thoughts and philosophies. Although most of these anonymous postcard confessions aren’t made by professional artists or writers, they achieve the same result as the best artists in history: they bring up those deep-seated emotions that we could never discuss with anyone face-to-face. They allow us to momentarily share in another person’s grief, free of judgment or self-censorship, offering us a glimpse of the true, raw face of loss.