Anonymity, Authenticity and Healing: Secrets of Truth-telling Revealed
Anonymity, Authenticity and Healing:
Secrets of Truth-telling Revealed
There are two kinds of secrets: those we keep from each other, and those we keep from ourselves.
PostSecret began as a community-based art project in Washington, DC several years ago. Frank Warren distributed cards that instructed art appreciators to send in secrets on a postcard to a particular address. Long after the exhibit formally ended he was still receiving secrets in the mail. With the addition of the Post Secret Community, an online live chat forum with a listing of events, videos and news, Warren reports that he has received hundreds of thousands of secrets ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6rTkp1dek4&feature=player_embedded ). As a project constructed around the practice of sharing truths anonymously, PostSecret reveals that many of us live with multiple layers and versions of truth, perhaps when we are not looking for them. Indeed, the vibrancy of the PostSecret community further demonstrates our need not only to share our truths and read the revelations of others, but also our desire to connect over these truths in a virtual space. What do we learn from the PostSecret project about our relationships to truth, as well as our truthful relationships with each other? This essay explores three themes that arose in the Post Secret project in response to this question; ideas around the importance of anonymity, authenticity or validation of truths, and the healing role a confessional truth can take, all expand upon the existing work of truth-telling that we have done so far in this course.
From our screening of Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1989) we can see how difficult it sometimes is to ascertain the truth, particularly when it is so closely attached to an individual’s freedom or incarceration. Perhaps if there had been a way for either suspect in this case to anonymously reveal the truth, detectives would have known for sure what transpired. The PostSecret project is based largely on the premise on anonymity as a tool for individuals to share personal truths. It is apparent from PostSecret’s official video entitled, “Fifty People, One Question,” that asking a person directly, “What is your secret?” on camera, may not be the easiest forum to hear people’s truths. One man even answered the question off-camera, peaking his face back into the frame as he finished speaking (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAQtbTqDefw ). This difficulty and initial hesitancy by many suggests that a more anonymous forum, perhaps one which your face or voice are not attached to your secret, would allow more people to share a secret truth of their own. The question then becomes, why do we have to be a part of the secrecy in order to share a truth?
Interestingly enough, many do not remain anonymous on the online forum, PostSecret Community (PSC), for very long. After a secret has been shared on the message boards, many community members communicate and drop the barriers of anonymity. Private messages can be exchanged, as well as directed messages within the public forum which can affirm or add to existing stories. Soon message threads become an amalgamation of truths, a many-sided narrative with no end in sight. Many of the message threads begin with admissions of truth and continue with affirmations of the original truths as they go along. It is worth noting, of course, that no one else knows how fabricated or genuine these truths are. None of the threads I found or follow-ups to published secrets contained any hint of a questioning reception. If reactions were posted, they were only positive—usually in agreement or otherwise validating the original truth. Readers who can relate to an existing secret or who identify themselves in a secret, affirm what others have shared. Perhaps nothing will happen when someone puts a postcard or Internet post out there, but maybe, just maybe, it will resonate with someone else in another space and time.
The question of a secret’s authenticity, I would argue, is less crucial than how it is affirmed and authenticated. Thus far in this essay I have been using the term ‘truth’ to be synonymous with the secrets revealed through PostSecret, when to be fair, whether or not they are deemed ‘truths’ is a complicated and subjective issue. As far as individuals who submit postcards and online posts to PostSecret are concerned, their secrets become real and true seemingly the moment they are acknowledged and posted publically. For many secrets, which have never been iterated outside an individual’s personal consciousness, individuals are writing these secrets into being—inscribing a secret means creating and telling a truth. One postcard shown in an imitation PostSecret video features a picture of a young man holding a sign which reads: “I believe that I will change the whole world one day (I’m gonna do it too!)” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6rTkp1dek4&feature=player_embedded .
Even sites such as YouTube, which feature the PostSecret project but do not host it officially, are spaces of confession and authentication. While the official PostSecret produced videos are present on the site, other imitation and compilation videos dominate, belying not only an interest in the revelation of truth through the PostSecret project, but also a need for expanded anonymous and thus safe spaces for truth-telling. Furthermore, in addition to new PostSecret video replicas, many comment on the videos themselves with new secrets that are unrelated to the content of the video. A comment posted two weeks ago on the original video trailer for PostSecret reads: “I would give anything not to_ see his face when i am with you. everyday i wish i had fought back harder.” Even more of these messages can be found on the PostSecret channel of YouTube—many of these are direct messages of thanks and affirmation to Frank Warren for his creation of the project. These voices express gratitude and inspiration for the secrets found in the books and weekly blog releases, even telling him that they wait each week for a new postcard release on the blog site, a new truth to float out into the world (www.postsecret.com).
On the official PostSecret site, Warren addresses the issue of which secrets are authentic from the start in the Frequently Asked Question section. There are only three questions listed under the FAQ heading, one being: “Are all 200,000 secrets true?” Frank Warren responds by acknowledging that this question doesn’t have a simple yes or no answer, depending on how we define, use, or find truth in his revealed secrets. He goes on to say, “No one could claim that all 200,000 secrets are ‘true,’ … I think of each postcard as a work of art. And as art, secrets can have different layers of truth. Some can be both true and false, others can become true over time,” (http://www.postsecretcommunity.com/news-faq/secrets-true). The project allows for several versions of truth and stages of truth’s development, as stated not only by Warren explicitly, but can be found in the news section of his site entitled ‘Follow-up Stories.’ Here is where Warren posts responses to particular postcards, including one in which a woman got the courage to leave her abusive boyfriend after reading an inspiration postcard of the same nature (http://www.postsecretcommunity.com/news-faq/follow-ups). Warren encourages follow-up messages not only to him, but also encourages direct message communication within the online chat forum portion of PSC, which puts truth in a space of conversation and interrogation. As a conversation, it can become a shared belief, and thus a more authentic truth, regardless of whether it is being discussed by anonymous individuals.
Frank Warren emphasizes the need for healing and wellness on his site, especially under the News tab. There he lists resources for PSC followers in crisis—24 hotlines in several countries, highlighting Hopeline in the United States, an organization which he raised $30,000 for through advertisements on his website and book tour. The original PostSecret video is narrated by Warren, who admits: “I have been astonished by the frailty and heroism I see in the secrets of ordinary people, like you and me, living our everyday lives,” (at 0:53, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6rTkp1dek4&feature=player_embedded). It is clear from the message boards and plethora of wellness information, that Warren (and the dedicated online community) is concerned that exposing the truth can be a painful and scary, although ultimately cathartic, reality. In response to PostSecret video featuring Frank Warren, someone wrote: “Its makes me happy to see people release their secrets to share_ them with a total stranger. hes doing a great thing and is even saving some peoples lives who needed to let it out. thank you,” (http://www.youtube.com/user/BeastlyRomance). Many do credit Warren for creating a space in which making secrets public can liberate the confessors. Warren and the PSC followers themselves believe in the healing and restorative power of confession, which also locates truth in a position of power which is to be both respected and feared (a location corroborated by other studies of truth this semester). Our experience of truth and art in this semester had followed along a similar path—the art produced by Orson Welles’s mocumentary placed truth at a high premium, and in a position where it simultaneously mattered and was unimportant. I mean to say, truth was not the basis of his film, yet it was the focus and glue of his production.
Warren sees confessional postcards as art, and as such is not interested in the pure value of truth, or of locating the most specific and authentic truth. We however, as the general public receiving and reading PostSecret, are obviously extremely concerned with both truth-seeking and truth-telling. Many desire the anonymity of the Internet in order to speak and seek truth. It seems however, from examining the tendencies of PostSecret followers, that after we feel able to identify with truths or find those which speak to us, our desire for anonymity decreases and instead is replaced by the hope of authenticity and affirmation. Three stages of expectation—anonymity, authenticity, and wellness—found in the PostSecret community create a structure that can help us think through our discussion of constructed, layered, difficult and subjective truths throughout the remainder of the semester. Using PostSecret as a case study in truth-telling and receiving, we can see how even those issues which we keep hidden are still the things that we hope to eventually have affirmed and healed. PostSecret demonstrates how the liberation of secrets is not a selfish matter but one which both builds community as it affirms our perceptions of self, and reminds us that we remain part of an imperfect, human population. PostSecret posits truth-telling as the greatest tool for healing, identifying, and constructing selves.