Anonymity. What does it mean, and why, in this era of fifteen minute fame where everyone gets to be a pop star or a reality show contestant, do we still crave it? What does it give us? Despite the modern thirst for the starlight, there is at least an equal pressure for privacy. Sites like PostSecret, which invites its users to peruse the artfully decorated postcard secrets of millions, and Anonymous Confession Boards, which are forums for college students to post on anonymously, according to their college, are more popular than ever. Why? Why, in an age where fame seems to be the only measure of success, are we still drawn to the anonymity of these phenomena? Some of the secrets lie in the works themselves: many of the postcards of PostSecret are incredibly artistic, and allow us a chance to turn our pain, grief, and sometimes joy into art. Above all, however, I would posit that they give us something nothing else can: the opportunity to finally be heard, without judgment from those who know us or, even more basically, can see us. The opportunity for confession.
In this essay I will examine the PostSecret phenomenon and the Bryn Mawr College Anonymous Confession Board. I will also cross-reference their content with Jonathan Caouette’s documentary Tarnation, which also can be interpreted as, in many ways, a confession—but nowhere near anonymous. Caouette’s documentary is an up-close-and-personal profile of his well-documented life, detailing his insanity, his delirium, his failings and his triumphs.
PostSecret originated as an art project, “germinated,” according to its creator, Frank Warren, “from [a] secret I kept buried for most of my life. At a level below my awareness, I needed to share it, but I was not brave enough to do it alone. So I found myself inviting others at galleries and libraries to first share their secrets with me.” Warren secreted postcards inviting others to share their secrets, “a regret, fear, betrayal, desire, confession or childhood humiliation,” in “subway stations…art galleries…pages of library books. Then, slowly, secrets began to find their way to [his] mailbox.”
The project started in November 2004; eventually, many of the secrets were published in a book, which turned into several. Many of the secrets provided in the books are painful:
“I trashed my parents house to look like I had a party while they were out of town…so my mom would think I had friends.” (272)
“The night he died, he tried to call me. When I saw it was him, I didn’t answer.” (261)
“I still haven’t told my father that I have the same disease that killed my mother.” (211)
Some are oddly trivial sounding, or just plain odd:
“I’m afraid of women who wear Capri pants.”
“I love to pee when I’m swimming.”
“I truly think that judgment day is near but people take it as a joke.” (207)
Most of them are very artistic and beautiful, containing drawings or collages or even real-life photographs, though the faces are mostly obscured in the name of anonymity. Others are stark in their simplicity, such as the plain envelope that says in a ghostly hand, “I FEEL SO ALONE.” But however they look, wherever they come from, whatever they say and whoever sent them, they are all alike in two ways: they are confessions, and they are anonymous. What, then, could possess a person to send a piece of artwork concerning a highly personal, often painful or quirky secret to someone they don’t even know, to be perused by millions of strangers?
Many of the answers can be found in the cards themselves, or the testimony of those who have sent cards. “Sometimes just the act of sharing a painful secret can relieve some of the pain,” says a writer from Maryland. In that case, perhaps sending the cards can serve as a pain reliever, a sort of artistic aspirin, or a form of therapy. Some Secrets testify to this fact: “i’ve given away all my secrets…and i feel so free” (275), says a picture of a dove. Others seem to doubt the validity of the exercise, such as a Secret that says, “I know that sending in a stupid postcard to share a secret with a bunch of strangers won’t do a damn thing to change the daily loneliness and unhappiness in my life. And I sent this anyway” (274). And yet, while the writer doubted that the sharing of his secret—presumably the “daily loneliness and unhappiness” of his life—was going to help at all, he, too, participated.
So, then, what is the motive? The PostSecret writers seem to agree—those that treated on the subject, anyway—that sharing secrets can be cathartic, can provide closure and relief. Keeping a secret locked inside, especially one as painful as many of those displayed here but also the trivial ones, can seem to eat away at one’s soul. PostSecret appears to be an exercise for many in expunging those secrets—but from the safety of anonymity, where, for the most part, their friends and loved ones should not be able to recognize them. Unless, of course, recognition is the point: “I’m still in love with her,” says one plain thank you note-type card. “I hope she reads this, and recognizes my handwriting. this is also my last try” (243). Cards like this, however, are few and far between; while some cards provide personal photographs, they are cropped or obscured so as to protect the identity of the writer. Anonymity is, then, clearly very important for the users of PostSecret.
As evidenced by its name, Bryn Mawr’s Anonymous Confession Board is also anonymous. According to the press release at http://collegeacb.blogspot.com/2009/02/collegeacb-press-release.html, “the ACB was originally developed by recent college graduates Andrew Mann of JHU and Aaron Larner of Wesleyan University. It is now owned and operated by Peter Frank. The site is devoted to promoting actual discussion, not provoking salacious posts or personal attacks. Its mission statement reads: ‘The College ACB or College Anonymous Confession Board seeks to give students a place to vent, rant, and talk to college peers in an environment free from social constraints and about subjects that might otherwise be taboo.’”
Bryn Mawr’s ACB has garnered a reputation for being bitchy and superficial, and to look at some of the threads such as “the infamous Bitch Thread” and “[Student Name] is perhaps the biggest stereotype I’ve ever seen…”, one could assume this to be correct. Looking deeper, however, one may find secrets worthy of PostSecret, or at least as touching, funny, weird or chilling. We will skip over threads dealing with campus life, such as “Calc II With Amy Myers,” or “Interesting/Easy Filler Classes?”, and concentrate on where the secrets are concentrated: “The Open Letter Thread,” “The Honesty Thread,” and “If you could tell them how you really feel…”
The Open Letter thread’s tagline runs, “Write an open letter to a person, object, concept or other noun or plural noun. (If you insist on writing to another part of speech, that’s fine too :) ). Your recipient may be real or imaginary, and living, dead, or inanimate. Anything goes!” The instructions are simple, sounding greatly like the PostSecret instructions. Some of the Open Letter posts, like those in PostSecret, are completely hilarious and weird: “DEAR GIANT BANANER, Stop freaking me out and GET OUT OF MY ROOM. Please? <3!” says poster 4. Others, however, give us insight into the minds of our classmates, make us think that for one moment we are in their heads and while we do not know who they are, for the moment that it takes us to read their thoughts we feel like we are close to them: “dear junior tease, i believed everything you said about how much you wanted to be with me. were those just lines to get to spend the night in my bed? because now you won't look at me or talk to me. and i don't know what i did. i know we were both drunk, and i know it was only one night. but i thought we had potential. i miss you. unsure freshman,” says poster 48.
Reading this post made me remember a certain incident when I was an unsure freshman, and regarding a similar junior tease, I posted on the ACBs as well. However, I will preserve my anonymity and not post my post, instead ruminating. I have just illumined why I read the ACBs, but why I write on them is still a mystery, at least to you. Confession is in the name of the boards, but is it really a confession if the person you are addressing doesn’t hear? Or if that factor doesn’t disqualify it, no one will know who you are, so you can post the worst things without fear of repercussion. What does this bring to the table? These questions were raised in class, and I would like to address them, particularly the last.
Perhaps what you have to say is so terrible that you cannot bear that the person you wish to say it to might hear it. Or it’s simply too hard to say to them face to face, so you post, hoping that they too read the boards and happen to see it, and maybe (or not) understand it’s you. Or perhaps you’re venting your thoughts or emotions and wish for the opinion of the board at large, for the anonymous judgment of your peers that somehow doesn’t quite smack so much of judgment if you can’t see their eyes. There can be a multiplicity of reasons for wanting confession without personal judgment.
To the objection that one can post whatever one wishes without fear of repercussion, this assumes that one wishes for repercussion. This reflects a Catholic ethos, the idea of confession to a priest who presents them with a certain amount of penance to perform, and then the penitent’s sins will be expunged, but for many others no penance is required: simply airing their sins or feelings may be enough for them to feel purified. For others, the penance may come in the aforementioned anonymous judgment: by opening themselves up to their peers, they receive the praise or blame that they desire.
Whatever the motivation, anonymous confessional devices such as the ACBs or PostSecret have garnered immense popularity, judging by the amount of PostSecrets and posts on the ACBs. What about not so anonymous modes of confession, however? What about mediums where everything is put out there, every triumph and despair and darkness and delirium? What about, in short, the autobiography?
Jonathan Caouette’s documentary Tarnation is a chronicle of his oddly well-documented life with his schizophrenic mother and his own struggles with mental illness, namely dissociative disorder. Using home movies, Super 8 films, pictures, and voiceovers, Cauoette paints a disturbing, funny picture of his life growing up and afterwards, when he forms an odd little family with his mother and boyfriend. The documentary is shot in a stream of consciousness format, with a bare narrative to tie it together but otherwise it seems to be a look at the inside of Caouette’s head. What we find there is often disturbing: shots of bloody horror movies; Cauoette dressed in drag pretending to be an abused wife at the age of 11; Cauoette attempting to coax his grandfather, who raised him, into either confirming or denying that he abused his daughter.
The film is a no-frills look at Caouette’s life, both daily and extraordinary, and as such it leaves little to the imagination—in particular, it does not attempt to disguise its author’s forays into drugs and underage sex, as well as the mistreatment of his mother’s illness in the form of shock treatments, leaving her with permanent schizophrenia and unable to take care of herself or him. Caouette doesn’t necessarily try to present himself in a good light either: when he ignores his grandfather’s frantic voice messages to come to his mother’s aid when she overdoses on medication, the film especially takes on the air of a confession, painting Cauoette as the prodigal son who refuses to return in his mother’s time of crisis.
What, then, is the appeal of making such an open, complete film, an utter insight into one’s own life, one’s own head? Perhaps it does indeed have the appeal of the Catholic confessional: one’s peers are judging one, and this is one’s penance. However, Cauoette himself speaks of motivations very similar to those of the PostSecret writers and the ACB posters: he refers to the moviemaking process as “a completely cathartic experience,” and says that “It seems like I've always had to get this story out of me, and I definitely feel lighter and more centered in myself now that it's out there. It was thrilling, hilarious, devastating and very hard work.” This description sounds very much like the motivations of those others: telling a secret that one has never told, but that seems to beg to get out; judgment and catharsis. Which method is the best for achieving these goals seems to depend on the users, but one can definitely say that in human culture there is a definite need for confession and, sometimes, for anonymity.
 PostSecret, Frank Warren. 3.
 PostSecret, Frank Warren
 PostSecret, Frank Warren. 1.