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Post Secret: Depersonalization vs. Personalization

An Active Mind's picture

Last night, Frank Warren--the founder of Post Secret--spoke at Bryn Mawr. The Post Secret campaign was started in 2005 when Frank had the idea to ask people to write down their secrets on a blank card.  He had two rules: (1) that the secret be truthful and (2) that the secret had never been told to anyone before.  Now Frank receives over 1,000 postcards each week from people all across the country and around the world.  I found his presentation incredibly moving and it reminded me a lot of what was discussed at Haverford's In/Visible Disability conference in relation to visual art and its ability to both empower and disempower.  Throughout the evening, Frank mentioned how the Post Secrets allow for the visualization of the many "invisible connections" among people.  I love how the image of the postal service really demonstrates this connectivity. I picture all the secrets coming from different directions—overlapping, crisscrossing, or perhaps following the same path—to Frank’s home where they together sit in a pile in his basement waiting to be read.

one of the secrets that Frank Warren received

one of the secrets that Frank Warren received

Frank says, "There are two kinds of secrets:  those we keep from others, and those we keep from ourselves."  He advocates that there's something healing about externalizing secrets, about removing them from the body or mind and placing them on the postcard.  This issue of whether or not to divulge secrets is something I think people with mental illness (or invisible disabilities) struggle with everyday.  When can letting these secrets out help or hurt us?  The pleasure of Post Secret is that your secret, because it's anonymous, doesn't have to be linked with your identity.  As the secret travels to Frank's home, it leaves an invisible trace and, in a sense, detaches itself from you as it geographically moves farther and farther away.  But for those who are willing to tell others their secret face to face, there is no detachment between the secret and individual.  I question what the effects of these two different types of divulgence are.  How can this bridging of identity and secret be both dangerous and also restorative?  

For the past two years, Active Minds has put up a display of Bryn Mawr students' secrets.  We organize all the secrets on black poster boards and display them somewhere on campus.  I always struggle with assessing what type of effect Post Secret has.  These types of displays most definitely prompt the gaze and we, as gazers, don't have to feel guilty about reading the secrets because of their anonymity.  By putting all the secrets alongside one another (both the funny ones and the dark ones) they become depersonalized and, in a way, I feel that this depersonalization of the secrets gives viewers an access point to understanding difference and disability and also seeing how this difference and disability is universal (and how it works on a systematic level, rather than individual one).  

Frank’s overall message was that by sharing our secrets we can come to help others.  He quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, “Undeserved suffering is redemptive.” Frank repeated again and again throughout his talk that no secret is solely our own and that by having the courage to share our secrets we can make our relationships with other people all the stronger. 


An Active Mind's picture

Talking with Anne about Secrets...

At our last meeting, Anne and I talked a lot about the relationship between identity and secrets. We spent some time discussing what a secret is and what Frank’s project in particular does. If you have a secret and send it to Frank, is it still a secret because it's anonymous (not attached to an identity)?  Anne also asked, is the act of writing down your secret and sending it away preparatory to actual act of divulging a secret alongside identity?  And does this merging of identity and secret no longer make a secret a secret?  Is writing down a secret anonymously the first step to saying it aloud?   

So my question is: are secrets dependent upon anonymity?  I turned to the OED for help, which defines "secret" as that which is “kept from knowledge or observation; hidden, concealed.” In this particular definition, secret is not dependent upon identity. But by keeping secrets anonymous are you withholding your identity, making identity itself a secret? brain hurts (no pun intended!)!

The word “secret” comes from the Latin participle of sēcernĕre, which means "to separate" or "divide off". Secrets drive people apart, but as Frank says, by sharing your secret, “invisible connectors” among individuals are made visible. Frank tells us that no secret is solely our own, that we all share the same secrets. Anne and I talked about how it may be problematic to emphasize this similarity. (Margaret Price seems to reference something similar in Mad at School when she asks that professors don’t presume that their students are all able to meet the course’s guidelines or requirements, but to instead assume they can offer their own insights in different ways).  Anne talked about the feminist movement and how in second wave feminism, women wanted others to acknowledge their differences so that they could achieve equality, a sameness with men. And maybe that’s how PostSecret works too—acknowledging that people have different secrets, but in the end recognizing that these secrets are similar (that they overlap among individuals) and that we all experience a similar shame surrounding these secrets. 

In the picture of the secret I posted (one which Frank featured in his presentation), the window interests me in relation to issues of perspective and disability. What if we viewed the window itself as the secret—the medium that lies between similarity and difference, the supposedly “normal” and “disabled” world? Maybe the PostSecret display allows us to lie on this threshold and see this construction of disability at play. Do the displays of secrets come to trouble this binary between “sick” and “healthy” and show how all of us are troubled, shameful, and dependent? 

In my blog, “Seeing Stigma”—which is about disability in the academy—I’ve chosen not to name myself and maintain this disassociation between secret and identity. I’m still struggling over whether or not having a face to put with a secret is more effective for the purpose of mental health advocacy and education than having simply the secret itself.  My reference to “dangerous” and “restorative” (in my post) is a bit too strong; it’s not that one form of secret sharing is better or worse than another—again, it’s all dependent upon context. 

By not having an identity attached to the PostSecret displays, viewers are unable to reach out to those who may be in need—but maybe this is a good thing? Instead of focusing on the individual and how the individual herself might be flawed, perhaps the readers/viewers of PostSecret can focus instead on the way they think about others and realize how the structures and the ways people are taught to navigate their lives through these structures prompt the withholding of these secrets and stifle a dialogue that could be beneficial for all of us.

P.S. To clarify the quote by Martin Luther King (which I realize now, in rereading my post, that I don’t provide very much explanation for), was used by Frank to show that the sharing of "suffering" can be "redemptive" and come to help others who might be struggling too.