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(Liya Rechtman)– On Saturday nights I have a bedtime ritual. No matter how sleepy I am when I get home, I, like many thousands of others across canyons of cyberspace, log onto PostSecret to check for a new week’s updates. I wander from a confession about being in a psychiatric ward to one on irregular bowel movements, complete with a reference I don’t understand and a picture of someone named “Dr. Oz.” I’m willing to admit it: some of them get to me. This week, for example, the fourth one down (“my dreams are so realistic that I think we’re still together for 10 seconds after I wake up”) made me stop for a moment, and breathe a little sharply. Conversely, another two down (“college has turned me racist”) made me sick and angry. That’s not my experience; I don’t know that feeling and I’m frustrated that someone else does.
I was first introduced to PostSecret when I was at a writing program in Kenyon, Ohio. My roommate and dear friend there read secrets out loud to me as we went to bed one night, after hours and hours of sharing our own personal thoughts. She framed reading the blog as a point of a more universal connection, and a pin-sized window into the human condition. Since then, I have read it every week.
And yet, I was deeply uncomfortable walking into Johnson Chapel last Thursday. I squirmed in my seat; I made fun of the girl sitting behind me who laughed to loud every time her very mousy-looking girlfriend whispered oh-so-tenderly into her ear. I put an arm around my friend to my left and murmured something along the lines of “fuck this bullshit, I have to leave early anyway.”
I am a fairly private person (surprise to my readers, I am sure), and I don’t do any work in the mental health or suicide prevention fields myself, despite my engagement with somewhat related issues about sexual assault. That being said, I have an incredible amount of respect for the mission of suicide prevention and the 24-hour suicide-prevention hotline, which PostSecret sponsors. My discomfort at the event wasn’t related to addressing mental health and suicide prevention.
To start, I found Frank Warren to be a fairly unimpressive figure. He’s this little, nerdy-looking guy with a giggle that I found somehow deeply unappealing. The ‘secret’ pictures he displayed, which for one reason or another weren’t allowed into the books, weren’t more or less than the ones on the website every week. There was no added impact in his commentary.
What’s more, his talk felt canned. It seemed like he only had a vague understanding of where he was. He mentioned that we were smart – okay, so he knew he was at a college, but aside from that, there wasn’t much to give the audience any sense of the personal and at times epiphanic connection that his website, and his past audiences, purported to have experienced at his events. If I was the founder of PostSecret, and I was coming to Amherst College, I might want to google the place. Had Frank done even some basic research, he would have seen that our campus environment adds in a really dynamic way to a conversation about secrets, sharing secrets, and anonymity. Especially when you put those factors together with the overall message of suicide and abuse prevention, sexual assault doesn’t seem like a far cry. Warren came to campus on Thursday; the Sexual Misconduct Oversight Committee issued their report on the campus climate, which was covered extensively by Huffington Post and Inside Higher Ed, on Wednesday. C’mon, buddy.
More interestingly, though, and much more to Frank’s credit, was the bizarre intensity of realizing that the voyeuristic inclinations of the PostSecret audiences’ gaze was turned on me, the viewer, the silent watcher normally removed from the action by miles, months, and of course internet anonymity. Now the eye of the site, embodied in Frank, sat only a few rows away from me, on a stool, and turned to an audience small enough to fit into Johnson Chapel to ask: “what’s your secret?” Because that’s the question you sort of want to answer from the beginning. After Frank gives his – as I mentioned above, somewhat uninspiring – talk about the creation of the website, he opens the stage up to in-person secret sharing. This, as an exercise in challenging the bounds of both anonymity and community, is what gets me.
The thing is, sharing a secret with PostSecret, sending one in or speaking at event isn’t just letting the secret loose, or confessing into the anonymity of internet-ether. Frank Warren is not your priest or your therapist, he’s your editor: priming you for publishing the contents of your innermost thoughts. In 2005, when PostSecret was just starting to make it to the big leagues of the blogosphere, Boxer wrote:
It isn’t so much a confession as a live performance… And it is the fakeness, the artifice and the performance that make this confessional worth peeking at…They don’t want to get rid of their secrets. They love them. They arrange them. They tend them. They turn them into fetishes. And that’s the secret of PostSecret. It isn’t really a true confessional after all. It is a piece of collaborative art.
PostSecret could be a forum where people go to lose their secrets, to scream them into the empty abyss of cyberland. Sites that make posting easy, like Daily Confession or even some confessional/anonymous tumblrs function in this way. PostSecret, though, is more complicated. You have to make art out of your secret on a postcard or, in the case of an event, you have to literally get in front of a microphone and perform, speak. You are telling your secret and you are also entertaining an audience. Peeing in the shower or wanting to kill yourself doesn’t cut it for PostSecret. You need to make it unique and captivating. Incorporating pieces of the bible into the act of self-harm or compulsively texting while you defecate – those are the things that make the cut, that keep an audience.
There’s a competitive aspect to the process of PostSecret secret sharing. You have to not only confess, but confess in the best way. Frank provides a space for those secrets. He acts as a medium between narrator, narrative and reader.
So it made me uncomfortable. I’m pretty open on ACVoice, but PostSecret felt like a whole different bag. Frank specifically asks you to design a confession, regret, desire, or childhood humiliation… He wants you to craft and hone it into something beautiful, memorable for the audience. I’m not really about that.
Have I ever sent in a secret? No. Did I speak at the event? Certainly not.
PS. Here’s one anyway, just for #shitsandgiggles: