Secrets, Self-Disclosure, and Self-Censorship

Posted: April 18, 2012 in Uncategorized
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by Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

“Frank Warren is the creator of The PostSecret Project, a collection of highly personal and artfully decorated postcards mailed anonymously from around the world, displaying the soulful secrets we never voice. Since November 2004, Warren has received more than 500,000 postcards, with secrets that run from sexual taboos and criminal activity to confessions of secret beliefs, hidden acts of kindness, shocking habits and fears. PostSecret is a safe and anonymous ‘place’ where people can hear unheard voices and share untold stories” (Source)

I first heard of PostSecret in 2007 while I was an Adjunct Instructor at another university. A student introduced me to the books, because they fascinated her and she wanted to talk about them. I was instantly fascinated, too, for a number of reasons: the ingeniousness of Warren’s original idea, the secrets themselves that range from funny to sweet to shocking, and the somewhat-voyeuristic pleasure readers get from hearing all the secrets.

My student also tried to convince me to let the class make their own postcards as an assignment, but I wasn’t clever enough to think of a way to give credit to students for anonymous work. “Alright class, remember to put your names in the upper right hand corner of your anonymous secrets and pass them forward!”

Her request, however, spoke to one of the most interesting effects of PostSecret: when looking at the postcards written by others, it’s almost impossible not to question, “What would I write on my own postcard?”

That we stop to ask that question tells me that PostSecret is proof that we all A) carry secrets and B) in some capacity or another, deal daily with self-disclosure and self-censorship. Each person has their own boundaries, but no matter how expansive the boundaries may be or what those boundaries do or don’t contain, they are still there.

Take for example one of my favorite authors, David Sedaris, who is best known for his hilarious and revealing stories about himself and his family. At times, what he is willing to reveal seems so private that it appears he has erased all boundaries in favor of telling a good, funny story. But that’s not the case. During one of his readings that I went to at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, he did Q&A to end the show. Someone asked him if his family ever gets mad because of the personal stories he tells about them. To paraphrase, Sedaris said, “No, because I know what stories my family wouldn’t want me to tell, and I don’t tell those.”

All of us have a wealth of stories, experiences, information and even some secrets. In both our personal and professional lives, we have to deal daily with what bits are appropriate or inappropriate, helpful or damaging. We have to make complex choices in a hurry about what to let out into the world and what to keep internalized.

I sometimes give off the appearance that my boundaries aren’t there. If a personal story fits within the context of a discussion – be it with friends, family, students or colleagues – and I think telling the story will do more good than harm, I go for it. As a freshman in college, I gave a speech about my struggles with clinical depression, anxiety disorder, and panic disorder. The feedback from my classmates and professor was that I was brave to be so open and honest about something so personal. I didn’t feel that way at all, because that information didn’t fall outside my boundaries of what is open for public consumption. But, for them, if they were in the same situation, that information would have been outside.

Given that we all have different boundaries, it can sometimes create the illusion that a particular person has no censor, no boundaries. It’s not the spoken – but rather the unsaid – that reveals our boundaries. By that measure, I feel most often like a scene from my favorite movie, Chasing Amy. Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) reveals a secret that surprises his partner-in-crime Jay (Jason Mewes). When Jay asks why he of all people never heard that secret before, Silent Bob responds, “What you don’t know about me I can just about squeeze in the Grand f’n Canyon.”

Whenever I offer up a personal story that seems particularly revealing to my audience, whomever they may be, I think to that “Grand f’n Canyon” of information that few people – or maybe even no one – knows about me. It may seem like I’m revealing “secrets” but my secrets are safely in the canyon.

And PostSecret shows how we all establish our own boundaries and that we all have our own “Grand f’n Canyons,” though they all vary in size and content.

With that said, what would you write on your PostSecret postcard? Leave your name, e-mail address, and response in the comments section.


  1. Trish says:

    I loved this book, too, when I happened upon it, and, like you, I did an in-class exercise inspired by the revelation of secrets. All the students in one class put a secret in a hat and passed it around. Then, we each fished out a secret. Most of them were pretty tame. The ones I recall are from a young man who wrote, “I shower naked” and a woman who revealed, “I made out with my brother’s best friend in high school.” I quickly informed the girl that the reason why brothers have best friends is for their sisters to kiss in high school (that’s true, right?). To imagine sop many things hidden is remarkable. It calls to mind a favorite quote by Dickens, “A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.” What we do share is hardly all, but we can hope it is enough.

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