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Frank Warren

Frank Warren discusses the origin of PostSecret during the PostSecret Live event at Petro Theater in Billings on Tuesday.

The message from the man who some say holds more secrets than anyone else in the world may be surprising: Sharing secrets brings people together, he told a large crowd in Billings on Tuesday.

Frank Warren, founder of PostSecret, spoke at Petro Theater on the Montana State University Billings campus as part of weekly activities for Power of One Week, a week "celebrating the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.," according to the MSUB website. 

PostSecret describes itself as "an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a postcard."

It began in 2005 with a strange idea, Warren said.

Photocopying a few thousand postcards with instructions for secret-sharing on them, Warren handed them out in the Washington, D.C., area for reasons he says he didn't quite understand at the time.

Secret sharers would write short notes about their secrets on the postcards and send them to Warren, who put them on a website every Sunday for anyone to see. The website's popularity grew exponentially, garnering 780 million page views, he said.

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Recording their secrets

A table set up outside the theater encourages students and bystanders to record their secrets before the PostSecret Live event at Petro Theater in Billings.

But why did Warren decide he wanted to help people share their secrets?

Throughout his presentation Warren mentioned bits about his own troubled life, including an abusive childhood, a dysfunctional family, an unfulfilling career and even a period of homelessness. 

These personal secrets and their relationship to PostSecret became obvious only after someone sent Warren a picture of a door with two holes in it. 

"The holes are from when my mom tried knocking down my door so she could continue beating me," the message read. 

That secret "broke everything open for me, it gave me this epiphany," Warren said.

Other people began sending him pictures of doors with holes in them, opening the floodgates for sharing about abusive childhood experiences.

The shared experience moved one person to write to Warren: "All this time I thought I was the only one, and just knowing there are other people out there like me, who share my secret, it doesn't make my secret go away, but it makes my burden feel just a little lighter."

Warren said he's come to believe through running PostSecret that everything happens for a reason. If given the chance, he wouldn't erase the suffering he's experienced, he said.

"We earn our souls through suffering," Warren said.

Warren said he bundles the postcard secrets into bricks of 300 and estimated he has collected about 1 million secrets. Patterns have emerged throughout the years.

One of the more light-hearted patterns was the tendency for dads to tell their small children strange things that aren't true. One person told Warren for the first 12 years of their life they thought "No outlet," signs meant no outlet malls ahead.

Another person told him they were told by their father that the Easter Bunny came out of the toilet the same way Santa came down the chimney. Members in the audience nodded their heads when Warren asked if anyone had ever heard that chocolate milk only comes from brown cows. 

Other secret patterns have more weight, such as how people hold onto voicemail messages from loved ones out of fear that the person who left the message might die before they ever see or speak to them again, Warren said.

Several people sent PostSecret those voicemail messages they'd been saving. Warren played some of them for the Billings audience.

Not all of PostSecret's messages are heartwarming. One message Warren received included an unidentified satellite image with an arrow pointing to a spot on Earth. "I said she dumped me, but really I dumped her body," the message read. 

The implication that someone was confessing a murder led to a criminal investigation. Members of the online forum website Reddit were ultimately able to figure out the location of the plot of land. Police combed the area, but no body was ever found, Warren said. 

Another common thread in PostSecrets is suicidal thoughts. Suicide is "America's secret," Warren said.

PostSecret has helped attack the stigma surrounding suicide and other mental health issues, Warren said. Some secrets explain how little gestures and conversations prevented a person from suicide.

"Sometimes the smallest act of kindness, compassion, listening, it can make all the difference in the world," he said. "I believe some of you here tonight have said the right things at just the right time, and you've saved someone's life and you don't even know it." 

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Night Reporter

General assignment reporter for The Billings Gazette.