Anyone who's ever read Jacques Derrida's The Gift of Death, one of the greatest books ever on secrecy, has certainly had to grapple with the aporia of the secret. Of course, the "secret" of that text (such that there is one) is that there is no Secret. This is partly true because, structurally speaking, someone else must always know a secret--or, more accurately, it must be possible for someone else to know a secret-- in order for it to be a secret. But it is also true because, as Derrida illustrated in The Postcard, we can't ever determine in advance who the "others" are who will come to know it-- thus compromising the integrity of any secret as "secret."
I am fascinated with the secret. [Insert your own psychoanalytic interpretation here.] So, I was pleasantly surprised to learn of the PostSecret project. Frank Warren, the inventor of the project, invited people from all over the world to write down their secrets on a homemade postcard and mail it to him. He posts those anonymous, clandestine revelations every Sunday on his website, and has recently released A Lifetime of Secrets (the fourth in a series of books collecting the postcards he has received over the last three years).
Many of the secrets involve garden-variety social transgressions: infidelity, exhibitionism, addiction, familial irresponsibility. Some of the postcards record those fleeting, but joyous, personal epiphanies (e.g., "I know that I was placed in this world to achieve something great") that we only keep "secret" for fear that sharing them would involve displaying an otherwise unacceptable level of hubris. Others are attempts to recover some moment that should have been done differently, if only we could do those moments over.
There is something about the anonymity of these postcards that, in my mind, inspires compassion and empathy despite the often horrible secrets that are uncovered. I don't know why that is. In general, I think, we are less inclined to be compassionate when confronted with something that offends our conscience in a general way. That is, it seems to me that we usually require some personal contact with some person who has offended in order to assuage our repulsion at the offense. (For example, homophobes are much more inclined to be sympathetic to a homosexual whom they know.) But there is something about the absence of an author of the Postsecret secrets-- and, consequently, the absence of authority-- that mediates, universalizes, and somehow humanizes these revelations.
Is it nothing more than the fact that we all have "secrets"?