Uh huh. Back in 1981. Sort of.
PostSecret is the confessional website and book collection of secrets sent in anonymously by strangers to be shared with the world. It began as a blog back in the 90s and has since taken off and invited imitators the world over. It’s an odd world where confessional goes public, turning us all into voyeurs and participants, and I read the weekly posts for a variety of reasons. I won’t pretend that I don’t occasionally read these confessions for story seeds. Also, I like to play a game where I imagine one of the submitted “secrets” is actually fake and try to guess which seems least likely.
But back to me – it is a blog after all – I was in college and staring down my first summer away from home. I was working, but what I was really craving was to come home to some mail that wasn’t a bill or a magazine. The local free weekly paper, The East Bay Express, had 25 word free personal ads and on a whim I decided to find a way to plea for mail. Digging up an old high school nickname I filed the following personal:
I want all knowledge NOW! Send me everything you know. Mr. All Knowledge, 2424 Haste Street, Berkeley, CA.
I didn’t have high expectations, but because the deadline for the following week’s ads would come before I figured to see a response I sent in an ad for the following week as well. The day I mailed my second ad I received a postcard with the following:
Peggy S. is not a virgin. She slept with a man on Novemeber 19, 1980. Peggy S. is a bitch.
What the hell?!
This was the only piece of “knowledge” I received from my first ad, but it was exciting. I read it several times during the week and each time I felt a jolt of adrenaline. Was it real? did the person who sent it imagine I knew this Peggy, and that she had been lying about her virginity? What would compel a person to want to share that information, why tell a stranger?
Obviously, if the Internet had been invented back in 1981 (okay, so there was an internet, but not the one we currently know and love) I would have done all this electronically and posted the results, and, essentially, have invented PostSecret. Because it didn’t stop with that one postcard. For the next two years I posted ads in the Express and received responses from strangers, sometimes as many as 10 letters and postcards a day. There were crazy cranks who wrote their tortured life stories in minuscule print from one edge of the page to another. There were regulars who sent in their updates of what they had for lunch the previous week. And there were those who, in the spirit of expression, provided me with drawings and collages that entertained more than they informed. Some contributors became regulars who would send me trivia and general letters about their lives, and I actually met a half dozen people who wanted to meet me in person.
One day I came home and found a business card tucked into my mailbox. A reporter from the San Francisco Examiner had handwritten a request to interview Mr. All Knowledge. After a few days of phone tag we finally spoke. The reporter asked me why I did it, what I was planning to do with all this knowledge. I don’t remember what I said but it seemed she was bored with the conversation from the word go, almost as if she had been assigned a task she detested. The call didn’t last five minutes and she hung up without so much as a suggestion of a follow-up or the promise of a news feature. I was a 22 year old kid without a clue and over 1000 pieces of mail sent to me anonymously containing any matter of strange information.
Three years into the Reagan presidency the mood of frivolity seemed to evaporate. I kept placing ads but people stopped participating. I went weeks without anything but the occasional contact with regulars. I filled out one final personal ad thanking everyone for all the knowledge they sent and moved on.
A few years later I was teaching in the public schools. It didn’t take long before I began noticing wadded up pieces of paper in odd corners of my classroom, some of them not far from trash cans. Where I once might have grumbled as I tidied up at the end of the day something compelled me to open one of these paper bombs.
Notes. Notes passed back and forth in class. Notes too dangerous to be seen throwing out or caught reading so they were tossed into corners of the room when no one was looking. I began looking.
The availability of notes waxed and waned, with little rhyme or reason. Sometimes they were short blasts back and forth confirming plans or making snide comments, no different than today’s text and IMs. Once in a while there’d be a full on letter, explaining why young lovers could no longer go on seeing one another, or flat out warnings that someone was going to get hurt if things didn’t change. I was never able to make out the authors of these notes. It was almost as if the writers took on a different persona in their penmanship when not writing for class assignments.
There was only one note that prompted me to respond. In it, one boy informs another boy how to possess an illegal junk gun and where they will meet to “take down” a certain other boy. There was a day, and an “after school,” but not a time or place. I photocopied the note and left it anonymously for the principal, I kept the original for myself. There was some very convoluted thinking on my part, but the last thing I wanted was for word to go out that it came from me picking up notes found on the floor and be fingered as the “untrustworthy” teacher. Teaching is hard enough. The principal notified the authorities, the police had undercover officers who took care of the rest. Apparently it was drug related.
When I “retired” from teaching I decided to join the burgeoning ‘zine revolution and was going to publish selections from the letters I’d collected into four digest-sized volumes. Notes in Class was sent out to review publications like Factsheet Five and other ‘zines in the hopes I could generate some interest and maybe – just maybe – turn it into some kind of a book. I photocopied a print run of 50 and at waited for people respond.
I sold three and gave away about twenty for the word-of-mouth. Then I moved and lost the original letters and the three remaining volumes of Notes in Class. It was okay, though, no one seemed to miss it.
From all this one might assume that I am bitter about these experiences, about my failure and the success of others to do what I once tried. I am not. These ventures were not my destiny, they were not what my life has been building toward. And there are plenty more examples that, I’m fairly certain, we all share where our ideas become manifest in the hands of others. I know so many people who at some point in their lives have had the opportunity to say “I had an idea for a movie exactly like that eight years ago” or “I just finished researching a book about that last week, and now Publisher’s Weekly says two houses are putting out similar books this fall!” This is so common that a season doesn’t pass where someone is taking someone else to court to sue of the theft of their “original” idea. Sometimes they’re right and sometimes they win, but mostly they don’t because, well…
Because it happens. You could run with Jung’s theory of synchronicity and the collective unconscious or the idea that the muses like to hedge their bets and spread the love in the hopes that one of their seeds will bear fruit.Ideas are out there, and everyone has them, and sometimes “originality” is simply a question perspective.
Okay, so maybe I didn’t “invent” PostSecret. Perhaps I was merely one of it’s caretakers along the way, waiting for time and technology to catch up and make it possible. But it doesn’t surprise me that it’s as popular as it is. We are social animals, and we like to share what we have. Our secrets may be the one thing truly ours no one can lay claim to. Though we may occasionally sit at home and play games imagining they are fake, our memories and experiences cannot be taken away or made invalid.