The Long Goodbye: Oprah at Her Best

On her show yesterday, Oprah met the half-sister she recently discovered and produced a classy, deeply moving and fascinating story about family secrets, shame, and depth of character. This was truly Oprah at her best. And she was savvy. News just broke yesterday about the nature of the secret but it was Oprah who was in control of the story. She said she knew it would come out and that it would be exploited. Of course she's right, and so doing it this way allowed her to tell the truth, without it being bogged down by Internet/media chatter (that is occurring as we read). Patricia is the half-sister Oprah recently discovered and they share a mother, Vernita. Patricia was given up as a baby and spent her first several years in many foster homes before she was adopted at the age of seven. She became a single mother at 17 and now has a daughter and a son. At 20, she made an attempt to discover her birth mother but didn't take it too far down the path. It was her kids' persistent questions about their mother's side of the family that pushed her to actively pursue the connection and in doing so, she made a whopping discovery: Oprah was her older sister and only remaining sibling. Oprah's (and now, Patricia's) half-siblings Jeffrey and coincidentally, Patricia—henceforth referred to as Pat for clarity—have passed away. Patricia wanted to deal with this through family channels and with the support of her church, only. She reached out to her birth mother, Vernita, who at first refused to see her. She wrote to Oprah's family members and took a DNA test that proved conclusively what was already suspected. Plus? Patricia looks very much like Pat, Oprah's deceased sister. It's a fascinating story, and one that Oprah covered with her unique persuasion and interviewing skills in full-effect. She facilitated a conversation with Patricia and their mother, in Vernita's home. Vernita: "I was so shocked to know that she was trying to get in touch with me. I wasn't afraid, but I was leery…I don't know why. I thought it was a terrible thing to do; I made the decision to give her up because I wasn't able to take care of her and [wanted to get off of welfare]. The nurse said, 'why would you want to give her away, she's such a cute little girl?' I went back to the hospital to see her, and she was already gone." Oprah, perhaps in an attempt to put Vernita and Patricia at ease, presents herself casually, standing dressed-down and resting her head in her hands, elbows on the kitchen countertop. "How are you feeling?" she asks Patricia. Patricia: "Just taking it all in…I never heard I was a pretty baby before, so I didn't know. I always had a feeling that she didn't want to give me up and to find out she went back to get me, that means a lot." Asked what this has given her, Patricia replies: "You feel whole and complete. Before [this discovery], you don't know. You could go to a movie, to the supermarket…you don't know if that person next to you is related to you. You think, are they, are they not?  I don't think about that anymore…I know my family." Patricia and her children, by all accounts, appear lovely. "What is so remarkable about this story," Oprah says, tearing up. "…since I have been a person known in the public, there have been few times where I've been anywhere and not been sold out. There have been few times where you can bring someone into your life and not have that person betray you or use you or take advantage of you. What is so extraordinary, is that [Patricia and her children] have now had this secret since 2007. She never once tried to go to the press or sell this story. Thank you for having that character." Searching for truth and examining your life is a mixed bag. It is often difficult, and can throw your world into turmoil. But there are rewards… missing puzzle pieces click in your brain and release you from negative emotions. Beautiful, liberating connections can be made, both with other humans and within yourself. Oprah rationalizes Vernita's keeping of this secret and at first resisting the connection with Patricia as her being stuck in the shame of that experience (made harder, surely, considering the year, 1963). She also reminds the audience of how her deceased sister Pat sold a story about Oprah giving birth at 14 (the child died shortly after birth). Ending with a profound epiphany, Oprah says: "[My sister Pat selling that story] I realized was a gift…because it released me from the shame that my mother still carries today. And I thought, had Pat not done that, I would still be exactly where my mother is…stuck in the shame. So freedom to all...freedom to all."

For me, this was a banner moment for Oprah. She took an emotional topic that has been explored via others' stories on her show for years—reuniting with long-lost family—and presented it sincerely and gently, all while making great TV. She owned her truth, but didn't make it all about her. And ultimately, she personified for her viewers a lesson in something she talks about often but doesn't always exemplify: being one's best self. That it means being open and having character, acknowledging that thoughtful processing is in order to work through the rough spots, and that doing so is worth it because it frees you from the elements that hold you back.

by Jennifer Tress
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