“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done a story like this on The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Oprah Winfrey told her audience today. But this time the story Winfrey was relating—a successful, middle-aged woman discovering that she has had a secret half-sister since she was nine years old—was about herself.
And it was, well, like something right out of Oprah.
The big secret that Winfrey had been touting: she discovered, last fall, that she had a half-sister, Patricia, living in Milwaukee. Patricia was born to Oprah’s mother when Oprah was nine years old, and given up for adoption without Oprah’s knowing it. She spent years in and out of foster homes, eventually had a family of her own, and in 2007, she came to discover that she was in fact related to the talk show host. (And if those were not enough strange twists, though Patricia was not named by Oprah’s mother, she has the same name as Oprah’s other half-sister, Pat, who died in 2003.)
What unfolded afterward was what, for most of us, would be the stuff of bizarre dreams: America’s top talk-show host interviewing her own family members about a secret that had eluded her for half her life. She asked Patricia—who was remarkably calm considering the circumstances—how she felt to suddenly find herself a celebrity sibling; she asked her own mother how she felt about the secret that she kept, then told her mother, in an address to the camera, that she should “let go” the shame of the adoption as Oprah had let go her own teen pregnancy.
Winfrey spent much of the episode with red-rimmed eyes, getting choked up as she brought Patricia onstage and told her how moved she was that her new relative did not try to sell her story or exploit the situation in the press. “There have been few times that I’ve been anywhere and not been sold out,” Oprah said. “There have been few times when you can bring anybody new into your life and not have that person in some way betray you or use you or take advantage of you.”
It was in that spirit, Oprah said, that she had not mentioned the secret to any other press before this episode, because, she told her audience, “We all know how the media is” and how it would exploit the story. As if Oprah Winfrey—have you heard that she has a new TV network?—is not part of the media (or has never exploited a story)?
And fine: this is essentially a personal matter, albeit one she’s making public. It’s not as if there’s some urgent compelling public right to know here, or as if Oprah is somehow complicit in a scandal. Still, let’s not mistake what was happening here: sure, by keeping the revelation on her own show, she was avoiding a more sensational interview in another forum. But she was also controlling the terms—and more important, the questions. It’s not as if Oprah was being interviewed by her sister, or niece, or mother: she was interviewing them.
And more important, there wasn’t another journalist—Piers Morgan last week, or Barbara Walters last month—asking Oprah how she feels about the situation and what she’ll do now. (It would have been interesting, for instance, for someone to follow up on how Oprah’s mother had a baby without her nine-year-old daughter knowing—not that it’s implausible, just that it’s unusual and bore asking.)
It was a strange, strange experience all around. But maybe one of the strangest aspects of the episode was that it was happening to very likely the most famous woman in the world—every aspect of whose life has been examined and, presumably, whose every past secret would be, if not exposed, at least rumored about.
Instead, it highlighted how, after 25 years on national TV, Oprah Winfrey has become someone who we know everything about—her childhood, her abuse, her pregnancy, her family, her friends, her favorite things—and who, on some elemental levels, who we know very little about. And who, evidently, is still finding out stunning things about herself and her history.
Maybe it’s shouldn’t surprise us. Strange things happen in families all the time—long-lost uncles, past siblings who are never spoken of. Maybe the circumstances of growing up in and around a family just like that is precisely the sort of thing that drives a person to host a show about secrets and letting go, to develop the detachment necessary to handle megafame, to build a career around offering her audience help in figuring out the puzzles of their lives.
It’s an interesting question, anyway. Maybe it would take an Oprah Winfrey to figure it out. Maybe she’ll do a show about it sometime.