Oprah's Bizarre Family Spectacle

What Women Really Think
Jan. 24 2011 5:31 PM

Oprah's Bizarre Family Spectacle

Last week, Oprah said she had a big family secret to let loose on today's show, and it really was a doozy: She discovered that her mother, Vernita Lee, gave a baby girl up for adoption in 1963, when Oprah was 9 and living with her father. "I wanted you to hear the truth from me," Oprah earnestly tells the audience. In the first part of the show, Oprah introduces us to her long-lost sister, a sweet-faced woman named Patricia who lives in Wisconsin. We learn that Patricia has known that Oprah was her sister since 2007, but never revealed it to the press. With wet eyes, Oprah gives a fairly moving speech about how much she respects Patricia's character, because Patricia never once thought about selling her out. Oprah talks about how her other half-sister-also named Patricia, coincidentally-sold a story to the Enquirer about Oprah's teen pregnancy. For a moment, I felt deeply sorry for Oprah. For all her worldly success, she can't even trust the people she's related to by blood! She must live in constant fear of exposure, the poor woman!

Then, the show turns from Oprah's tear-stained confession. Several minutes later we are at Oprah's mother's house. Vernita has just had a stroke, so her speaking is impaired. The two have had a tumultuous relationship and gone through periods of not speaking. Oprah confronts her mother with Patricia in tow. It's a painful scene to watch-Vernita's stroke-slurred words, Patricia numbly addressing her mother-and I don't think it was necessary to televise it. I understand why she brought Patricia on the show-if the tabloids found out that Oprah had a secret sister, they'd be all over it, and she wanted to own the narrative. But why did she have to shove her newfound sibling into a situation where she was meeting her birth mother in front of millions of people? For someone so concerned about her own emotional exposure, she seemed unconcerned about her sister's feelings.

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In the last few minutes of the show, Oprah shows us her true gift for audience manipulation. She tells us that her mother hasn't fully embraced Patricia because she is still living in 1963; because she still feels shame over giving a baby up for adoption. "Vernita, you can let that go," Oprah says to the camera, "Millions of people just like you" have gone through this, she continues. Then she says that when her sister, the other Patricia, sold her story to the tabloids, it was a gift, because it released her from the shame her mother still feels today. She ends that segment by exclaiming, "Freedom to all!" Oprah's expert turn from exposure to redemption is truly masterful.

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

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