Oprah reveals her secret sister

The daytime host unveils the relative she never knew she had -- and crafts a truly extraordinary television moment

Topics: Oprah Winfrey, Going Viral, Television,

Oprah reveals her secret sister

When a woman who has given away entire roomfuls of cars and flown audiences around the world says, “I thought I’d seen it all, but this was the miracle of all miracles,” she’s probably got something interesting up her sleeve. And when the same person, who has candidly discussed her struggles with weight and done more for public crying than a gaggle of John Boehners, says she’s going to share “some news that literally shook me to my core,” you might as well run out and buy some stock in Kleenex right now. So anticipation has been running high since Oprah Winfrey announced last week that she was revealing a “family secret.”

Wow, she was not kidding with this “most spectacular season ever” stuff. On Monday’s show, she introduced to the world the half-sister she only recently learned she had. “It’s a process,” an astonished Oprah told her audience. “I’m still processing!”

This, like so many of these tales, is a story of long-hidden family secrets and private anguish. Winfrey’s parents, who never married, split up when she was very young. She was 8 years old and living with her father Vernon when her half-sister Patricia was born. Oprah hadn’t even known her mother, Vernita, who by then had two other children, had even been pregnant. Patricia, whose last name has not been disclosed, meanwhile lived for years in foster care and was a mother herself before her 18th birthday. Then, a few years ago, she began looking for her family. In 2007, she saw an interview with Oprah’s mother that revealed details that corresponded with what she knew about her birth mother. Though Winfrey’s mother declined contact twice, Patricia reached out to Winfrey’s niece, and a DNA test proved the family connection.

Yet even after initially figuring out that her sister was one of the most famous women in the world, even after subsequent DNA confirmation, Patricia never once thought to go to the press. Instead, she says she worried about how to handle the news without hurting the queen of daytime television. “Family business needs to be handled by family,” she said plainly on Monday’s show, as her own two grown children watched, moist-eyed, from the audience.

And in the understatement of the year, Oprah replied, “As you can imagine, Patricia and I had a lot of questions for our mother.” Yes, after finding out your mom had a baby when you were 8 years old and never mentioned it, I’d bet you would.



In a segment shot when Patricia met their mother late last year, Vernita Lee talked about the daughter she gave up, and why she’d rejected her initial overtures. “I was a little leery,” she admitted. “I felt a little funny about it. I thought it was a terrible thing that I had done, gave up my daughter when she was born.” She’d made the choice, she said, because she was trying to get off welfare and “wasn’t able to take care of her.” She recalled the last time she saw her child. “When I left the hospital I told the nurse I wasn’t going to be able to keep her. And the nurse said, ‘But she’s so cute, why not?’” She then said she’d later gone back looking for the baby but she’d already been removed. That admission immediately caused Patricia to sob: “I never heard I was a pretty baby. I always felt she never wanted to give me up.” Pass the Kleenex.

Maybe it’s her lengthy experience with family secrets that makes Oprah such a champ at dealing with them. Whatever the reason, back in the studio, the virtuoso of empathy didn’t look bitter or betrayed. Instead she chose to put herself in her mother’s place. The long-lost sister is, after all, only the latest in Oprah’s long line of big reveals. Over the years, she’s disclosed her childhood history of sexual abuse at the hands of male family members and friends, and her bouts with suicidal thoughts. Several years ago, her now deceased half-sister (coincidentally also named Pat) spilled the story of Oprah’s unplanned pregnancy at age 14 — and subsequent loss of her baby — by selling the story to the tabloids.

Now, after meeting her newly found sister, Winfrey told her audience she believes her mother “is still stuck in 1963 and is still carrying the shame that would have been put upon her and hasn’t been able to release herself and embrace you and this miracle.” Then she added, “I would like to say to our mother, let that go. There are millions of people who’ve given up their children because they couldn’t provide the best for the them. You can let that go.” As if that wasn’t tear-jerking enough, she went on, discussing how her late sister “sold me out” by saying, “I realize that was a gift to me, because it released me from the shame that my mother still carries.” And with that, everyone in America with abandonment issues went completely to pieces. My eyes are still leaking.

Somehow, throughout her lengthy career, Oprah has managed to deftly walk the line between fiercely guarding her personal life and recalibrating America’s TMI meter. She can cheerfully dispense firsthand tips on menopause and admit that she’s smoked crack, and still manage to be notoriously tight-lipped about the areas of her life she chooses to wall off. What Patricia refers to as “family business” is also big news, concerning as it does a woman who can drive the entire cattle industry loco by mentioning she’s giving up burgers.

So Oprah has done what she does best: She’s found the universal in her intimate saga. She’s crafted a story that resonates for every viewer with a similar story. Patricia’s declaration that “It’s a miracle to know that we have a family. To know we have another half,” is a perfect articulation of what so many of us who’ve sought out missing family members have felt. “You don’t know,” she said. “You could go to the grocery store, you could go the movies and not know if this person is related to you.” If you haven’t experienced it, it’s true, you don’t. And if you have, hammer, nail, bang. As Oprah says, “Now I understand all of you who’ve been looking for long lost relatives.” It’s a common longing, and this time, it’s one that gets a happy ending. Not just because a woman named Patricia is suddenly hooked up with Oprah Freaking Winfrey. It’s because by going public in a way that embraces the lost sheep and forgives the mother who let her go, Winfrey grants a little bit of hope to others still searching, and compassion to those with family secrets of their own. It’s not just another “Aha” moment. It’s a chance for grace.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>