No Big Whoop: Oprah Has a Half Sister, But What Does It Really Mean?
It’s all over the news now. So you don’t really have to watch the program if you don’t want to or can’t. And I can’t.
Look, I remember how Kitty Kelley‘s book about Oprah was very much disparaged by her friends in the celebrity class (like Barbara Walters, for example) who joined forces and refused to say anything good about it or Kelley when it was published. Now Kelley is something else, but I felt that she had a right to publish whatever she damn well pleased, and let the market figure out whether she was lying or not. Sometimes, though, Kelley’s work is not always made up from whole cloth as some may think.
Oprah is something else again, too. I had thought that she would reveal that she found out who her real, actual father was (there is some lingering speculation that Vernon Winfrey is not her father). No, this is news regarding a half-sister that she never knew about, who was produced by her mother and given up for adoption while she was living with and being raised by Vernon Winfrey. And now, Kitty Kelley can find some vindication for retailing this fact in her Oprah bio.
[Vernita] Lee, who recently suffered a minor stroke, said she never told Winfrey about her half-sister, “because I thought it was a terrible thing for me to do, that I had done, gave up my daughter when she was born.”
Winfrey said documents from the girl’s birth reveal that Lee gave up the baby for adoption because she did not think she could get off welfare if she kept the child.
“I made the decision to give her up because I wasn’t able to take care of her. So when I left the hospital, I told the nurse I wasn’t going to keep the baby.”
Winfrey said she was particularly stunned by the news because of the way it came out. She said Patricia had known since 2007 that the two were related, but she never attempted to profit off her discovery or contact the press, even as she tried unsuccessfully to contact Winfrey, her mother or others in Winfrey’s family.
“She never once thought to sell the story,” Winfrey said, describing how she felt betrayed by other relatives who sought publicity or money.
Patricia said she didn’t consider revealing that she and Winfrey were half-sisters to anyone but Winfrey, explaining that she did not want to hurt Winfrey.
“Family business should be handled by family,” Patricia said. “It couldn’t be handled by anyone else. That’s not fair. It wouldn’t be fair to you.”
So why is it fair that Oprah handles her family business in the manner that Patricia wouldn’t have chosen?
This is one reason why Winfrey is revealing this story about her life. Patricia didn’t “betray” her name for money or for notoriety to the gossip rags. However, I’m sure Patricia was tempted, since she had tried and failed to contact both Oprah and Vernita Lee for several years. Vernita is said to have hung up on her daughter, but her reasons were probably quite different from merely dismissing her calls. For one, she was afraid to reopen the painful past. Other than that, to say that you’re related to someone famous, without any real proof, is to say that you may be a whack job.
However, should we be surprised about anything Oprah says about herself any more? It could be that she’s flogging this news for ratings for her show, which is in its last year, and also to focus attention once more on herself as its star. And man, I have been really uncomfortable when she does this, and have turned the channel on her and her show.
We already know about her waywardness in Milwaukee, the rapes, the stillborn child, her drug use, her beauty queen phase, her sista-mance with Gayle King, and her surprising interracial relationship with John Tesh. I’m not bored and jaded by these revelations as some may be. It’s supposed to make her human and fallible, but I think we all know that there is another face to this. A man or a woman celebrity/star/entertainer is made to be much more than human. Everyone has a right to make mistakes and to be forgiven for them, either by their family members or by the public. However, what gets me about this whole thing is how much Oprah wants to control the narrative for her own purposes, like ratings. Anyone else who is unauthorized who comes up with revelations, like Kitty Kelley, or any other would-be biographers of whatever reputation, that she can’t readily explain her way out of, is fresh out of luck.
In this, I am reminded of Aretha Franklin’s contortions about what it was that landed her in the hospital recently. It always takes the bottom feeders like the National Enquirer or TMZ.com to come up with these things (like the impending death of Ray Charles, for instance, which was front-paged by the Enquirer). Aretha has insisted through channels that she did not have pancreatic cancer, as it was widely reported, but on the other hand, she has refused to say what indeed it was that laid her low. A widely-believed rumor has it that Aretha had actually undergone stomach resectioning or stapling having to do with her ballooning weight problem. I think, though, that her problem was more medical than vanity. It could have been anything from her heart to her gall bladder, but until I know further, I think that she did have a very serious ailment from which she continues to suffer today. At the very least, because of her weight and her eating disorder, Aretha has high blood pressure and high cholesterol. When you reach the age Aretha is now–68 years old–there is no way in the world that one can continue the farce that nothing is wrong with you or that you remain young and healthy.
All in all, Franklin, through herself and her spokespeople, have sought to control the narrative, possibly for Aretha’s upcoming singing engagements, and possibly because Aretha hates the very idea of the Enquirer being all up in her business. However, in the case of her fans–and those potential concertgoers–simply saying that she did not have cancer, and that her situation has been “resolved,” and that she was healthy, has not allayed their genuine fears and concern for her. For some, it appears she is being too diva and too disingenuous at the point when she and her fans need a dose of reality. I think Aretha is not served by these lingering questions about her condition. But that’s my opinion.
Lastly, I’m also reminded of a nearly-suppressed biography, Katherine the Great, about the late Washington Post owner and doyenne, Katherine Graham, the woman who supposedly stood up to “Tricky Dick” Nixon while her employees Woodward and Bernstein came up with the goods about the burglary at the Watergate. Though the book was roundly panned by reviewers in the major newspapers (who were also sympathetic to Graham), to the dismay of many others, Graham had the book taken from bookstores across the country and destroyed. While the book was criticized for a lack of fact checking and vetting, and for coming up with some outlandish, but interesting CIA conspiracy theories (for 1979), Deborah Davis was nearly bankrupted from the publicity and from the lawsuit Graham filed to keep the biography from being published and distributed. Davis finally received a settlement from her publisher, Harcourt Brace and Jovanovich, in 1983.
However, the book has stood up over the years, being reissued in 1987, and again in 1991 by Sheridan Square Press. If anything, the story of the battle for Katherine the Great is a cautionary tale for those who attempt to disprove an image or a mythology, and to suggest that there may be more to the portrait being held up for our admiration. The book itself provides an alternative view of someone rich, powerful, and socially-connected who was erroneously considered a kind of liberal (and even feminist) heroine in the 1970s, and who tried to the end of her life to control the narrative.
So, on one hand, I am glad for Oprah Winfrey. She’s blessed, especially since her full-sister, also named Patricia, died of the effects of a drug overdose years ago. It’s always wonderful to find family, and especially family who will love you for yourself and be worthy of your trust. However, on the other hand, I’m sure that before and after Thanksgiving 2010, when she finally met Patricia with their mother, she must have pondered what she would do with this information, and how it might play. Eventually, it would have to come out in her way, or in TMZ’s way–a way that she could not anticipate or control.
Don’t get me wrong. Oprah Winfrey is not just a human being who was born poor and not respectably middle-class–a social as well as economic state that might have given her cover. Her life story has been checkered, like many of us. There is a lot we still don’t know about her, and frankly, that’s a scab that I wouldn’t want to peel off. There is such a thing as too much information.
Remember, this was a woman who allegedly refused to tell her story before Overeaters Anonymous (or was it Weight Watchers? or was it just a therapy group that dealt with these issues?) members for fear that they would blab when she first publicly and dramatically lost weight. She demanded that they sign non-disclosure statements or that she would leave. She left. (Having attended some OA meetings myself, I seem to remember that the group members are required to respect each other’s privacy much like any encounter group.) Some psychologists at the time also speculated that she used her distrust of the group members as an excuse not to work on the reasons why she overate. Sure enough, Oprah regained the weight within months.
Let’s skip the hard knock life for once and consider yet another view. Oprah Winfrey is also a performer, an entertainer, and a brand name.
A brand name that has to keep on selling.