The Glory of Oprah

Why the “talkinest child” understands women and the power of television better than anyone else
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ABC

The three-episode finale of The Oprah Winfrey Show consisted of a two-part spectacular at the United Center in Chicago and a final sermon delivered from the show’s studio at Harpo Productions. Together, these three hours of television encompassed many of the program’s enduring concerns: celebrity, philanthropy, Dale Carnegie–style positive thinking, and—the true foundation of the show and its creator—the theology of the black Baptist Church that raised her. “To God be the glory,” were her final words to us from her stage, a sentiment sure to inflame her legion of critics (what a pompous way to sign off from an afternoon chat show!), and one that explains, more than anything else, how this remarkable woman created a vast financial empire and became one of the most influential figures in the private lives of millions of American women.

Despite the grandeur and moment of the three-parter, despite its show-stopping intensity and buckled-down determination to sum up a 25-year mission, the true genome of the project was revealed in a run-of-the-mill episode weeks earlier. No Aretha Franklin belting out “Amazing Grace” to thousands, no Diane Sawyer announcing the planting of 25,000 oak trees in Oprah’s name, no funny pictorial of tragic hairstyles—just Oprah sitting down and talking, woman-to-woman, about certain aspects of the female experience.

The guest was Shania Twain, the country- and pop-music star who has sold more than 75 million albums, and who has been in relative seclusion the past seven years, for reasons detailed in From This Moment On, the autobiography she had come on the show to promote. The book stands as a compendium of the life events about which Oprah and Oprah care most: deep childhood poverty made yet more harrowing by sexual molestation and domestic violence; the power of nothing more than an idea, a dream for oneself, to change a life forever; the triumph of material success after a harsh beginning; the particular, feminine joys to be found in buying and redecorating a beautiful house; the dirty rotten tendency of bad men and false friends to run off with one another, leaving you brokenhearted and humiliated; the ability of such betrayals to cause you—and this may be the single biggest theme of all of Oprah—to lose your voice, leading to the realization that, no matter what, you must regain your voice; and finally, the necessity of going Ancient Mariner on the whole experience, telling every secret thing to every available listener, until you and they are both free.

I happened to turn on the Shania episode a bit late, and I was standing out of sight of the television when the picture came on, so I didn’t at first see that the guest Oprah was interviewing was a superstar. I assumed the woman speaking in such plain, heartbroken terms about her divorce was a civilian. Her voice sounded thin and untrained, and the rush of words tumbled out quickly, as though she had only this one golden moment with Oprah to tell her story to the world, and after the camera switched off, she would vanish back into anonymity.

I have read a lot of celebrity memoirs, and their main shared quality is that they are slight. Not just short, and not merely ghostwritten, they usually emanate from the anonymous author’s scandalously brief time spent with the subject, and this paucity of material colors every page. I once had dinner with the most notorious of these ghostwriters, and he averred that he often types up a memoir after little more than a weekend in the company of the celebrity. (“Do you tape-record the sessions?,” I asked him, vaguely wondering if I should become a celebrity ghostwriter. “Yes,” he replied with a grossed-out shudder. “But I never listen to the tapes.”) But From This Moment On is not only 400 pages long, it’s also chockablock with detail—vivid sketches of minor characters, carefully rendered descriptions of places and states of mind. The acknowledgments seem to say that a married pair of professional writer/editors banged the thing into publishable shape, but Twain’s long description of the process of actually writing the book is clearly the plain truth. For this reason alone, it is substantially different from most other celebrity autobiographies; it feels intimate and unguarded, and it speaks of a particular and peculiar life. I liked the book, and I found that I also liked Twain, about whom I had known very little.

Twain’s early years were shaped by the kind of domestic chaos that is at once a cause and a result of poverty. Her barely educated mother—who at 16 had lost all her teeth in an accident that left her with a mouthful of cheap dentures—managed in the space of a decade to bear four children by three men, with a fifth child thrown in for good measure when his mother, a family relation, killed herself. The man with whom Twain’s mother ended her romantic run, and with whom she remained in an unhappy and often dangerous marriage until their early death in a car crash, was a wife beater who nearly killed her many times—often in front of the terrified children. He was also a fully participating member of the human condition, so that along with his violence were streaks of kindness and generosity (even broke, he would bring home desserts and little treats for the kids), in a mix of the sort that leaves children perpetually confused, even into adulthood, about the true nature of the person at whose hands they suffered.

During Twain’s adolescence, he would often come into her room at night—she was his adopted daughter—and seethe at her for being a “bitch” and a “slut.” He would beat her with a belt and kick her “in the ass.” Yet, like many an abused child before her, she has grown up into an adult who has plenty of good things to say about her monster; on balance, she thinks he was sort of a prince.

Adding to Twain’s miseries, nobody in the household was concerned or lucid enough to protect her from the creepy old man in the neighborhood who lured her with candy and then molested her. She was just getting started in a singing career when her parents were killed, leaving her no money and full charge of her three younger siblings. She moved them into a cabin near a remote holiday lodge where she got a job in a Vegas-style review, and from there she beavered away at her career while trying to raise and discipline a pack of brokenhearted adolescents.

And it is a testament to the kind of things that can and cannot break a woman that none of this sorrow and deprivation and cruelty caused Twain to lose her voice. The thing that shattered her, that had silenced her singing and sent her pursuing expert medical advice around the world, was not the violence or the hunger or the sexual abuse. It was the betrayal by her husband, an event that occurred years after they had become multimillionaires and had constructed a weird, luxurious exile for themselves in an enormous Swiss château. The affair, a garden-variety bit of midlife adultery involving a best friend, a series of deceptions, and the inevitable, explosive revelation, devastated her.

Longtime viewers of Oprah know that the host has a particular subspecialty in the husband-stealing best friend. Husband-stealing best friends are right up there with women who can’t give away a single pair of old shoes from a jam-packed closet and men who won’t do their fair share of the housework: such regular presences on the Oprah show that they are almost members of a commedia troupe. But the true author of Shania’s suffering, although she could not yet perceive it, was not the best friend; it was a succession of malevolent men: the abusive stepfather, the molesting neighbor, the cheating husband. Oprah, more than any other broadcaster ever, understands the ways men can hurt women, and it is this knowledge—hard-earned and openly shared with her audience—that has allowed her to forge such a powerful bond with her fans. That she can move so easily between episodes about, on the one hand, rape and domestic violence and, on the other, shopping and decorating, demonstrates not a lack of focus but the fact that she understands the full equation of the female experience, in ways that few others before her have. This understanding also accounts for the deep suspicion she arouses in so many men, who as a group tend to be wary of her, if not outright hostile. They’re not wrong to feel this way; she’s onto them. She has survived some of the worst they have to offer. Like Alice Walker, Oprah has been accused of hating men, black men in particular. But her attitude toward men is much more complicated and generous than they realize. It’s only when you fully apprehend the range and nature of the cruelty that men are capable of inflicting on women that you can truly appreciate its opposite. It has been Oprah’s bad and good fortune (she often says she would not on any condition change the circumstances of her young life) to have fully experienced the former.

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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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