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It is fitting that Oprah would trigger a debate about the power and the perils of speaking “your truth,” for her tremendously impressive career illustrates both sides of the phenomenon.
Some years ago, marking the finale of The Oprah Winfrey Show, my colleague Caitlin Flanagan recounted Oprah’s poverty-stricken childhood, the physical beatings she took from her grandmother, her traumatic rape at the age of 9, and the early pregnancy that threatened to consign her to a life of deprivation—and persuasively argued that she was able to become one of the richest, most influential humans in large part because of an idea that she was “born for greatness.”
That was among her truths. And she clung to it and fought to manifest it—no matter that she grew up in a culture that told her black women were inferior, and was abused by people conveying the message that she personally deserved no better. Decades later, having become a billionaire celebrity as beloved as anyone in America by going to television each day to earnestly convey her beliefs and experiences—and to urge others to do the same—how could Oprah of all people fail to believe that “speaking your truth” is “the most powerful tool that we all have”?
And yet, “in her earnest spiritual seeking, Ms. Winfrey gave platforms to some rather questionable types,” Mark Oppenheimer observed in The New York Times, in another critical evaluation of The Oprah Winfrey Show published back in 2011 as it was ending:
She hosted the self-help author Louise Hay, who once said Holocaust victims may have been paying for sins in a previous life. She championed the “medical intuitive” Caroline Myss, who claims emotional distress causes cancer. She helped launch Rhonda Byrne, creator of the DVD and book The Secret, who teaches that just thinking about wealth can make you rich. She invited the “psychic medium” John Edward to help mourners in her audience talk to their dead relatives.
The Oprah Winfrey Show made viewers feel that they constantly had to “sculpt their best lives,” Dr. Lofton writes. Yet in her religious exuberance Ms. Winfrey gave people some badly broken tools. Ms. Winfrey nodded along to the psychics and healers and intuitives. She rarely asked tough questions, and because she believed, millions of others did, too.
An overlapping indictment appeared in Newsweek a couple years before. One section recounted Oprah appearances by Suzanne Somers, who was advocating for a highly unusual approach to health and medicine to stave off aging:
“Many people write Suzanne off as a quackadoo,” Oprah said. “But she just might be a pioneer.” Oprah acknowledged that Somers’s claims “have been met with relentless criticism” from doctors. Several times during the show she gave physicians an opportunity to dispute what Somers was saying. But it wasn't quite a fair fight. The doctors who raised these concerns were seated down in the audience and had to wait to be called on. Somers sat onstage next to Oprah, who defended her from attack. “Suzanne swears by bioidenticals and refuses to keep quiet. She’ll take on anyone, including any doctor who questions her.”
Somers was speaking “her truth,” as was another celebrity guest, perhaps the most controversial to ever appear on Oprah Winfrey’s show. As Newsweek recounted:
In 2007, Oprah invited Jenny McCarthy, the Playboy model and actress, to describe her struggle to find help for her young son … “So what do you think triggered the autism?” Oprah asked McCarthy. “I know you have a theory.” McCarthy is certain that her son contracted autism from the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination he received as a baby. She told Oprah that the morning he went in for his checkup, her instincts told her not to allow the doctor to give him the vaccine. “I said to the doctor, I have a very bad feeling about this shot. This is the autism shot, isn’t it? And he said no, that is ridiculous; it is a mother’s desperate attempt to blame something on autism. And he swore at me.” The nurse gave Evan the shot. “And not soon thereafter,” McCarthy said, “boom, soul gone from his eyes.”
… Yet researchers have not found a link between the vaccines and autism. Here is what we do know: before vaccinations, thousands of children died or got sick each year from measles, mumps, and rubella.
But back on the Oprah show, McCarthy’s charges went virtually unchallenged. Oprah praised McCarthy’s bravery and plugged her book, but did not invite a physician or scientist to explain to her audience the many studies that contradict the vaccines-autism link. Instead, Oprah read a brief statement from the Centers for Disease Control saying there was no science to prove a connection and that the government was continuing to study the problem. But McCarthy got the last word. “My science is named Evan, and he’s at home. That’s my science.”
McCarthy was sharing “her truth.” And doing so has undoubtedly been a powerful tool: There are enclaves where so many parents are declining to vaccinate their children that “herd immunity” against devastating diseases is at risk.