Wednesday, the last episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" hits the airwaves. Oprah will, no doubt, continue to appear in some capacity on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), but millions of people will still be affected by the end of her syndicated talk show.
For someone who works in television, I am cynical about how much people really care about it, deep down. In the end, only a disordered person would swap access to TV for her health or that of her loved ones, for employment or for better housing or education. But people really do care about Oprah, and with very good reason.
Oprah made it safe to be imperfect and to admit it.
She has not conquered her problems with her weight.
She has never presented a seamless, credible vision of her romantic life.
She has never married and has no children.
Yet, she is beloved and able to love others.
Perhaps more than anyone in mainstream media, ever, she has been willing to show her scars (including her history of sexual abuse) and her shortcomings and rely on her audience to accept or reject her. In so doing, she has offered her viewers a model of unconditional love of the kind that the best families offer their family members.
For multitudes, Oprah is that metaphorical sister or aunt or daughter or niece or mother who isn’t perfect—far from it—yet is still the one you would call for help and still the one you would drive a few hundred miles to visit.
It is not going too far to say that Oprah Winfrey has filled part of the void for millions of Americans whose own families never reassured them that they were truly worthwhile. She was the one they could imagine listening to them speak of their weaknesses, then embracing them, despite it all.
Imagining that possibility may have partly healed them, psychologically—and that is utterly astounding and worthy of deep respect.
If human empathy is a miracle (and I believe it is), then Oprah Winfrey is miraculous, too.
I obviously don’t agree with every position—political and otherwise—that Oprah has taken. But I don’t agree with every position my best friend has taken. And that’s kind of the point.
Oprah became, for so many, a symbolic best friend, confessor and ideal parent. She led by example.
I remember being a guest on her television show for the second time. We were speaking with women who had been sexually abused. As these women were struggling to describe the most toxic aspects of their trauma, Oprah simply looked out at her audience and said, “You all know, I was sexually abused.” People nodded. Yes, they knew. They knew.
Oprah paused, but only for an instant. “And you know one of the most confusing parts and the toughest to get over?” Everyone was completely silent, waiting, listening as they might to a best friend revealing her heart of hearts. “Sometimes,” she said, “it felt good.”
My skin literally turned to gooseflesh. My eyes filled up with tears. In under a minute Oprah had revealed the source of confusion and irrational guilt that so many survivors of abuse never dare to utter. She had done it in a way that seemed effortless, like breathing. And in that moment I imagined a hundred thousand Americans, maybe more, breathing a sigh of relief, while letting tears flow. “You mean,” each of them might have said, “I am not alone? You mean, I am not crazy?”
“No,” Oprah was essentially saying, “You are not crazy. You are vulnerable. You are complex. You are compassionate. You are . . . human.”
No one in the history of media, in all the world, has so consistently and courageously conveyed that message. Were it a person’s entire life work, it would be an astounding achievement. But Oprah’s work goes on.