Last year, I was asked by a woman I know to help her complete a book about her childhood. It was something I agreed to do on impulse, and with only a vague idea of who the woman was and what she’d been through. I lived with her story not for a lifetime, like her, but merely the next six months, and yet it was a story of such horror and emotional power, it challenged me to rethink everything I thought I knew about the darkness of the human heart and the secret reserves of strengths that lie within some of us, perhaps all of us. She had both witnessed and experienced physical abuse from the age of 5, she was sexually assaulted for years from the time she was 6. Hers was a story of unspeakable poverty, abandonment, and religious demagoguery, of every sort of cruelty, of losses both violent and horrific.
You would not believe it if you saw her today. Not in the least. This woman in whose biography is inscribed a catalog of horrors, carries not a single inscription or visible scar. And even the wounds within have healed. She is not destroyed or broken, she is happy and successful. Which is astonishing. She has suffered the kinds of things that have driven untold millions before her to suicide, divorce, psychopathy, abuse, addiction, depression and desolation. And yet today she is … okay. Not awesome, not living the dream. Just okay. In short, she is amazing.
Over the years, hundreds and hundreds of people have sat in armchairs opposite Oprah Winfrey on various sets on various TV channels. At the end of most every interview, as Winfrey herself put it at the Toyota Center on Friday night, “everybody wanted to know the same thing. ‘Was that okay?’” Had they acquitted themselves well? Had they been true to themselves? After the storms they’d gone through, the storms that had ripped them from their lives and eventually blown them onto Winfrey’s set, all they wanted to know was if things would be okay.
It is not surprising that this is the question people put to Winfrey. She is someone, after all, who endured no small amount of storms in her own early life, so much so that her arrival at the calm, safe, okay place she finds herself in now still surprises us. Born poor, black and female to a teenage single mother, raised in multiple homes, raped at the age of 9 by her 19-year-old cousin, molested repeatedly from age 10 to 14 by at least two men; pregnant at 14, suicidal the same year, drinking bleach in a failed abortion attempt; the mother of a son who died a few days after Winfrey gave birth to him.
And yet today she is…okay. None of it destroyed her. Far from it.
The oft-considered questions of her life—how she became one of the world’s richest, most powerful women, how she became and continues to be so central to American life over the past few decades—are interesting but not foundational. The foundational question, for her, my writer friend, and many others, is this: how is it that some find ways to live through unspeakable horror without ending in unspeakable horror themselves? How are they able to drink just enough from a bitter draft, yet not so much that the taste never leaves them? Perhaps the answers to such questions are unknowable. I suspect that even now, after years of thought and searching and consulting with experts, Winfrey has questions herself about the source of her resilience.
But maybe it doesn’t need explaining. Maybe it’s enough that the story be told, again and again, in settings both intimate and grand. To the millions of people who continue to draw strength from her, maybe all that matters is that she’s here, that’s she okay, that she survived, that one woman survived. After all, if one woman can survive, why shouldn’t there be many?