For Oprah, Yet Another Twist in a Tangled Family History

by | January 24, 2011 at 1:31 PM | Oprah, Oprah Winfrey, TV News

Oprah Winfrey (HARPO)

Oprah Winfrey (HARPO)

Oprah Winfrey has long featured stories like this one on her long-running talk show, but when it came to examining her own family’s tangled history, she put on a show like no other.

It was the much-ballyhooed show about a “family secret” that Oprah promised she would reveal on Monday’s edition of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” The secret: She recently learned she has a half-sister she never knew, or even knew about. The two have known each other now for less than three months, having met for the first time just last Thanksgiving.

On this remarkable and moving show, Oprah introduced her half-sister, a woman named Patricia who has long lived in Milwaukee, Wis., only 90 miles from Oprah’s home city of Chicago. According to research conducted by Patricia, Oprah and her half-sister had the same mother, Vernita Lee, who gave up the baby Patricia for adoption when she was born in 1963. Oprah, who was 9 at the time, said on Monday’s show she had no idea her mother was pregnant, probably because she was then living in Nashville with her father, Vernon Winfrey. The identity of Patricia’s father was not revealed on the show, but it apparently wasn’t Vernon.

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On the show, Patricia revealed that she first learned she was Oprah’s half-sister in 2007 after embarking on a search for her birth parents. One day, she saw Vernita being interviewed on local TV in Milwaukee, and saying said “that two of her children had passed away, and I knew [from my records] that I had two siblings who passed away [Oprah’s brother, Jeffrey, and sister, also named Patricia, both of whom are deceased]. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, because I knew that one of my siblings and I shared the same name. . . . I said no, that can’t be.”

Oprah pointed out that Patricia never went to the media or otherwise tried to publicize or cash in on the story in any way, which impressed Oprah. Oprah, of course, was shocked to learn of this latest twist and turn in her family history. “For the most part, my life has been an open book and on the show I think I’ve seen about everything,” she said on Monday’s show. “And I thought nothing could surprise me anymore, but let me tell you I was wrong.”

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Oprah’s parents were unwed teens when she was born in 1954. They never married and eventually grew apart. Oprah lived with each of them at various times when she was growing up, and also lived with her late grandmother for a time. Oprah has long claimed she was sexually abused as a youngster. And she recently talked about her pregnancy at age 14 when she was interviewed by Piers Morgan on CNN.

In addition to her “new” half-sister, Oprah introduced viewers to various members of her family, who talked about what the discovery of this mystery sibling meant to each of them. And, in one of the show’s most dramatic moments, Oprah and Patricia sat down with Vernita in Vernita’s home to ask her why she kept the secret of Patricia’s adoption for so many years. Vernita said she was ashamed and embarrassed that she had put a child up for adoption.

It was a rare look at the people who are closest to Oprah Winfrey – her family, including companion Stedman Graham, who accompanied Oprah to the Thanksgiving reunion with her long lost sis. And, in case you’re wondering why Oprah would air all this private family business in public, she explained on the show that she wanted to tell the story her own way, rather than see it sensationalized in the tabloids when it got out, which it certainly would have.

“Imagine my shock just a few months ago at the end of October, when I found out I have another sister living just 90 minutes away,” Oprah said.

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