Monday, January 24, 2011

Oprah reveals she has half-sister; her mother was afraid to admit the secret

So Oprah has a sister! Given up for adoption! Reunited today on her talk show! From the Los Angeles Times: 

Patricia, whose last name was not given, is nearly 10 years younger than Winfrey, who learned of the news just before Thanksgiving, saying it “literally shook me to my core.”
 Surprises abound. I haven't seen the show yet but I believe will be able to catch it tonight according to the online listing I found. Just turned on the tube however and saw CNN doing a report on it's big news. The sister was born to Oprah's mother, Vernita Lee, was Oprah was eight years old.

According to the Associated Press:
"Lee, who recently suffered a minor stroke, said she never told Winfrey about her half-sister, 'because I thought it was a terrible thing for me to do, that I had done, gave up my daughter when she was born.'
"....Patricia, who Winfrey said bounced from foster home to foster home until she was adopted at age 7, had given up after previous searches for her mother. But she decided to resume looking several years ago at the insistence of her grown children.

"The effort seemed to hit a dead end when a woman from the Wisconsin adoption agency called to respond to her inquiries. 'She was telling me that my birth mother had called her back, and she had made the decision at that particular time that she did not want to see me,' Patricia said.

"Coincidentally, on the local news that day was a story about Winfrey' mother, Vernita Lee, who revealed details about two of her children who had since died. Those details, Patricia said, matched information she had seen in papers about her own adoption. Winfrey's mother also said that one of the deceased children had been named Patricia. 'The hairs on the back of my neck stood up,' Patricia said. 'Because I knew one of my siblings and I shared the same name.'

"Later, she found more matching details, including the fact that Winfrey was born in 1954, the same year as the woman Patricia knew was her surviving sibling. Patricia found the daughter of Winfrey's dead sister in Milwaukee, and they took a DNA test that confirmed their relationship."
"Lee was able to keep the baby a secret even from her daughter because she, Oprah, was born to unwed teens and was raised at various times by her grandmother, mother and father, and stepmother in Mississippi, Wisconsin and Tennessee.

Adoption and Loss The Hidden Grief"...Winfrey said documents from the girl's birth reveal that Lee gave up the baby for adoption because she did not think she could get off welfare if she kept the child. 'I made the decision to give her up because I wasn't able to take care of her,' Lee said during a recorded interview that aired Monday. 'So when I left the hospital, I told the nurse I wasn't going to keep the baby.'"
That's just what we've been talking about here yesterday: how first/birth mothers give up their children because they feel they have no options. That's why I prefer the words: given up. We relinquish our children when we give up. We are like people in a shipwreck, floating around in the ocean, holding onto a life preserver for as long as we can...and then we see no hope is coming, the sharks are circling around, and we give up. We give up our babies.

And then we suck it up and not talk about the trauma of surrendering a child, because we cannot admit what we did, or how much damage the whole experience does to us birth/first mothers psychologically.  Jane and I sincerely hope that this kind of celebrity news about adoption will help other secret first mothers have the courage to reveal their stories, and siblings, to their families, and reach out to their surrendered children.

With a certain irony I note that the interfering (but legally mandated) confidential intermediary in Wisconsin is likely to have been the same woman (Jacy Boldebuck) who called my granddaughter Lisa, who told her, Jacy, that she was not interested at that time in making contact with me. Oh rejection! It took months before I understood how truly that hurt. Yet when I emailed her out of the blue (having used a searcher to find her) she responded with days, and our relationship has grown into a warm and wonderful thing.

Confidential intermediaries only sound like a good thing to the people not directly involved. In my mind, they are more of a CYA option because some legislators (who were not around when the great sealing of the records occurred in their state) fear god-knows-what. Most of us birth mothers, first mothers--hell, the vast majority of us, call us whatever you like--want nothing more than to be able to meet our relinquished children who were adopted one day. In those states where adoptees can obtain their original birth certificates, approximately one for every 2,000 birth mothers file a "no contact" form. I have no understanding of these women.

Despite these pitiable women, adoptees have the undiluted, inviolable right to know who they are, and first mothers have a singular moral obligation to at least meet them once and tell them the story of their lives, not some cookie-cutter version that comes from a story book.

If there are first mothers who stumble upon this blog and want to contact me directly, who want to talk through their fears, leave your email address in the comment section. It will not be published, and either Jane or I will contact you. We both had to tell our families about our daughters. The circumstances were different but our fears were universal. --lorraine
Tomorrow: unless there is more breaking news: a poignant section from Evelyn Burns Robinson's book, Adoption and Loss: The Hidden Grief.

CYA: Cover Your A@!


  1. Oh what a show! I had chills the entire time! I am very happy for Oprah and Patricia and hope with time their mother will come to be able to show Patricia the love and affection she deserves and needs.

    So many part of the show were touching. Most of all, though, I think Oprah GETS IT. I won't ruin it for those who have not yet seen the show, but it's the "epiphanies" that she talks about at the end.

    I really wish them all the best on this journey that they have begun together!

  2. It was really an excellent show. I normally avoid all things Oprah, because she usually extols the virtues of the all powerful and wunnerful adopters while stereotyping first Mothers.

    Although it bugged me to no end that she kept saying "MY mother is Patricia's BIRTH mother", at the end, I noticed she was saying "OUR" Mother. I think I heard the word "BIRTH Mother" more today than I would hear it at a pap convention, lol.

    Yes...the "epiphany" The Opester had at the end of the show rang true for my first Mother. She said that their Mother was still stuck in 1963 and sees Patricia as a baby, and is going through the process.

    I still don't trust Oprah....I see her buying a baby at some point, lol.

  3. I think Oprah handled it with aplomb. It was great when she said that she sees now that her other sister Pat gave her a gift by telling the the press about the baby she had at 14, freeing her from keeping the secret and from the weight of the shame. Sounds like their mother is still locked down by shame, which is sad, but I get it. That's what my own mom said to me: "When I think about you, I am still back in 1969, and it's hard to let go of all of that."

    The placed sister was so much like me, floored over similarities in gestures and features, and feeling that finding her family helped her to feel whole in ways unimaginable before. And checking in with Oprah, saying, "Are you okay? I know this is a lot to process." Been there with my brother. It's like we have to take care of them.

  4. I found Opraph's thinly veiled indignation interesting that her mother had kept this secret from her. I know she understands the shame factor but she still seemed perturbed to have been kept in the dark over it. So maybe hopefully this will motivate some closet mothers who now realize that their other children can deal with this and how unfair it is to keep something like other sibs a secret. One hopes. I'm not a big Oprah fan either - not sure why. maybe it's that aura she has of cheerleader for adoption.
    But she seems to have handled this situaion well.

  5. I don't watch daytime TV and didn't know about this show until getting home from an evening with friends. Holy shit, I said, I hope someone's up late covering this in the light it should be, and there you were, FMF. Thank you!

    I'm a skeptic. I don't believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the JFK assassination (which is why Jack Ruby had to take him out). I don't believe that Oprah's baby boy died; I think he's out there somewhere. Which would make her a BIRTHmother too, huh? And I'm skeptical that she didn't know about her mother and her half-sister. Perhaps someone forced her hand...

    I have some level of respect for Oprah, but I don't believe a word she says about her own self.

  6. Interesting ladies, I am going to write more later.

  7. Since Oprah also came into the world without her parents being married, did she (Oprah) correctly identify the shame her mother feels in her ephiphany. It cannot be the shame of being unmarried and having a child - it must be that other bigger shame, giving that child up for adoption. I think this is vetoing first mothers fear - having to tell people including other children that they had a child that they gave away.

  8. With all due respect, I find the chances of Oprah Winfrey having a living child "out there" to be virtually none. That is far too big a secret for someone with her level of exposure to keep hidden.

    That said, Oprah's recent interview with Piers Morgan and the statements she made about "the baby" that died were certainly, ummm, interesting. Just based on her comments during that interview, I'm not so sure she's as healed and freed about all that as she thinks she is...that's another story though.

    But back to her half-sister, yes, there was a thinly veiled annoyance there with her mother. I don't think Oprah has really ever claimed to be very fond of her mother anyway (she usually gives the most credit to her grandmother Hattie Mae and her father Vernon) and I'm sure this was yet another blow.

    Honestly, *I* was annoyed with Oprah's mom, I just wanted her to turn around and give Patricia a hug...but her affect was so flat (maybe the stroke?). Maybe Oprah is right and she's stuck in 1963...or maybe she's just one of those people who don't really care that much about their kids (yes, I believe that mothers like this exist and certainly not just in the birth mother population, not by any means).

    All in all, I think it was a great show and I'm happy to have watched it. You could see that Oprah was being cautiously optimistic about the future. I can imagine that it would be hard to make room for a new sibling at age 54, esp when the other siblings have been gone for so many years. I really hope the two of them can spend some quality time alone (no significant others, other relatives, TV cameras, etc) so they can *really* get to know one another.

    And yes, FMF brought it by covering such breaking news!

  9. Margaret Susan Hoffman-LyBurtusJanuary 25, 2011 at 2:14 PM

    so glad I tuned in, after I got a call from relatives east. The shame that was inflected on women whose choices were made for them or whom did what they believed was best for their child needs to be addressed. I pray that more of these women will let go of the shame and embrace their children. "The truth shall set you free"

  10. "With a certain irony I note that the interfering (but legally mandated) confidential intermediary in Wisconsin is likely to have been the same woman (Jacy Boldebuck) who called my granddaughter Lisa, who told her, Jacy, that she was not interested at that time in making contact with me. Oh rejection! It took months before I understood how truly that hurt. Yet when I emailed her out of the blue (having used a searcher to find her) she responded with days, and our relationship has grown into a warm and wonderful thing."
    Holy Moly, Lo!!! First thing that popped into my mind was... The CI lied to you.

  11. Cully Ray:

    Not the CI didn't lie; Lisa was not ready for contact, but as it went yesterday, when confronted with the reality, there's a different story. It's one thing to tell a Confidential Intermediary NO, it's another to not respond to an email from your grandmother. I don't know if Lisa, my granddaughter, ever would have decided to go back to Jacy and say she wanted to know me. Fortunately, that's not something either of us will ever find out.

    And yes, boy did I want Vernita Lee, Oprah's mother, to turn around and hug her daughter and cry a bit. But maybe because of the stroke, maybe because of the situation, maybe because of she has so much guilt, maybe godknowswhat--she did not. And yes, I too did see the irritation on Oprah's face as she spoke to her. Patricia just wanted acceptance.

    I've just written a piece for a national publication about this, and need a walk. I do not know if it has been accepted. One never knows. Writers have to get used to rejection. Stay tuned.

  12. Again, just my vantage point but I can't help but sympathizing with Patricia for being robbed of the chance to know her brother and sister who died before she could meet them. Sealed records also denied me the opportunity to know two of my half sisters - by the time I found them, it was too late (one by a matter of only weeks.)

    As for the mother's fears, while I never judge people for what they did in the past, I do hold them accountable for what they do today. To refuse to acknowledge Patricia when she approached her through the Confidential Intermediary showed that her fears were stronger than any concern she might have had for her daughter's wellbeing.

    That may make me unpopular here, but it's just the way I call it. My own birth parents' refusal to provide any health information at all threatens both me and my children; I can forgive them for giving me away but not for refusing my children potentially lifesaving information.

  13. I watched the show, I am an adopted child and I was a little taken aback by Oprah's mother's reaction when Patricia atempted to contact her the first time. And then Patricia had to great lenghts for 3 years in order to meet any f the family. Why after so long and knowing that she didn't mean to give her up didnt she at some point agree to meet her daughter. I guess I dont understand, I understand Oprah's reaction, the siblings reactions, I do not understand Oprah's mothers reaction.

  14. I am a mother who relinquished a daughter for adoption and what I would give for a daughter who wanted to have a relationship with me and her siblings. While my thinking head can wrap my head around why Patricia and Oprah's mother chose to behave the way she has, my feeling heart simply cannot understand.

    I applaud Oprah for being so direct to their mother at the end. What a powerful statement from a daughter to her mother. I hope every woman who has ever relinquished a child for adoption has the ears to hear what she said: It's time to let go of the shame.

  15. "It's one thing to tell a Confidential Intermediary NO, it's another to not respond to an email from your grandmother."
    And there again we have it... The CI is a stranger, a third party, and you are the "real deal" - family. Back in the 80s when I got annoymous mail with an obituary article in it and someone (never knew who) wrote in the margin, "This was your mother." I felt punked... I threw it away! if the sender had signed a name or the envelope had a return address maybe I would have found my brother before it was too late. Whatever... my point is that Patricia is absolutely right when she said, "It's family business and should be handled by family."

  16. While watching I was thinking, here's another adoptee from the BSE. Did the powers that be really think that all these children could be hidden forever? We're like a volcano erupting.

    I found the show very moving and thought it did a great job of covering so many adoptee/first mother issues. It showed Patricia's life long sense of feeling incomplete, her pain at having been given away and the fact that that not all adoptees end up in loving, secure homes. I thought one of the saddest moments was when Ms. Lee said she went back for her baby girl and she was gone. I, too, wished she could have gotten over her pain, shame, whatever and shown Patricia her love.

    In the past some of Oprah's shows had bothered me like the show with Ricky Martin. She did seem to glorify adoption. But hopefully now she will get it. I also feel that adoptees can be stuck in the past, too. I think that the whole issue of losing one's family and for so many of us not even knowing who they are, weighs so heavily on our hearts that it is hard to move on.

    I admired Patricia when she said she didn't go to the tabloids because this is a private family matter. I always felt adoptees had a right to know their first families because I never recognized a right to privacy from one's own child. There is a right to privacy from the world, however, and maybe by showing how Patricia handled this it will be apparent that adoptees are not searching to ruin their fparents lives.

    Hopefully, as the family moves through the process and Oprah becomes more aware, it will actually turn out to be a boon for the adoption reform movement. Can't wait to see the Oprah Winfrey show with special guests Lorraine and Jane from FMF. (audience clapping :-)

  17. Thanks, Robin,

    I'd love to be on Oprah's show with Lorraine. I'm a native Chicagoan to boot.

  18. "And yes, boy did I want Vernita Lee, Oprah's mother, to turn around and hug her daughter and cry a bit. But maybe because of the stroke, maybe because of the situation, maybe because of she has so much guilt, maybe godknowswhat--she did not. And yes, I too did see the irritation on Oprah's face as she spoke to her. Patricia just wanted acceptance."

    I think what we all have to remember is Oprah's "mom" has a "poor track record" with raising "all" of her children. She was never truthful to Oprah about her bdad( and she didn't fully raise her); and with the other two, she did a poor job raising them ( their both dead) and with the last one, she placed it for adoption.

    The LEAST the mom could have done was met the adopted child and explained WHY ( after all the bmom "kept" her first three children) but she was so selfish, that she was thinking about herself. I saw that in the interview. If you look at "pat" and "Patricia" you can see they have the same father-Oprah's mom "kept" one, but not the other...what kind of mother does that?

  19. Anonymous:

    What kind of mother is that, who keeps one and gives one away?

    A desperate woman. She was not doing a good job of raising the children she had and now she had another. A desperate woman. In her own way, I imagine she thought she was doing the best for that child.


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