' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Oprah's mother didn't die when her secret daughter was revealed

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Oprah's mother didn't die when her secret daughter was revealed

I am not the only one who found Oprah's mother's interview and reaction to her newly found daughter, Patricia, a tad...er, difficult to watch? Turn around and hug your daughter! my mind was screaming at the TV yesterday. Apologize for not responding to your daughter's plea for confirmation and contact. At the same time, Oprah's distance and undercurrent of irritation towards her mother, Vernita Lee, was barely concealed.

So, why didn't Vernita respond to her daughter's obvious plaintive plea for confirmation and contact? She wrote, as I recall, her pastor wrote, but still no response. Why? asked Oprah. Vernita said: "Because I thought it was a terrible thing for me to do, that I had done, gave up my daughter when she was born." 

I understand that, I was thinking, but still your daughter deserved better than that. Finally, the family conspired to confront Vernita. And then Patricia could say: "I feel complete, whole."

Yes! I was screaming at the TV: she was able to find her mother because of the amount of non-identifying information that was passed on, and even if Vernita Lee couldn't bring herself to reveal the secret of this daughter, thank god she and her children found a way around that. Adoptees deserve answers no matter how far in the closet are their mothers. 

The secret of our surrendered children is a terrible thing to keep, and it has kept many a first/birth mother from accepting and meeting their children. Talk to any confidential intermediary, and that's what they hear over and over: I can't tell my other children; I can't tell my husband...I've kept this secret for so many years. 

 I feel for all the Vernita's out there, for all the closeted birth mothers, but despite their fears, everyone deserve to know the truth of their origins. Tacked on my bulletin board is an old bumper sticker someone sent me years ago that reads: "Adopted People Are Not Allowed Ancestry Because It Might Upset Somebody."*  The children of women who continue to hide behind the cloak of anonymity do not deserve to be treated like dirty little secrets. By their simple fact of existence, they are owed equal rights as the rest of us, and that includes the clear and true knowledge of whom they were at birth. Anything less is a travesty of justice. Anything less is unacceptable and wrong at its heart. Anything less is wrong.

Oprah said at the end of the program that she had a revelation about her mother's reluctance to own up to the existence of another child who was given up for adoption: her mother was still stuck in 1963, when Patricia was born. She needs to let go that shame...well, easier said than done if you have been living a lie and keeping the secret the nuns and the social workers told you to do. But when the truth did come out in this scenario, it didn't kill Vernita, and it gave Patricia the answers she wanted and needed. 

Giving all adopted people the right to their original birth certificates is a change whose time has come. though much bally-ho is made over the women who prefers anonymity, their rights should never supersede the right on an individual to know the truth of his or her origins. No adoptee--no individual--deserves any less.--lorraine 
*Orphan Voyage it reads at the bottom.


  1. YESSSSS!!!!! Thank you, so pleased this aspect has been brought our and it had to be a mother who did it.Posting a link if I may.

  2. Yes Lorraine, the segment with Oprah, Patricia and Vernita was very hard to watch.

    Of course I can't be sure since I don't personally know her, but I'm betting Vernita wasn't exactly a very loving mother to the children she raised. She seems distant, cold and not all that maternal and it wasn't just this interview. I remember seeing her interviewed years ago and had the same impression then. Oprah rarely even makes mention of her mother my impression from things I'd read here and there is that they have never really been on the best of terms.

    Now, that's unfortunate for Patricia because I'm sure she feels a double rejection because of Vernita's cold reception. Hopefully, other family members are helping her to understand that nothing is her fault while also keeping her expectations of Vernita realistic.

  3. As a reader here, I have questions.

    What exactly is adoption reform/anti-adoption activists/family preservationists take on mothers who want to keep their adopted children secrets?

    Do they or do they not exist? It seems to me that there are many who say, "show me these mothers who would deny their children",as if to say they don't exist when it comes to birth certificates and medical history.

    And now, "The secret of our surrendered children is a terrible thing to keep, and it has kept many a first/birth mother from accepting and meeting their children."

    And,"Talk to any confidential intermediary, and that's what they hear over and over: I can't tell my other children; I can't tell my husband...I've kept this secret for so many years.

    If they do exist, is there compassion for them, or a feeling disdain for them? I can't tell when reading here. Several things said here in the last few original posts have left me confused.

    It's my hope that this woman, Patricia, does not feel like a dirty little secret, because she isn't, and never was. No adopted person is a dirty little secret no matter whether their parents tell anyone about them or not.

  4. I agree with your assessment of some weird vibes being given off..that's why I wonder how much of an attribute Venetia would ever be to our cause. She does come across as robotic and now the gossip columns are claiming there is a rift between Oprah and her mother.

    I just get this visceral feeling that Oprah herself is emotionally detached from anything but anger toward her mother. I don't know if this makes sense or it's anyone else's perception, but that's my take.

  5. From what I have heard about Oprah, and this is not something I have followed closely so correct me if I am wrong, but her mother never was much of a mother to her. She left her with her grandmother for years, then took her back, then she ended up living with her father as a teen. Her parents never married. She was molested by an uncle I think, not sure who she was with at the time. Oprah had a lousy childhood. Her mother neglected her to say the least. She was no pillar of the community or mother of the year.

    I don't see why all the secrecy and shame about the surrendered daughter as this was a woman with not much of a good reputation to uphold anyhow. It is sad for Patricia, but it seems to have more to do with Vernita's personal shortcomings that were there before Patricia was born, not so much shame as just not caring.

    Everyone who searches does not find a loving mother, sad to say.

  6. I didn't get into it in the post, but yes, Oprah was raised by different people and has her own deep issues with her mother. Abandonment takes many forms.

  7. Campbell:

    I feel a combination of pity, sympathy and disdain towards first mothers who deny contact with their children who were adopted. I am sorry they can't accept their children; and THEY MAKE ME CRAZY TOO. CRAZY MAD.


  8. Lorraine, what a fantastic post! Thank you, as always, for being so supportive of adoptees and being sensitive to what some of us go through.

    Having been in a very similar position to Patricia, I can say it is horrible to have your mother ignore you as though you don't exist. I guess that's how certain mothers cope, but it seems it's hurtful--in many cases--both to mothers and to their children.

    I hope that Vernita can come to terms with what happened in 1963 and release herself from the guilt, as my mother is trying to do. It was that guilt, my mother says, that drove her to treat me so cruelly for all those years.

    Knowing that my mother considered me her "dirty little secret" spurred me to challenge that within my larger original family; I knew I wasn't and refused to be treated as such. It was hard for me to separate the rational part of knowing that I was a human being with intrinsic worth from the emotional fallout from the way she treated me, as less than human and not worthy of recognition.

    In the end, my mother has thanked me for telling the secret she couldn't tell herself. She says she feels much, much better now that there's nothing to hide. I am glad that I didn't crawl away after her repeated rejections and say, "Oh, her rights are more important than mine. I'll take her secret to my deathbed. I have a good life. That's all that counts. " Because for me, it wasn't. It wasn't for my mother. And it doesn't look like it was for Patricia, either.

  9. Thank you for this latest entry, Lorraine. You said it all so perfectly.

    I, too, don't understand mothers of the BSE who don't want to meet their children and develop relationships with them. I never kept my son a secret, although I know my mother often wishes that I'd kept my mouth shut.

    The one thing I do understand, though, is shame...and what it can do to us. It's a terrible thing, and I think it forms the core basis of why some mothers won't welcome their grown children back into their lives. To be clear, I don't believe for one second that the mothers of the BSE were ever ashamed of their babies, of their children...they were ashamed of themselves.

  10. My assessment of Vernita is just what I saw a cold woman
    who almost had her back to her daughter. Body language
    Said it all to me. I did notice that Oprah mentioned her mom had a small stroke. I guess she was trying to explain
    her mother's actions or inaction.
    I do not know how old her mom is she seemed much older
    she acted like my own mother who does not acknowledge
    exactly what pain and hurt they create by keeping quiet. My mother was 5th in a family of 10 she was raised by hard working parents who never probably had time for 10 children but that's what people did in those days. My mother will be 82 years old this year.
    I do not accept any of these excuses as a mother of 5 of
    my own including my found son. They mean so much to me and when they need me I am there. My son was a secret to my mom she knew because she was the one
    who forced the adoption. I then searched and told complete strangers this is my son. I was euphoric in. My reunion. All adoptee's deserve open records along with
    their mothers who deserve that same right as their moms.

  11. Speculating here, but I don't think their surrendered children really are these mothers' "dirty little secrets", although I can understand why they might feel that they are.

    I think these women have become their own "dirty little secrets", and that that is a part of the dissociative process which has enabled them to continue to live as if they had not gone through the process of having given birth to and relinquished their child.


  12. Thank you for posting this. I too have a very similar story. My birth mother wishes to deny my existence. My efforts to connect and learn about my history have been met with cruelty. Like many, she feels that I should be grateful for the existence that I have and have no right to any information that pertains to me. While sad, it is somewhat comforting to know that I am not alone in this fight.

  13. I never was ashamed of my son, and tell him all the time how proud I am of him and the cool things he is doing. Maybe I should get a tattoo that says "son":-) (reference to "Most interesting man in the world" Dos Equis Beer commercial). "his mother has a tattoo that says "Son"! And for me it could cover all four of them.

    Oh but for many years I was mightily ashamed of myself for giving in and giving him up. I have only recently admitted to myself how really messed up I was at the time (undiagnosed post-partum depression) which contributed to the circumstances surrounding his surrender.Shit happens. I loved and wanted my child but was in no shape to take care of him or me.

    I can see how some mothers did become their own "dirty secret". Those who disassociated. as some of us never did, could not even think of their child as another person with feelings, just part of a bad event and "bad self" they distanced themselves from in order to survive.

    That is horrible for the adoptee it happens to, and hurts no matter how it is rationalized, but I do not think any baby was ever surrendered because of who she was, as if under the same circumstances the mother would have kept a different baby, except for the sex selection and one child policy thing in China.

    For those who never even give the adoptee the chance to meet and know them, it is not YOU as a person she is rejecting, it is her "bad" self and her own shame. And that sucks and I am sorry for adoptees whose mothers are like that.

  14. Really good post, Lorraine. Your last paragraph is the clear, simple truth: everyone deserves to know who they are.

    So simple. I really wish people would finally just get it.

  15. I don't understand women like Vernita. Perhaps the fact that I'm a mother from the supposedly "open" era (one of many open adoptions that closed) factors into that. Though various members of my family, for years, attempted to keep my son a secret, threatening me with emotional cutoff to do the same, I refused (to the point of years without contact with these family members).

    It does make me think about shame, however. My family members held shame about my having a child out of wedlock and tried to get me to carry their shame. (Succeeding in so far as my feeling, while pregnant, that I came from "bad stock" and my son deserved better.)

    I can't surmise whether or not Vernita is carrying shame or is just an emotionally shut-down woman/mother. I too wanted to shake her when I saw that she would not even make eye contact with her daughter (who appears to be a woman of compassion and integrity in her own right).

    Just as some mothers who keep and raise their children or adopt children are disconnected, or even flat-out bad, mothers, so are some who relinquish. Just as some adoptive parents keep secrets from their adopted children while some are quite forthcoming, the same is true for mothers who relinquish... or simply mothers in general.

    I cannot understand Vernita just as I cannot understand an adoptive parent who keeps imperative secrets, just as I cannot understand any mother or parent who keeps a child or adult-child in the dark about his or her origins... or about anything of great importance to the child's self esteem and sense of security and connection.


  16. My birth grandmother (mother's mother) is a lot like Vernita. My grandmother had 8 children...the first 3 were raised by various family members, my mother was allowed to be adopted by another family member, and she raised the last 4. To say that she really wasn't all that interested her own children would be an understatement, although she did seem to be the most into the last 4 kids. Like Vernita, she has a rather flat affect and isn't lovey or touchy or really anything you would expect most mothers or grandmothers to be.

    When I first met her, going on 16 years ago, I took all of this very personally. I literally felt like she hated me she was so cold and distant. It really wasn't until many many years went by that I came to realize that it's "just her". That's how she is with all of her children and grandchildren.

    And actually, she and I have a very nice relationship now, esp within the last 3-4 years. She getting older, is in poor health and I think the combo of those 2 things has mellowed her some and softened her up a bit. I enjoy talking to her and I think the feeling is mutual, but it would have saved me a ton of heartache over the years if I had realized this sooner. (my mother passed away shortly after we met, so I never had her to help me realize these things)

    I really really hope that Oprah or some of the other family members are talking to Patricia about Vernita and what she is like. Hopefully Patricia can take joy and comfort in getting to know the extended family. She may also have to accept that Vernita may never show her the kind of love and acceptance she longs for..which is sad, really.

  17. And the world discovers another famous "birth mother" - Patti Smith. See this interesting blog post:

    "Just Kids"

  18. Thanks, Maybe! I went there and commented on the blog about Patti Smith, this is what I said. Perhaps someone with superior google skills can track down the poem and articles I refer to:

    I wrote:
    "Somewhere years ago I read a very wrenching poem by Patti Smith about giving up her child but do not remember the title or which book of hers it was in. I also read something fairly recently indicating the child had found her and it did not go well, but that is hazy too.

    Interesting subject. In any event, the surrendered child was not the focus of her life, although it was a traumatic experience and she seemed pretty clear that she could not have lived the life she did and wanted to had she kept the child."

  19. I thought Vernita's reaction (or rather, lack of affect) was just sad. I definitely don't feel disdain for her, even though I strongly believe that all adult adoptees deserve unqualified right of access to their birth certificates and that they should be able to contact their biological parents without any kind of legal impediment or veto.


  20. Maryanne wrote regarding Patti Smith:

    "she seemed pretty clear that she could not have lived the life she did and wanted to had she kept the child."

    An an adoptee, that is very painful to read, knowing that a child is expendable and that it is preferable to take no responsibility and give the child to strangers so that the mother can have the life she wanted. I'm certainly glad my fmother didn't feel that way.

  21. Robin, I did not feel that way, just reporting what Patti Smith said. If it cheers you up any, I went way the opposite direction, felt I deserved nothing after I gave up my son, and although I am fairly bright never accomplished much of anything. Whose fault was that? Certainly not my son, not my parents, not society. It was my fault, coping in a very dysfunctional way with a horrible choice and experience, surrendering my child. In the long run it did him no good...he did not want me to suffer for him, nor me either, nor my husband and other kids.

    I don't fault mothers who felt differently or dealt differently, even though I do not emotionally understand them. Who is to say, really, what is the "right" way for a mother who surrendered to act or feel.

    But no, I could not have been a rock star, no matter what:-)

  22. Thanks Lorraine but I guess no, I don't quite understand.

    In your "After adoption first/birth mothers are supposed to suck it up" post you say the following.

    "A while back I posited that giving up a child could be a cause of post traumatic stress disorder (http://www.firstmotherforum.com/2010/05/i-was-not-forced-to-surrdender-my-child.html and that elicited a lot of comments from some about how that couldn't be. Well, I beg to disagree"

    I guess just the possibility of mothers having PTSD is what makes me wonder how others, perhaps especially first mothers, can have disdain for or be made "CRAZY MAD" by PTSD sufferers.

    It just doesn't seem fair, or very kind, to me. Aren't you saying that these people should just suck it up? That they won't die. What other PTSD sufferers would we say that to?

    "though much bally-ho is made over the women who prefers anonymity,..." sounds so harsh to me given the state of mind you say these women may be in.

    "Giving all adopted people the right to their original birth certificates is a change whose time has come."

    I completely agree with this and think it needs to be done with fair warning and sensitivity, providing as many compassionate resources as possible for the people who are afraid and never again should parents be led to believe they'll have anonymity.

    Thanks for allowing my comments.

  23. Robin,

    When I read about birth mothers saying "I couldn't have done this or that if I had kept my baby", I think it is an attempt to convince themselves the decision was the correct one. Sort of a sour grapes response. The truth is that it is always nagging on them that they could have kept the baby AND has a successful career, marriage, whatever. For some, it is hard to admit that such a momentous act was a mistake.

    I also think that when my surrendered daughter told me "you made the right decision" (as she did repeatedly), it is a way of suppressing her loss.

    Unfortunately people don't realize how damaging it is to the relationship to say to an adult child "I made the right decision by not raising you" or to say to a mother "you made the right decision" by not raising me.

  24. Campbell: Nothing is black or white. I both have compassion for first /birth mothers in the closet but that compassion does not extend to letting them hide behind anonymity--and thus keep the sealed original birth records under their thumb, one way or another. That they can--because the legislators rely on them to keep the records closed--does drive me crazy. And that makes me angry for them as a group. Get some backbone, ladies, I want to say. You are only as weak as the secrets you keep!

    So I can both have some compassion for a particular woman, or women, and still feel angry. As I do. Since they control the game right now.

    Just like cotton growers in the South should not have had the right to say, Gee, if the slaves go free, my balance sheet will suffer...so, you know, I'm not for emancipation.

    I feel you want me to say something that I can't, or won't because...my feelings are mixed.

  25. Thank you, Jane. I agree with everything you said. And I still can't wait to see you and Lorraine on the Oprah Show :-)

  26. Thank you, Lorraine. This is my favorite of any blog you've posted yet - it captures and explains so much for those of us whose mothers still cannot speak with us. We adoptees feel that they are rejecting us when they will not acknowledge us - we feel the anger that spills out when we attempt contact as a personal attack though it is actually something else.

    I just wish you could speak with my first mother!

  27. "You are only as weak as the secrets you keep!"

    Agreed. But those of us who have had the opportunity to move into a more liberal and accommodating world than the one in which we relinquished owe it to ourselves to remember that we have been fortunate in some respects.
    I don't think it's necessarily that we are 'stronger'. It's also possible that we have had more access to support systems of one sort or another than Vernita and others like her.
    I also don't believe that shaming people even more than they have already been shamed works as a rallying cry. It could shut them down even more.


  28. Bob: and everybody:

    What I hope is that some of those first/birth mothers find this blog and others and it helps them find the courage to meet the children they surrendered to adoption.

  29. After so many years the silence and the secret become a part of you. Breaking out of that is hard and some will never have the strength to do just that. I have never walked in this womens shoes and will not judge her. I have lived with my own pain and know that we all cope with it in our own way. I can't imagine having to make the first steps to reunion on national television. It had to be vey painful. I wish her and her daughters well and hope that she is able to see that the truth can be very freeing.

  30. Tryingtoheal said "I wish her and her daughters well and hope that she is able to see that the truth can be very freeing."
    I'm *so* with you there, as I know are Lo and Jane and the regular commentators on this forum.

    I would like to propose a new metaphor to apply to the women who seek to remain anonymous, one which is conceptually different (indeed rather the opposite) from the worn and damaging "hiding in the closet" cliché.
    It seems to me that, for such women, the consequences of opening adoption records and restoring original unaltered birth certificates to all adopted adults is more comparable to being released from a prison of the mind, a prison in which they've been incarcerated by a judgmental society that has finally come to realize how harsh, hypocritical and wrong-headed it was to put them there.
    In fact, they are not being "outed". They are being liberated.
    Of course some mothers will be more reluctant than others to step out of their cells and continue to cling to the myth of their "privacy".
    They will need special support and understanding until they feel confident enough to stand tall again, as they always deserved.


  31. Just a thought, but it seems to me that there is a difference between "coming out" and meeting your surrendered child in private, where you can deal with your emotions with a certain amount of dignity and in front of 30,000,000 virtual strangers! It is one thing to fall apart in your own living room and another thing entirely on national tv...I couldn't do it....

  32. I think Vernita showed that she regretted giving Patricia up. She did try to go back for her. And who knows? Maybe the powers that be kept them apart. It sounded from the story as if Patricia was still available. I think Vernita has not only shame but a tremendous amount of guilt (which is not exactly the same thing). I'm not excusing her coolness towards Patricia, she certainly could have given her a great big loving hug, but reunion is certainly different when it will be seen WORLDWIDE not just kept within the family.

    How especially tragic, too, when Vernita did this for money. Well, I don't think in the long run money was going to be a problem. Ahem. Reminds me of actress Melissa Gilbert's story. She was the seventh child of married parents and they relinquished her because they couldn't afford another child. If only they knew they had a child star on their hands. It's so sad to make these life altering, lifelong decisions when one never knows what the future holds.

  33. Just a comment:

    I don't believe Vernita left her daughter to be adopted "for the money," but so she could get "off welfare." There is such a huge stigma attached to taking welfare checks, and to be able to work and not simply collect a government dole was her aim. My first error in the initial blog has been corrected.

  34. PS to last comment, re Sandy:

    I thought about that too--we were not shown the moment of "impact" of the reunion between mother and child. Yes, we all wanted to see that physical embrace, but it didn't happen.

    BTW: My piece on Vernita and all this for USAToday should be up on line tomorrow, Sunday, Jan. 30th. I'll be posting a link at a new blog Sunday morning but intrepid types will probably be able to get it earlier than I get up.

  35. Vernita had already met with Patricia and admitted to being her mother before the show was put together.
    She also knew she was going to be 'on Oprah' and so must have had some idea what to expect.
    I do not consider that she was being "outed", at least not in any regular sense. Who knows, maybe in spite of what her flat affect seemed to convey, this was her way of trying to make some kind of amends.

    I just wish she could have exhibited a little emotion for Patricia's sake. Her lack of responsiveness to her lovely daughter was sad to watch, so I can only imagine how it felt to Patricia.
    I did wonder if Vernita was medicated - and can't help imagining an off-camera scenario with Dr. Oz equipped with an endless supply of anticoagulants, defibrillators and white-coated nursing assistants all at the ready!


  36. I have listened and watched several interviews with Vernita and I am convinced in my spirit that she was always powerless and at the mercy of more powerful people. It is easy to judge a poor black uneducated woman with children who was homeless. My mother was the same and in some ways I know if it were not for free education my life would be the same. I was ignorant and I had no talent but I sent my own children to University and I helped my sibling to help their children, The only crime I see here is a country that mis treat black people kept them pig ignorant and slavery that taught us to accept abuse and abuse others. Stop making this poor woman out to be something she is not, Even today she continue to be silent. She has no eloquence or speak and maybe some form of learning disability. LEAVE VERNITA ALONE or the very dead will speak. You are all liars and misinformed when will you all learn that the media is a liar. The lady said she loves her daughter just the way she loves peoples and by God who gives more millions and gifts and laughter and attention, Oprah's heart is so big. Oprah will feel the love of her mother but it will not feel the way she wants it because everything will loose its meaning A poor powerless black woman who was not educated and like a lamb to the slaughter she was pure. She did not even realised what was in Oprah's heart. It was clear to me how Oprah blamed her mother for what slavery did to her and other poor black people if you all had eyes to see. Vernita like my mother was Black women without education poor. All that happened to her happened to me and thousands of black women as a legacy of slavery. Oprah was gifted and educated with a good command of the English language and if you can speak write be academic you have an edge in the world. If you have the gift of communication or sciences or trade you can be successful in this world. Education is the key to reducing violence in our homes and communities. I still believe with all the wealth that black people have we are still not doing enough to lift up the black race investing in schools, hospitals and safer housing. We need the finger to be pointed at the right people the government. to do more for black children. Oprah did rise because she was educated and she was loved by her black mother and father. Oprah rose to give millions away But very little to black people. Oprah need to understand she was born with a brilliant brain and if she was not fed properly as a child she would not have that brain today. To Oprah I say your Mother is in Heaven and there is nothing you can do about it.



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