Everywoman: A Review of Oprah by Kitty Kelley by J. J. Phillips
Oprah: A Biography
by Kitty Kelley
Crown Publishers, New York, 2010
When I read about The Shack, a recent spiritual stealth best seller by the son of white Christian missionaries to New Guinea, in which God is a fat black woman who lives in a shack amid a lush flower-filled meadow – a sassy mammy figure who dispenses wisdom in dialect and cooks up a fine mess of soul food pottage – my first thought was that Oprah Winfrey, who claims a special relationship to God (and the Kennedys), surely must have snapped up the rights with an eye to making a film that she could produce and star in. But despite the fact that becoming a movie star is about the only abiding ambition she hasn’t achieved (“When you mention great actresses, you’ll have to say my name: ‘Meryl…Oprah’, ‘Hepburn…Oprah’.”), she’s apparently taken a pass. That’s a shame because it would be the perfect vehicle for her, especially now that she reigns as America’s postmodern, glammed up Ur-mammy and object of cargo cult-like wonder and veneration.
Given our nation’s history, it is no happenstance that the mammy figure is deeply ingrained in our national psyche. (It is also no coincidence that Oprah first named her Montecito estate “Tara II.” Mammy rules that plantation.) Even into the new millennium, ‘post-racial’ 21st century America has a primal need for a National Mammy to assuage its all-too palpable racial anxieties, and Oprah has become our enduring Psychic Mammy. However, though she may be a larger-than-life creature in more ways than one, and someone who courts stereotype as much as she transcends it, Oprah Winfrey is undeniably sui generis, and the creator of a huge, phenomenally successful corporate empire, built from nothing by the force of her imagination, personality, enterprise (and white backers): an empire whose entire corporate substance consists of a cult of personality – her personality – and which shares in many respects attributes of old satraps and modern dictatorships, including but not limited to its fanatical obsession with secrecy, obscenely conspicuous consumption, and equally obscenely conspicuous displays of charity.
Kitty Kelley’s recently released biography, Oprah, offers a riveting, exhaustive, and biting account of Winfrey’s contentious life and rise from what Winfrey describes as a childhood of grinding poverty where she was “jes’ a po’ little ole’ nappy-headed colored chile,” a bareback pig rider with only cockroaches for pets (claims disputed by her relatives) – to her present day status as an international superstar, arbiter of culture, politics, prosperity, pathos, bathos, spirituality, sexuality, truth, lies, fiction, fashion, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, pecan pie…
By now, the details of Winfrey’s life as depicted in Kelley’s book and elsewhere are well known and easily accessible so there is no need here to reiterate particulars. Worthy of note, however, is the backlash against the book, which began even before it was published; and though predictable and fierce – one does not like to know one’s gods have clay feet – it has nonetheless been telling. Not only did many potential sources refuse to speak to Kelley out of fear of retaliation, but once the book was published, that same fear kept her pretty much shut out of top network television interview venues. Oprah addicts (in the main middle and working class Caucasian women), her minions and sycophants of various ethnicities, as well as run-of-the-mill star-fuckers, well-educated liberal white women (and men) with GWTW complexes, and anyone fearful of incurring her displeasure, all closed ranks and roundly condemned Kelley and her biography. However, the criticism was for the most part shallow, spread with a broad brush, and larded with smug moralizing: dismissing the book out of hand as being of suspect veracity, nothing more than scandal mongering and pandering to prurient sensibilities.
Typical of this sort of amusingly indignant posturing is Janet Maslin’s April 12, 2010 review in the New York Times. After derisively declaring that Kitty Kelley’s one claim to fame is that she writes “Gotcha!” journalism, in order to discredit Kelley, Maslin jumps into a mosh pit of her own making and plays a pathetic game of gotcha, straining at a gnat to swallow a camel by rooting through all 500+ pages of the book finally to rise bloodied but triumphant and wave before the reader, as if it were the head of her mortal enemy on a pike, a discrepancy between two citations regarding the total number of interviews Kelley conducted, then trumpet her hard-won victory: “Goodbye to the claim that Oprah is accurate in every detail,” a claim of absolute perfection that Maslin did not source and which I find nowhere in the book or jacket copy, nor do I find it implied therein. From there Maslin descends to further censorious inanities.
Those supposedly high-minded moralists who dismiss this biography as beneath serious consideration and would accept nothing other than fawning hagiography forget or are heedless of the fact that whether or not the substance of this book is “trash” or “trashy” (a subjective evaluation), like it or not, it is the stuff of Oprah’s life – and the study of individual lives, ordinary and extraordinary – bumps and all, as well as the study of popular culture, contemporary and historical, is a primary source for our knowledge of many aspects of existence. Furthermore, Winfrey has insinuated herself into national and international politics and policy. She has become a presidential power broker, influenced legislation, and used her personal travails and bully pulpit to great advantage in the areas of civil rights, women’s rights, education, domestic abuse, substance abuse, woo-woo spirituality, personal growth, and the like. Internationally, through her South African school and other endeavors she exerts sometimes calamitous influence within various spheres of activity in that country and elsewhere in Africa. And as a public figure who draws from her own experience as the source for many of her causes and concerns, the old radical feminist battle cry, “The personal is the political,” is an apt characterization of her life; and it is therefore not only legitimate but obligatory to scrutinize those aspects of her personal life which interconnect with her public words and deeds, including her parentage, sexual orientation, and close relationship with the man some regard as her prize gelding and beard.
One person’s trash is another’s treasure: the kitchen middens of antiquity yield invaluable artifacts revealing what the world was like in the past; ancient as well as contemporary graffiti, old rogues’ lexicons, palace memoirs, all tell us much about history writ large and small, the individual psyche, and society. The Tatler tattled. One needs Suetonius as well as Tacitus. We could not do without St. Simon’s memoirs of the court of Louis XIV or John Burchrd’s fly-on-the wall observations of Pope Alexander VI. Whatever one thinks of Oprah Winfrey or Kitty Kelley, this book is a fascinating and indispensable window onto contemporary life on many levels.
In addition, there is much to be learned by reading this book as an exposition of and meditation on the complexity and indeterminacy both of biography and autobiography, the construction and deconstruction of identity by oneself and by others, and as a source for studying how multiple, competing narratives – including Kelley’s – vie for canonical status. After all, Oprah is a woman who, when called to account for tinkering with the facts of her life, defended herself by stating “The truth is boring. People don’t want to be bored.” In presenting Oprah’s literal and figurative shape-shifting identities, in cataloging facts, falsehoods, contradictions, rumors and allegations, even as she brings many aspects of her subject’s life into sharper focus, Kelley adds additional layers of complexity and ambiguity to the person who is Oprah Winfrey. The fact that this book raises as many questions as it answers is not a shortcoming, as some suggest, but is entirely reflective of a life that is still very much being actively lived.
As Oprah ends her daytime talk show, in anticipation of her occultation she has been escalating cargo drops to her worshippers at a dizzying pace. At this writing, hardly a day goes by, it seems, without some new and completely mind-blowing act of largesse being visited on one or another of the faithful and even on large groups, resulting in grotesquely orgiastic/orgasmic displays of gratitude from recipients, and making her appear evermore a creature not of this world (though many of these gifts are not provided by her personally, but by commercial enterprises willing to trade product for exposure).
She recently flew a large group of non-celebrity devotees on the trip of a lifetime to Australia on a plane piloted by actor-dancer-Scientologist John Travolta, as she took the Oprah Winfrey Experience to the Aussies, who were reportedly desperately counting on her messianic visitation alone to invigorate their flagging tourism industry. In a cargo cult-like gamble on the hoped-for boon, millions of government tourism dollars were spent to host her visit, and reportedly, the Sidney Opera House was to be temporarily renamed the Sidney Oprah House. Not all Aussies were pleased; and such a bad pun should live and die in private.
Ironically, cargo cults as we know them, in which a prime motif is a divine airplane bearing material riches from the gods, originated not far away from Australia in Melanesia and Micronesia, among dark-skinned, Stone Age, tribal people, in response to first contacts with technologically advanced Caucasians. (A primary god of the John Frum cult is sometimes envisioned as an African American GI who, after arriving by air, took up residence inside a volcano.) Now it seems that in some respects the tables have been turned.
Though Oprah is ending her daytime talk show, she has inaugurated her own cable network, so her public career is by no means at an end. Nonetheless, after reading Kitty Kelley’s Oprah, one dearly wishes for a team of celestial steeds and a golden chariot to appear on the set at the end of her last show and loft her up to dat ole Shack in de sky nestled among mashed potato clouds and pecan cow pies in Color Purple meadows.