Family Secrets: The Emotions Behind Oprah's Revelation

VIDEO: The talk-show host introduces audience to long-lost sister she never knew.
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For years, Oprah Winfrey has promised her viewers shocking reveals on almost every episode of her show. But none was as extraordinary, especially to Winfrey herself, as finding out she has a half-sister.

The surprise was so great to Winfrey, who met her half-sister Patricia on Thanksgiving in 2010, that she said it "shook me to my core."

But while the public announcement and meeting of the two on her show Monday seemed like a joyous union, some experts said it may be because Oprah has had a few months to warm up to her new reality.

"It's a dramatic change in a person's life," said Dr. Howard Belkin, a psychiatrist affiliated with William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich. "That shock and disbelief comes in and you can't conceptualize it at first."

Not all who are faced with family secrets accept the news right away, if ever, according to some family psychiatrists.

In fact, despite three attempts by Patricia to contact her birth mother and Winfrey's mother, Vernita Lee, Lee refused to meet Patricia.

According to Belkin, the range of emotions following the announcement depends on the person's stage in life. Often, the older a person gets, the harder it becomes to accept a family secret, he said.

"[Winfrey] may have this regret of more than 40 years of never sharing her successes with [Patricia]," said Belkin.

Family Secrets: When to Keep, When to Spill

Winfrey's half-sister Patricia, a single mother of two, had been given up for adoption in Milwaukee, Wis., by Winfrey's mother in 1963.

"I was 9 years old at the time of [Patricia's adoption], living with my father in Nashville, Tenn.," Winfrey said. "I had no idea my mother was even pregnant."

While Lee chose to keep the secret from Winfrey for more than four decades, some may choose to come clean much sooner.

"This new generation of people shares their secrets much more freely," said Mary DeMuth, author of "Defiance Texas Trilogy," a three-book fiction series on family secrets, and her memoir, "Thin Places," which reveals her own secrets. "Nowadays people are much more apt to authenticity."

DeMuth's research into family secrets led her to create a blog where people can anonymously write about their family secrets. Since its inception in 2009, the blog has had nearly 300 postings of secrets revealed.

"I think people don't heal in the darkness, they heal in the light," said DeMuth. "My hope is that people will have a safe place to share something that's been on their mind for a long time."

When it comes to coming clean, every situation is different, said Belkin. But timing is everything.

"Every parent understands the maturity of their own child," he said. "[The child] has to be able to understand about relationships, love, and the concept that sometimes loving someone means you have to let them go."

In 2002, Allison Elliott, 36, of Temecula, Calif., chose to give up her fourth child, Sam, for adoption.

"We were in a really rough pivotal moment in our marriage and with our finances, and I felt like I needed to have him but not keep him," said Elliott, who chose an open adoption so she could still maintain distant contact with Sam.

Elliott said she did not plan to have any more children, but a couple of years after the adoption, she found out she was pregnant. While her three older children know about their brother, her youngest daughter Abigail, now 6-years-old, has no idea.

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