Greensburg Daily News
David Letterman and Oprah Winfrey first appeared together onscreen May 2, 1989, on Letterman’s NBC show “Late Night” (Wikipedia).
For the next 16 years afterward, according her own admission (www.cbsnews.com/8301-505263_162-57554640), Winfrey “distanced” herself from Letterman, because, in her assessment, the host was unable or unwilling to take control when the in-studio audience became disrespectful during that 1989 appearance.
The two finally made amends in 2005 when Winfrey appeared on Letterman’s current CBS show, “Late Night, with David Letterman.” Super Bowl commercials and other onscreen appearances followed.
Monday night, at Ball State University’s Emens Auditorium, there was no hint of such antipathy, as Winfrey appeared with Letterman at his alma mater as part of the comedian’s ongoing Distinguished Professional Lecture and Workshop Series.
In fact, Monday night’s appearance, which started late, but ran 45 minutes over its allotted time, played largely like a therapy session, with Winfrey playing the patient and Letterman the therapist.
The characteristically irreverent Letterman certainly didn’t lack for his trademark deadpan humor, but he frequently shed it for a much more serious tone as he chatted with and interviewed Winfrey.
The conversation started with Winfrey’s birth and formative years in Kosciusko, Miss., being raised by her hyper-religious, abusive maternal grandmother, Hattie Mae Lee, in a home without running water or electricity.
“I was beaten regularly,” Winfrey recalled.
The media titan began life as an illegitimate child, the product of a one-time, after-school “hook-up” between her parents beneath a strand of Oak trees. Although Winfrey would later go to live with her father as a teenager, her parents never went out or saw each other again.
“I’ve never had therapy,” Winfrey confessed. “That’s why it’s so interesting...talking to you.”
Still, what Winfrey did have, she said, was “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” and its myriad experts and therapists over the years.
Looking back on my life, she added, I now see that regular verbal and physical abuse absolutely wipes out your self-esteem.
“That’s where my need to please came from later on in life,” she said. “You grow up wanting to make everybody else feel like they’re okay.”
The talk show titan clarified, however, quoting from an old spiritual hymn, that, “I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.”
Her early-life experiences, she explained — her “journey” — prepared her for success later in life.
Those experiences also helped deepen her empathy toward other human beings, especially toward the young girls she would encounter upon opening the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa in 2007.
“Being born and raised in rural Mississippi, which was like Apartheid America at the time I was born, 58 years ago,” she said, “...when I went to Africa for the first time, I felt like, ‘Oh, this is no different than how I grew up.’ When I went out into the villages to visit those girls — most of them being raised by their grandmothers because of the AIDS pandemic in Africa — and, you know, over half of my girls come to school and they’ve had at least six major traumas by the time they get to school. They’ve lost a parent or both parents; they’ve had brothers shot; they’ve had violence. Not to mention, you can’t come to my school unless your parents make less than $10,000 a year.”
“That upbringing in Mississippi,” she continued, “allowed me to feel the yearning — the call — that every single human being has. We all have what Joseph Campbell calls ‘the hero’s journey.’ Everybody is on a journey — the adventure of your life — to discover what your journey is. And everything that has ever happened in your life contributes to the call and to the journey.”
When asked by Letterman if she thought she’d have achieved the same level of success born under different, less-impoverished circumstances, Winfrey was adamant.
“Definitely not,” she replied, “I’m so grateful for my years living in poverty, because it makes the experience of creating, of building success, that much more rewarding for me.”
Winfrey described herself as an inquisitive, introspective kid by nature, and attributed that fact to her ability to cope with the terrible circumstances of her early life.
She then related a story from when she was four of sitting on the back porch, watching her grandmother “boil some clothes, because we didn’t have a washing machine.”
Winfrey related, “She turned to me and said, ‘Oprah Gale, you better watch me now, because one of these days you’re going to have to learn how to do this for yourself.”
“I remember seeing her through the screen,” she continued, “and feeling inside myself: ‘No I won’t.’”
Winfrey described that incident as one of the defining moments of her life and further contended that each of us experiences similar moments — most of us, like Winfrey herself, more than one.
She refused, however, to describe that moment from childhood or others like it as “grand,” instead describing as an internal voice that serves to guide everyone throughout life.
Everybody, Winfrey contended, is looking for the same thing: validation. In example, she cited her numerous interviews over the years.
“At the end of every interview,” she said, “almost all of them have said, ‘was that okay?; was I ok?’ What I have come to know, is that, that’s what all of us are looking for.”
In other words, she added, everyone needs confirmation that what they’re saying is both significant and important and is being heard; everyone wants to know: “Do I mean anything to you? Does my being here, saying what I’m saying, hold any value for you?”
A little later, the conversation turned to Winfrey’s sexual abuse by a cousin, an uncle and a family friend. That abuse started when she was nine and would later lead to teenage pregnancy.
By the time Winfrey delivered the baby — a boy — she was living with her father in Nashville, Tenn., having come close to being placed in a juvenile home by her mother for her rebellious ways.
She would never live with her mother again, and her baby died two weeks after birth.
Her father characterized the tragedy as a second chance. Although the baby’s birth was awful, he reminded his daughter that she’d now be able to continue pursuing an education and a career, opportunities that would’ve been largely closed off had she remained a teenage mother.
The eventual media superstar took full advantage of that second chance, but would never again be a biological mother.
The remainder of the evening found Letterman and Winfrey discussing racism; “intra-racism”; the prevalence and nature of sexual abuse; the burdens of success and wealth; the contrasts between Letterman and Winfrey’s lives; the early years of Winfrey’s talk show and her resounding success against the seemingly unbeatable Phil Donahue; the final years of her show; the current state of talk TV and its impact on society; karma; religion and God; and other topics.
Of belief in a higher power, Winfrey said, “I don’t know how anybody makes it today without understanding there’s a power greater than yourself. That power does not require your belief. People call it God; God is called by 1000 different names, but if you don’t know, fundamentally, that there is something bigger, greater at work in your life than yourself, then I don’t know how you’d make it.”
Near the evening’s end, the pair was visited onstage twice by Ball State President Jo Ann M. Gora for running over time. The second visit saw Gora finally ushering the two off stage and ending the event.
Contact: Rob Cox at 812-663-3111 x7011.