Oprah Winfrey broke down in tears while recalling the horrific experience of being repeatedly raped by her own adult cousin when she was just nine years old.
The 67-year-old TV mogul opened up about the lasting trauma caused by the sexual assaults that she was subjected to until the age of 14 while speaking in her new mental health series, The Me You Can’t See, which she created in collaboration with Prince Harry.
During the first episode of the Apple TV+ show, Oprah discussed her own childhood trauma, explaining that she didn’t even know what sex and rape were when her 19-year-old cousin began raping her as a child — but the experience taught her that young girls are never safe.
‘At nine and 10 and 11 and 12 years old, I was raped by my 19 year old cousin,’ she said. ‘I didn’t know what rape was. I certainly wasn’t aware of the word. I had no idea what sex was, I had no idea where babies came from, I didn’t even know what was happening to me. And I kept that secret.
‘And it’s just something I accepted. That a girl child ain’t safe in a world full of men,’ she said.
Horrific: Oprah Winfrey broke down in tears while recalling the horrific experience of being repeatedly raped by her own adult cousin when she was just nine years old
Candid: The 67-year-old TV opened up about the lasting trauma caused by the sexual assaults that she was subjected to at a young age
Little girl: From nine to 12 years old, she was raped by her cousin. Oprah has previously opened up about her rape at the hands of several relatives until she was 14
Oprah has shared details of her traumatic history of sexual assault before, revealing that she was abused by several relatives, including an uncle, up until she was 14 — which is when she got pregnant and was sent to live with her father. The baby died two weeks after she gave birth.
But her first rapist was her 19-year-old cousin, who abused her for several years. She has never revealed his name.
After the first time, she said at one public appearance, ‘He took me to an ice cream shop — blood still running down my leg — and bought me ice cream.’
Speaking in her new Apple TV+ series, she stressed why it is so important to share what happened to her.
‘The telling of the story, the being able to say out loud, “This is what happened to me,” is crucial,’ she said.
Oprah was subjected to to other forms of abuse growing up, including beatings from her grandmother and neglect from her mother.
‘The way I was raised by my grandmother and whipped at three and four and five and six years old,’ she said.
‘My grandmother, who was very harsh, like a lot of Black parents during that era, the idea of hugging and loving on your child or even allowing the child to feel seen was just not a part of her life,’ she added to Hoda Kotb on the Today show this morning.
‘But she did give me Jesus. She did give me a belief in something bigger than myself. So I am grateful for that.’
‘And it’s just something I accepted. That a girl child ain’t safe in a world full of men,’ she said
Sad: She spent the first six years of her life in rural Mississippi with her grandma, Hattie Mae, who regularly beat her
She elaborated in a passage in her new book: ‘As a young girl, I was “whupped” regularly. At the time it was an accepted practice of punishment to discipline a child. My grandmother, Hattie Mae, embraced it.
‘But even at three years old I knew what I was experiencing was wrong. I was beaten for the slightest reasons. Spilled water, a broken glass, the inability to keep quiet or still. My grandmother’s home was a place where children were seen and not heard.’
‘The long-term impact of being whupped — then forced to hush and even smile about it — turned me into a world-class people pleaser for most of my life,’ she said.
‘It would not have taken me half a lifetime to learn to set boundaries and say “no” with confidence had I been nurtured differently.’
After her grandmother died, Oprah was ‘shuttled’ between her mother, Vernita Lee, in Milwaukee and her father in Nashville.
Speaking in her new Apple TV+ show, she got emotional recalling how she was made to leave the only home she’d ever known and move in with her mother, a virtual stranger.
‘The only thing that still to this day makes me cry, six decades into life, is the recognition when I first moved to Milwaukee from Attala County, Mississippi, and had never been away from my grandmother before and suddenly I’m put in a car and sent to Milwaukee and told that “you won’t see your grandmother again and now you’re going to be living with your mother,” she said.
‘A mother whom I didn’t even know, really. Because my mother was a part of that great migration that had gone up north and left their children with the grandmothers.
In need of love: Oprah also shared her childhood feelings of abandonment and betrayal when she went to live with her mother, after spending years with her grandmother
Emotional: Oprah has spoken about about her difficult relationship with her mother before, once revealing that she chose never again to have children ‘because I wasn’t mothered well’
‘My mother was a boarder in this middle class, very light-skinned, could-pass-for- white-woman’s house,’ she recalled. ‘The first moment I walked in, instantly I knew that she did not like me because of the color of my skin. And that very first night she wouldn’t let me come in the house.
‘And there was a little porch foyer that was exposed to the street and I had to sleep out there on a sofa,’ she said.
Oprah previously recalled that the woman said ‘she was not going to have this “nappy-headed dark child,” as she said, stay in the house.’
‘And my mother, who had another child — it was the first time I’d met my half sister — did not stand up for me, did not say, “No my child has to come in the house.”
‘And in that instant that my mother said, “Ok then this is where you’re going to sleep, out here,” I knew I was alone.
‘You want me to start weeping? It’s my teachers that saved me,’ she continued, reflecting on a decades-old episode of The Oprah Winfrey show in which she was reunited with her grade school teacher, Mrs. Duncan.
In an old clip from the show, Oprah weeps as she hugs and chats with Mrs. Duncan.
‘For so many years in my life, that’s the only place I ever really felt loved,’ Oprah said in The Me You Can’t See, breaking down in tears again.
‘And it’s the reason why, for so many years, I wanted to be a teacher. To be able to give to other kids what my teachers had given to me,’ she said.
‘You want me to start weeping? It’s my teachers that saved me,’ she continued, reflecting on an episode of her talk show in which she was reunited with her grade school teacher, Mrs. Duncan
Flashback: In an old clip from the show, Oprah weeps as she hugs and chats with Mrs. Duncan
‘For so many years in my life, that’s the only place I ever really felt loved,’ Oprah said. ‘And it’s the reason why, for so many years, I wanted to be a teacher’
‘Because connection to anybody that cares about you makes a world of difference. For me it was my teachers. And that’s why I know that school is so important. Education can’t save you, but it can relieve you. And so for me, it was a big relief. And in creating value and worthiness where I felt none at home. I felt none. None,’ she went on.
‘And so I’ve always thought the reason anybody makes it is because if you just have one person that says, “I see you, I truly see you, I get you.” For me it was my teachers. Mrs. Duncan. She was my comfort, she was where I saw value in myself.
Oprah’s own experience helped her to recognize trauma in some of the students who first attended her Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy in South Africa in 2007.
‘The first two classes of the school were hand-picked by me. I went to villages and townships choosing girls who had the fire inside them to want to do better in their lives,’ she recalled.
‘But on the very first week of school I was noticing strange behaviors from some of the girls. It was like, “What’s wrong with these girls? They can’t concentrate, they can’t focus.”
A doctor explained to her that the girls were suffering from trauma, having been exposed to so much chaos, ‘the brain can’t handle to be in a place of calm and nurturing and support.’
‘I didn’t understand depression at the time,’ she said. ‘We weren’t prepared to deal with the trauma or the mental illness. The depression, the anxiety.’
Colorism: Oprah discussed moving in with her mom, who was living in a boarding house, and the ‘light-skinned’ woman who ran the property refused to let Oprah sleep in the house
While promoting both her new show and her new book, ‘What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing,’ Oprah has spoken candidly in numerous interviews about trauma from her upbringing.
Appearing on The Dr. Oz Show today, Oprah recalled a specific incident when she was beaten after bringing a bucket of water back to the family home.
‘As I was bringing the water back, I was, like, playing with the water with my fingers like that in the water and my grandmother was looking out the window,’ Winfrey said. ‘And when I brought the bucket in and I’m sloshing the bucket cause I’m a little girl, and she’s like “Were you playing in the water? Did you have your fingers in that water? That’s our drinking water.”
She continued: ‘I was like, and I said, “No ma’am” and she said, “I saw you and your fingers in the water,” so she grabbed a switch and I got a really bad whupping for it.’
The talk show host got emotional while discussing the injuries she had in the wake of the beating.
‘Later, when I put on my clothes to go to church, one of the welts from my back opened up and bloodied the dress. So my emotion now is not because I feel such deep pain about it, I just feel pain for that little girl,’ she said.
In the exchange with Dr. Oz, Oprah painted a broader picture of her upbringing in rural Mississippi, noting how her grandmother was facing her own abuse at the hands of Oprah’s grandfather, and how she still has lingering trauma about sleeping.
‘The telling of the story, the being able to say out loud, “This is what happened to me,” is crucial,’ she said
Mental health: She and Prince Harry both speak about their experiences in their new series, The Me You Can’t See
‘My grandmother and I slept in the bed together,’ she said. ‘My grandfather was in a room on the other side of the wall and one night, in the middle of the night, my grandfather gets out of bed and comes into the room and I wake up and he has his hands around my grandmother’s neck and she is screaming.
‘She manages to push him off of her and step over him. He falls. She steps over him and runs to the front door. I run out of the bed with her.’
Oprah said her grandmother began to call out for a family friend they called Cousin Henry who lived nearby.
‘Cousin Henry comes down the road in the middle of the night to help my grandmother get my grandfather up off the floor,’ she recalled, choking up as she admitted it was the first time she was publicly telling the story. ‘And after that my grandmother put a chair underneath the doorknob and some tin cans around the chair.
‘And that is how we slept every night. I’m sleeping, I always slept with, listening for the cans. Listening for what happens if that doorknob moves.’
As for her mother, she writes in her book: ‘My mother worked as a maid for fifty dollars a week doing what she could to care for three young children. There was no time for nurturing. My mother felt distant, cold to the need of this little girl.
‘All of the energy went to keeping her head above water, surviving. I always felt like a burden, an “extra mouth to feed.” I rarely remember feeling loved, which impacted my ability to experience love as an adult.’
Moving forward: She later made amends with Vernita and, in one touching 1990 episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show, Oprah gave her mother a makeover
Huge heart: Oprah helped support her mother financially after she found success as a television star, saying she felt a sense of ‘responsibility’
Oprah previously revealed that the reason she chose to never have children was ‘because I wasn’t mothered well.’
But she later made amends with Vernita and, in one touching 1990 episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show, gave her mother a makeover — and she also helped support her mother financially after she found success as a television star, saying she felt a sense of ‘responsibility.’
Though her traumatic experiences still cause her pain, Oprah said on the Today show today that she wouldn’t change anything about her upbringing.
‘I wouldn’t take anything for having been raised the way that I was,’ she said. ‘It is because I was sexually abused that I have such empathy for people who’ve experienced that.’
‘It is because I was raised poor, and no running water, and going to the well, and getting whippings that I have such compassion for people who have experienced it. And so it has given me a broader understanding and a deeper appreciation for every little and big thing that I now have.’