The media mogul recounted her own experiences with abuse, which included being raped at the age of nine, during an appearance at Ball State University, Indiana, part of a lecture series fellow chat show host David Letterman sponsors at his alma mater.
“Anybody who has been verbally abused or physically abused will spend a great deal of their life rebuilding their esteem,” Winfrey said in front of 3,000 students.
She recounted being physically beaten as a child, saying it was a cultural experience many African- American children went through. She also said was raped and molested.
“You’re an extraordinary person who lived through hell,” said Letterman.
“You were not consumed, you prevailed.”
Winfrey talked about some of the positive aspects of her life: How she learned to read before she was three, how she wished to be Diana Ross, and how she skipped school because she wrote a note to her teacher.
Description of her happy times didn’t last, though.
“I grew up in an environment where children were seen and not heard,” she said.
Letterman asked her to clarify: “You were struck.”
“Oh, I was beaten regularly.”
One such beating, she said, stuck out in vividly in her mind.
“I went to a well to get some water and carry it in a bucket. And I was playing in the water with my fingers, and my grandmother had seen me out the window and she didn’t like it.
“She whipped me so badly that I had welts on my back and the welts would bleed. And then when I put on my Sunday dress, I was bleeding from the welts. And then she was very upset with me because I got blood on the dress.
“So then I got another whipping for getting blood on the dress,” she said.
The Ball State Daily News reports that Letterman took Winfrey through each city she lived in throughout her childhood. At every turn, one story of pain after another thickened the air with emotion.
At 6, Winfrey left her grandmother to live with her mother. While there, the woman in charge of keeping the house forced Winfrey to sleep on the porch. At 9, she was raped.
“He took me to an ice cream shop — blood still running down my leg — and bought me ice cream.”
Winfrey was sexually abused from the ages of 10 to 14, when she found out she was pregnant. It was around this time that her mother took her to a detention home. Too many girls were housed in the home, so Winfrey couldn’t stay. “My mother said, ‘you are getting your ass out of this house’,” she said.
So she went to live with her father, who forbade her from dating, having sex or any deviant activity. He didn’t know she was pregnant when she moved in.
Two weeks after she had the child, it died. It was painful, she said, but both Winfrey and her father saw this as a second chance.
It wasn’t until she was in an acting workshop this summer that her emotions about the situation surfaced again.
“I buried all of my feelings about it.
“I really felt like that baby’s life — that baby coming into the world — really gave me new life. That’s how I processed it for myself.”
Even after she escaped her troubled childhood, Winfrey still faced struggles. When she went to Chicago, her supervisors said they had no chance to compete against talk show host Phil Donahue, whom she would eventually take over in ratings.
Through all of the pain and struggle, Winfrey triumphed. She was thankful, she said, for everything that had happened. “I would take nothing from my journey.
“Everybody’s looking for the same thing,” she said, that sense of ‘was I okay?’ That means, do you hear me and is what I’m saying important to you.’ Everyone is looking for that validation.
“I know what it feels like to not be wanted ... you can use it as a stepping stone to build great empathy for people.”
Winfrey remained humble when Letterman told her he was impressed with her life. “You understand that this is stunning,” he said. “Your human existence is stunning.”
“I never thought of my life as stunning,” she replied. “It’s just my life.”
Letterman didn’t accept her answer, though.
“Most people would use this life as an excuse,” he said. “You were not consumed; you prevailed.”
“I really did believe there was a power greater than myself...” she said, adding that there was nothing in her life that she would ever take back. “Everybody has a story and your story is as equally as valuable and important as my story.
“My story just helped define and shape me as does everybody’s story.”
The queen of talk also shared her biggest regret with The Oprah Winfrey Show. “The one thing I most regret is I wasn’t able to move the needle far enough on abuse in this country,” she said.
She explained that too many people still don’t understand sexual abuse is not just about the act of abuse, but about the misuse of trust and shame that follow.