Monday, February 7, 2011

Book Notes:Oprah, A Biography, by Kitty Kelley

I walked into this book three days ago knowing only these facts:

The subjects of Kitty Kelley's works do not tend to like her--or her book very much. (It was a vague impression, I don't know where I picked it up. I don't even know if it is true.)

And about Oprah, I knew the following:

1) She struggles with her weight. I had read the book, Make the Conection, 10 Steps to a Better Body and a Better Life she and Bob Greene wrote together (with a ghost writer, I believe) and I had seen the video they made.

2) She had been molested as a child.

3) She is from the south and had lived with her Grandmother in poverty.

4) She was in The Colour Purple.

5) Her movie project, Beloved, had flopped.

6) She has a school in South Africa and there had been a sex scandal.

7) She is a very rich woman.

8) She works very hard.

I read the magazine from time to time. I have a little book called, "What I know for Sure," and I read an account of what it was like to be featured on her show by scrapbooking maven and Creating Keepsakes founder Lisa Bearnson.

And that was it. I've never read the tabloids. I was not particularily interested in Oprah so I never read any profiles or items on her specifically, except for Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk by Robyn Okrant. (which, actually, isn't about Oprah at all).

I've never seen her show. Not once.

So, I was interested in the facts of Oprah's story--where she came from, where she worked, what she had done to achieve her remarkable success. I've no doubt Kitty Kelley has all of her facts straight and every single duck lined up in a row--the phenomenal research she must have done shows in every line.

But Kelley is unsympathetic to her subject. She seems to warm to her slightly when she discusses Oprah's philanthropy, but she makes much of the fact that Oprah does her giving so publicly. Kelley quotes Oprah's Aunt, Katherine Carr Esters, saying "Nothing is wasted with that girl." And so, with that and what others have to say, Kelley takes what could be considered shrewdness and hammers away at it until Oprah's giving it looks like nothing more than a self-serving aggrandisement of herself.

It becomes relentless. Oprah's seeming preferance for telling "a good story" rather than adhereing to factual truth (a trait my Mother shares. The emotional truth is what matters, not that the event happened with this person or that one, or in this time and place or that) becomes a character flaw in the eyes of her relatives. "She's a liar," they say--and Kelley reports it without anyone offering an alternative interpretation or opinion. This sort of thing happens over and over again.

To be fair to Kelley, I suppose it is part and parcel of what she had to work with. There are plenty of people with grievences and opinions about her who would talk to Kelley. Those who may have been able to provide more balance were likely unavailable to her, either by Oprah's own wishes--and/or the confidentiality contract agreements signed by all the employees and guests of her show.

By the time I finished the book, I had a bad taste in my mouth. Kelley is very careful to present her facts as such and the opinions of others--not her own. But a book is not only what is in it, but what is not, and the resulting slant of the material is not flattering to her subject, to say the least.

I feel robbed. I, who really hadn't had anything invested in Oprah, nevertheless want to believe that people are who they seem to be. Kelley has forever cast relentless doubt upon that perception, upon the image that is Oprah: of the young girl who overcame the tremendous odds of her background and race with her gifts of intelligence, warmth and humanity to acheive worldly success. It's thoroughly modern Cinderella story. But seen through the lenses of Kitty Kelley, it is really the story of The Emperor's New Clothes.


Anne (in Reno) said...

Wow, I'm not a big Oprah fan but this seems a bit excessive. Good stuff done for publicity is still good for the people it helps. It's amazing how an unsympathetic portrayal can turn right back on the author after a while. I have heard of Kitty Kelly but never read her work, she's pretty famous for this type of biography, isn't she? I guess it pays the bills.

lsaspacey said...

And that's why the book subjects hate Kitty Kelly's books. She doesn't have a great reputation, Kelly that is.

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