Dear Oprah, I forgive you, but…
By SHERRY AMATENSTEIN, LCSW
I believe your heart is in the right place. Otherwise the plentitude of crassness and platitudes masquerading as life-changing truths I witnessed at the Newark, New Jersey stop of the eight-city tour billed as “Oprah’s The Life You Want Weekend” would have smashed my heart into shards.
Despite your occasional blunder (i.e.: Lindsay Lohan’s reality show), I’ve admired you for decades. Still, I only bought tickets to this “transformational” event as a birthday gift for my uber-Oprah-loving friend Ileen. A therapist, my typical Saturday is spent seeing patients.
Alas, I wasn’t a good enough friend to spring for the $999 it would have cost to allow Ileen to shake your hand, so instead of VIP treatment we got $137 seats.
Just gaining access to our nosebleeds proved an ordeal. The staff manning the entrances to the 19,000-seat arena didn’t read the memo about acting Oprah-esque to the spiritually salivating throngs eager to rub souls with their idol. Indeed, Ileen and I were denied entry as I’d printed out the receipt instead of the ticket. This though our seat locations and price paid was clearly delineated.
Here is the point where I ask your forgiveness, Oprah: we snuck in.
Once inside the sprawling Prudential Center, you’ll be relieved to learn the staffers were more what one would expect from a Harpo production. Ileen is ill and, without fuss or protest, we were granted seats in the easier-to-hike-to disability section – perhaps a $177 value.
Like a concert headliner, you began Friday night’s billed two-hour session fashionably late, regally sweeping down a Queen-worthy staircase – a vision in purple ruffles. You kept referring to our “weekend” together though it was scheduled to end 4 p.m. Saturday.
Another memo missed by Ileen and me: Rather than lighting matches and holding them aloft, the audience waved special bracelets that changed color when something particularly bedazzling occurred. Bedazzling moments ranged from one of the “Weekend Trailblazers” (thankfully not Dr. Phil) who accompanied your tour being introduced, to you sharing something particularly powerful, such as “Aha!’
The first and only evening of our weekend together, you commanded the stage alone – giving a shout-out to BFFs Gayle and Stedman, sitting ringside. The stories of your road from little Orpah into Oprah were truly inspirational. I hadn’t known the entire cannon: the childhood sexual abuse, becoming pregnant at 14, losing the baby, breaking into television at 19, figuring out you were meant to pound the emotional pulpit, rather than deliver breaking news… Brava. I was touched.
My drift away from Oprah-doxy began when you shared the story of Stedman once standing you up for 20 minutes while you slaved over cooking your first ever goose. (Full disclosure: It might have been duck; my memory’s not 100 % on this point.) Although Stedman brought home tomatoes and cucumbers to make up for his sin, you wouldn’t let him off the hook. He vowed to never be late again. He kept the vow.
As a couples counselor this seemed disingenuous – never? In the real world people don’t automatically and forever change after the initial Aha. Change takes effort, determination, boundary-setting and reinforcement of why it’s important you make this change. As in: Oprah I will work at never being late again and a slow, not always steady progression to never or at least hardly ever being late again. It felt more truthful when you laughingly shared that Stedman once said you are not a nice person. That honor belongs to Gayle.
True, the pop psychology catchphrases you belted that catapulted people to their feet as their bracelets blinked a brilliant blue were dead on: You are responsible for the energy you bring into your space; Every moment you have the choice to open up; Every person wants her voice to be heard and acknowledged…
However, these catchphrases were often accompanied by a dangerous refrain: This weekend will change your life.
Unless the crowd could take you home in their pockets (versus an Oprah book, tape, hoodie, tote bag or iPhone cover, available for sale at the pop-up mall called O Town), come Saturday night each person would have to – ahem! – Be her own change without the cult-ish support that accompanies a mass love-in.
Evidence of how hard and tedious the work of lasting change can be? Two women in the disability section loudly bickered over a seat (while several seats remained empty) – preventing some of my neighbors from hearing the:I’ve come to understand what really matters in this life mantras you and the Trailblazers were touting a football field away.
Figuring out what does really matter to us was the subject of one of the three exercises outlined in our orange Oprah workbooks. We were instructed to fill in a pie chart of our lives rating which areas have more or less importance. When your completed pie chart flashed on the Jumbotron screens, Family had smaller slices than Occupation or Contribution to the World.
The Trailblazers melded personal stories with great, peppy advice like Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert cajoling us to become heroes in our own lives.
Ileen wished there had been a panel with you and your cohorts, allocating time for a Q and A with the audience. I agreed. We also agreed the event felt more suited to those who had not done much inner work; ‘beginners’ at spiritual voyaging could hopefully find more value.
Most of the crowd remained rah rah throughout the lengthy breaks when disco-blaring DJ KISS owned the Oprah-less stage. In a smaller arena perhaps the music would have been softer, more suited to meditative work. That is mission impossible, ditto genuine teaching, in an arena mobbed with 19,000 students.
The lunch break was promoted as 90-minutes to allow for visits to O Town. Learning there was a projected 30-minute break between Iyanla Vanzant’s post-lunch talk and the final exercise, Ileen and I opted for girl time for the remainder of the day versus SUPER GIRL time.
Oprah, you are a remarkable and charismatic person. But even the Great and Powerful O uttering truisms like Don’t be a victim in your own life goes only so far without offering at least starter tools to examine why one has stayed in the victim role for so long.
Let me clarify: Tools other than an opportunity to buy hundreds of dollars worth of books, videos and online courses with Trailblazers, and to watch upcoming Own programming.
Along with take-home goodies from O Town, I wish you’d offered the proviso that The Life You Want Weekend alone can’t change your life.
Oprah, you are a glorious beginning, not The Final Answer.
Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW is a therapist, author and adjunct journalism professor living in Long Island City, New York. Her website is www.marriedfaq.com.