Countdown to the last 'Oprah Winfrey Show': James Frey, Sarah Palin and the Meditation Room
Here’s why Oprah has been in business for 25 years: Because just when you’re banging your head against the wall in anticipation of a second hour with discredited “A Million Little Pieces” author James Frey; just when you’re realizing that the episode has started and she is rebroadcasting clips not just from their conversation five years ago, but from the part of the interview that aired yesterday; just when you are wondering if it mightn’t be easier to tell your editor that the cable was broken than to try to come up with something to write about this installment of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Winfrey comes through with something mind-blowing.
In this case, deliverance came about 10 minutes in, via an anecdote that, like most of Monday’s episode, a) had nothing to do with James Frey, b) had everything to do with Oprah, but which c) –- bonus! -- had something to do with Sarah Palin.
Winfrey and Frey had, finally, settled into a new part of their conversation, in which the talk show host was addressing Frey’s assertions from Monday that when he had appeared on Winfrey’s show in 2006, he’d been led to believe that he was not coming on to be scolded, but to be part of a conversation about truth.
Winfrey didn’t discuss this directly with Frey, but instead showed never-before-seen footage from her OWN network’s reality show about never-before-seen behind-the-scenes footage of the making of the 25th season of "The Oprah Winfrey Show," which reminded me of last weekend’s New York Times Magazine piece in which Sam Anderson wrote a memoir about the memoir of the guy from Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir.
Oprah’s version had her seated on the floor with her producers, kibitzing about which memorable guests to bring back. When producer Sheri Salata began recalling how Frey had not realized what he was in for that day, Oprah asked “What did he think he was coming on for?” The expectation, Salata replied, was that he would come on and tell the truth, but “within the context of forgiveness and redemption,” which matched Frey’s recollected account from Monday.
Back in her actual interview with Frey –- who for most of this episode did not need to show up in person –- Oprah confessed that like him, she had not watched the episode in question until the night before. Then, mysteriously, Winfrey began to talk about a moment at which she had an epiphany about Frey and their confrontation, and how it had all begun in 2008 with an inaccurate news story about how Sarah Palin was going to be on the show, despite Oprah’s vow, after her endorsement of Barack Obama’s candidacy, that she would not host any of the presidential candidates.
The fake report had provoked pressure from sponsors, and here’s where Oprah got classic, in a minute-long monologue reproduced below:
I was sitting in prayer, meditation, trying to get myself still, because as you know, when you have all these different voices coming at you, I was just trying to get to a place where I could really hear what was the right thing to do. I have a little meditation room in my house, and I had literally just said, “Tell me what the right thing to do is," because I’d listened to everyone else’s opinion and I was wavering in my own opinion. And I got up and went in the shower and getting ready to go to work and the voice inside myself said, “Do not make the same mistake that you made with James Frey.” And I started crying in the shower, thinking, “Well, what is that? What is that?" And I literally said, “What is that? What is that mistake?” And the voice inside myself said, “Do not rule from your ego.” And I made a decision in that moment. I got out of the shower, I called my assistant Libby and I said, “Find James Frey. I have to speak to him today.”
Oh, Oprah. All I can say is: What is that? What is that? What is that? What it is is Oprah at her self-revelatory, self-helpy, mumbo-jumbo-est best, plus a whole bunch of extras, like the introduction of Oprah’s Little Meditation Room, the Voice Inside Oprah’s Self, and Oprah’s Assistant, Libby.
When considering the many contradictions embodied by Oprah Winfrey, one of the most difficult to reconcile has been the level of influence and respect she commands with the wackadoo crap that so often comes out of her mouth.
Recall, for example, that the purported context for this nutty rumination began with her support of Barack Obama for president –- support that helped Obama win the game-changing Iowa caucus. Oprah is literally a maker of presidents.
Less loftily, but still notably, she is also a woman about whom Tyler Perry has said, in a clip aired at the end of Tuesday’s episode, “When you speak, people’s lives change, and thank you for being an instrument that God used.” Also aired on Tuesday was a farewell testimonial from Jane Fonda, who said that even though Oprah is quitting her show, “You’re still going to be our angel, our inspiration, our mama, our sister, our daughter, who has come to mean the world to millions and millions of us.”
So bolstered is Winfrey by the adulation and respect she elicits, so affirmed is she by staff and acolytes, and so committed is she to the truth, weight and import of her own internal reckoning that she has completely lost a filter between inside thoughts and outside thoughts. She has no self-consciousness about hyperbole or silliness, makes no bones about her affluence, her idiosyncratic spirituality, or the personal melodrama taking place in her shower, let alone about the fact that not one thing about James Frey, her ego, her tears, her prayer or the voice inside herself had anything to do with Sarah Palin.
None of this matters. Oprah can say almost anything and still be adored. As I speculated Monday, the fact that her encounter with Frey was one of the very few exceptions to this rule may be what prompted her to devote two episodes to obsessing over it. But mostly, part of Winfrey’s appeal now comes from her utterly un-self-conscious willingness to let it all hang out and her blithe confidence that it will not dim anyone’s estimation of her.
It’s not confession, it’s not self-flagellation, and it’s not self-celebration, exactly. It’s all of those things combined, the experience of watching a woman believe that she is offering utter transparency, and that what she’s being transparent about has, by nature of it being hers, an extremely high value. It is, in its own way, as generous as it is mockable.
The fealty she inspires and the testimonials she elicits (and regularly airs!) offer proof that Oprah has helped people to come to terms with their hang-ups, their grief, their weight, their addictions, their prejudices; she helps people feel like they know her; she helps people by opening up enough so that they –- OK, today, I –- can have a good laugh at her expense. What does she care? She’s Oprah.
Immediately after her shower monologue aired, there was a promo for her remaining episodes that included comparative clips from the farewells of Mary Tyler Moore, "MASH," "Cheers," Johnny Carson and Walter Cronkite.
“Where will you be?” the promo asked.
Oh, I will be here. On my couch. Hoping Oprah tells me more about her meditation room.
-- Rebecca Traister
Photo: James Frey and Oprah. Credit: George Burns / Associated Press /Harpo Productions