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Countdown to the last 'Oprah Winfrey Show': Oprah's favorite guest ever

May 20, 2011 |  5:20 pm

Oprah Call it the calm before the storm. In anticipation of Oprah's final week –- which will feature a trio of episodes that previews and gossip already tell us will include a pyrotechnic stadium-filling extravaganza of Hankses and Cruises and Shrivers, oh my! -– Friday’s episode was quiet, classic, streamlined Oprah: some sadness, some inspiration and a good old-fashioned (though appropriately massive) giveaway.

The episode was billed as featuring Oprah’s all-time favorite guests, though if you’d been watching the show recently, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’d already heard her call pretty much everyone who’s strolled across her stage her “favorite,” or at least her “biggest,” “most heartwrenching,” etc. That’s because as she prepares to depart her daily perch, Oprah seems compelled to let everyone she makes eye contact with know that they have had some sort of superlative impact –- on audiences, on her, on the world.

But fine. How else is the woman supposed to tie up a quarter-century of five-days-a-week conversation?

The embellishment begins to sound average because you remember that this is how Oprah has always presented her tales. She has made it her mission to offer us stories that all have exclamation points at their ends. There’s a kind of pathos in that mission: Oprah knows that no matter how satisfying the climax of a stint on Oprah’s couch, guests’ lives don’t end there. Hundreds of lost pounds return; healed people relapse; mended relationships founder; convictions become unmoored. 

There was no better illustration of that sad reality than Jacqui Saburido, Winfrey’s first guest on Friday. As a student in 1999, the 20-year-old was riding in a car that was hit by a drunk driver. Caught inside the burning car, she lost her nose, her lips, and most of her vision. Saburido appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in 2003. On Friday, Oprah said that Saburido’s exuberant refusal to succumb to despair -– epitomized by her declaration that she allowed herself to cry for only five minutes a day -– made her one of the bravest examples of inner beauty she’d ever encountered.

But this time, Saburido was far more subdued. She told Oprah that she had so far undergone more than 120 operations, and that her doctors had diagnosed her with chronic depression. “Do you still socialize?” asked Winfrey. “Do you still have the same friends?”

“No,” replied Saburido. “It’s not the same.”

Does she realize what an impact she’s had on those she’s inspired, Winfrey continued, as Saburido wiped away tears. “Really, I think I had an accident,” Saburido said dully, “and people like me and I really don’t know why.”

Winfrey attempted to pump her up, allowing, “It’s because of what it takes to get up in the morning when your entire body and face has been melted off, what it takes to have the courage to say ‘I will continue’…It’s what we love so much about your story... The last time we interviewed you, where you said you only give yourself five minutes a day to cry…I thought, ‘I never met anyone like that before.’ Did that change?”

“Yes,” said Saburido.

“You take 10 now?” Oprah tried gamely.

“No, I take more ... It’s difficult to get up when you don’t have anything to do.”

“Do you have dreams for your future?” Oprah asked.

“Yeah, I have dreams,” said Saburido. “But sometimes I forget them. The depression makes me feel like everything is wrong. It’s kind of difficult because I have this physical appearance, but inside I’m like the Jacqui I was before.”

Here, Oprah wrestled mightily to wrestle a positive lesson, deploying the “ultimate spiritual message” assessment about Saburido’s grim description above, reading it as “you are not your body.” But Winfrey’s face showed that she knew that this was a guest whose life after her time on Oprah’s couch had been less than superlative.

Next came a remembrance of Mattie Stepanek, the wheelchair-bound boy whom Oprah had met as an 11-year-old in 2001. Winfrey told the story of Stepanek, who wrote poems he called “heartsongs,” idolized Jimmy Carter, and believed, as he’d told Oprah, “I have a purpose.” She played the clip of one of his appearances on her show, when he very sweetly replied to her question about whether he was doing better: “I’m doing not better health-wise; I’m doing very well excitement-wise,” and clips of Stepanek’s 2004 funeral, at which both she and Jimmy Carter spoke. Carter said of the boy, “We’ve known kings and queens, known presidents and prime ministers, but the most extraordinary person who I have ever known in my life is Mattie Stepanek.”

Stepanek’s mother Jeni appeared on Friday’s "Oprah," revealing that a committee has formed to investigate the possibility of her son becoming a saint.

The end of the episode was saved for the person Oprah had decided was her favorite guest of all time ever -– a practically random designation in the Land of Superlatives, but one that Winfrey was committing to full-throatedly.

“She’s my favorite because she symbolizes everything I believe the 'Oprah' show stands for,” Winfrey said in her introduction. “Her story encapsulates the essence of every lesson we’ve shared over the past 25 years: hope, your thoughts create your reality, gratitude, it doesn’t matter where you come from, keep reaching for your dreams, and above all, you have the power.”

The Most Favorite Oprah Guest Ever To Infinity was Tererai Trent, a woman who grew up in a hut in a village in Zimbabwe, barred from the education she desperately yearned for. She taught herself to read and write by doing her brother’s homework, but was married off to a physically abusive husband at 11, and was the mother of three at 18.

When an aid worker told her that her dream of an education was a possibility, and at the encouragement of her mother, Trent wrote down a list of dreams and then went about making the list come true. In 1998, she moved to Oklahoma with her husband and five children; three years later she received a bachelor’s degree in agricultural education; her abusive husband was deported, and two years later she earned a master's degree. She is now a PhD, returning to Oprah’s couch on Friday as a doctor.

It was easy to see why Oprah had selected Trent as the pinnacle guest: In its own way, Trent’s tale of breaking a cycle of discrimination, poverty and abuse is a mirror of Winfrey’s own path, one that she has spent all these years wrestling to make sense of.

“It’s my favorite story because it speaks to the power of what an individual can do,” Winfrey said. “It doesn’t matter where you come from, it doesn’t matter what your mother did or didn’t do... It speaks to the power of being able to manifest your dreams.”

This is the  "Secret"-style thinking that Oprah has espoused often in recent years -– the kind that tells you that good fortune comes to those who send out good vibes. It is pernicious because, of course, for so many of Trent’s contemporaries back in Zimbabwe, or Winfrey’s peers in Mississippi and Milwaukee, it certainly does matter where you come from, or what your mother did or didn’t do.

Good thoughts do not, alas, reliably beget good fortune, and those who have amassed great fortune are not, in a lesson we learn daily, always so good.

But Winfrey’s reliance on this belief system is understandable, as she has gained a level of influence unimaginable to millions of hard-working, talented people, especially those struggling to overcome hurdles such as race, gender, poverty, emotional damage, physical abuse and aesthetic discrimination. It can’t just be that she is more talented, has more drive; that would depress the hopes of others. It can’t be that she got lucky; that would be too random.

A guest like Tererai Trent, whose story is just as exceptional, in its own way, as Winfrey’s, and offers a reflective foil for her own confusions about how to frame her identity. Which led, perhaps, to the episode’s final big surprise, one that should have come as a surprise to no one. Asked what her dream was now that she’d become a doctor, Trent told Oprah that it was to build a school in Zimbabwe.

And so Oprah -– giver of cars and houses and cashmere sweaters -– gave Trent a school, or rather the money to build one.

“I’m donating a million and a half dollars.” The school, Oprah explained, would educate thousands of Zimbabwean children. 

“We’re going to build a school together!” Oprah shouted at the weeping, shocked Trent. “We. Are. Going. To. Build. A. School!”

This is not the first school Oprah has built. Winfrey’s South African leadership academy for girls, ballyhooed at its founding as a kind of salvation for African women, has been riddled with scandal and misfortune.

And here was that lesson again, the one about how the ends of stories –- the ends of "Oprah" shows –- are not really ends at all, just steps down the next often rocky roads, a lesson that is perhaps the perfect reminder as we prepare for next week’s explosive, celebratory exclamation mark of a farewell.

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-- Rebecca Traister

Photo: Oprah in January 2011. Photo: Chris Pizzello / Associated Press.

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