Oprah Vu: A Fable Too Far
Oprah Winfrey’s recent “incident” in a Swiss handbag shop, a story which is quickly falling apart -- and sounds suspiciously like an earlier racist incident she reported during a European shopping spree nearly a decade ago (but more on that later) -- comes after the television icon spent the last twenty years promoting an embarrassingly large number of authors who have turned out to be fabulists.
While it's laudatory for Oprah Winfrey to have started a book club for her talk show's fans, a gesture that harkens back to television's great middlebrow era, the choices of titles promoted under her name have certainly had a fair number of authors who have later been debunked for cooking the books.
The Listverse Website has a collection of "Top Ten Infamous Fake Memoirs," three of which were promoted by Oprah, including Forrest Carter's The Education of Little Tree, which USA Today described thusly in 2007:
First published in 1976, The Education of Little Tree was supposedly the real-life story of an orphaned boy raised by his Cherokee grandparents; the book became a million seller and sentimental favorite. In 1991, the American Booksellers Association gave Little Tree its first ever ABBY award, established "to honor the 'hidden treasures' that ABA bookstore members most enjoyed recommending."
But suspicions about Carter, who died in 1979, began in his lifetime, and were raised significantly in the early 1990s, not long after the book won the ABBY. Carter was identified as Asa Earl Carter, a member of the Ku Klux Klan and speechwriter for former Alabama governor George Wallace who wrote Wallace's infamous vow: "Segregation today! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!"
"'Little Tree' is a lovely little book, and I sometimes wonder if it is an act of romantic atonement by a guilt-ridden white supremacist, but ultimately I think it is the racial hypocrisy of a white supremacist," says author Sherman Alexie, whose books include Ten Little Indians and the young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a nominee this year for a National Book Award.
"I am surprised, of course, that Winfrey would recommend it," says Lorene Roy, president of the American Library Association. "Besides the questions about the author's identity, the book is known for a simplistic plot that used a lot of stereotypical imagery."
While it's explicitly a work of fiction, that same comment could be said about the mid-1990s novel version The Reader, by German law professor and judge Bernhard Schlink. In 1999, according to Wikipedia, it made (but of course) Oprah Winfrey’s book club list. A decade later, it was adapted into a big-budget Hollywood film starring Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, and Lena Olin. Its selection by Oprah's book club handlers is a curious one, considering that the book and movie essentially served as an extended apologia for Germany's descent into barbarism under National Socialism.
In a post here a few years ago, I described the film version as as a sort of pedophilic version of The Night Porter with the genders reversed, then attempts to excuse the former SS guard character played by Kate Winslet for not knowing she was condemning Jews to death because she’s illiterate.
Can you say metaphor, boys und girls? I knew that you could. But as Ron Rosenbaum writes, in a spot-on review of the film at Salon in 2009:
Indeed, so much is made of the deep, deep exculpatory shame of illiteracy—despite the fact that burning 300 people to death doesn’t require reading skills—that some worshipful accounts of the novel (by those who buy into its ludicrous premise, perhaps because it’s been declared “classic” and “profound”) actually seem to affirm that illiteracy is something more to be ashamed of than participating in mass murder. From the Barnes & Noble Web site summary of the novel: “Michael recognizes his former lover on the stand, accused of a hideous crime. And as he watches Hanna refuse to defend herself against the charges, Michael gradually realizes that she may be guarding a secret more shameful than murder.” Yes, more shameful than murder! Lack of reading skills is more disgraceful than listening in bovine silence to the screams of 300 people as they are burned to death behind the locked doors of a church you’re guarding to prevent them from escaping the flames. Which is what Hanna did, although, of course, it’s not shown in the film. As I learned from the director at a screening of The Reader, the scene was omitted because it might have “unbalanced” our view of Hanna, given too much weight to the mass murder she committed, as opposed to her lack of reading skills. Made it more difficult to develop empathy for her, although it’s never explained why it’s important that we should.
Using extensive and fairly believable make-up effects, the film depicts Winslet’s heavily aged character spending decades in a prison cell rather than confess to her illiteracy. At the film’s climax, after teaching herself how to read — and keeping with the metaphor of the film, presumably beginning to understand the crimes she was involved in -- Winslet’s character hangs herself from the ceiling of her prison cell, after first climbing on top of a desk containing the books that she had taken out from the prison library.
As Rod Lurie wrote at the Huffington Post, the Reader’s coda adds one final insult on top of the the rest of its facile metaphors, all designed by author Bernhard Schlink to excuse his fellow Germans of their guilt:
The hollowest scene is the one I am sure was intended to be the film’s most redemptive. A grown up Michael goes to see a survivor of the very church burning Hanna was involved with. She lectures him about the camps and refuses the money Hanna has willed to her (though she accepts the tin the money came in). The beautiful Lena Olin plays the survivor. She is well dressed. Her New York apartment is large and gorgeously furnished, her art collection on display.
In the scenes preceding it we see Hanna. She has nothing. She is in bad health. She commits suicide.
So, the SS representative in the film ends up pathetic and sad and, by the way, not guilty of the crime for which she was sentenced.
The lone representative of the survivors is haughty and glamorous — a near perfect (and negative) stereotype of the wealthy European Jew in New York.
Guess whom the audience can relate to more?
Then there was Oprah's on-air grilling of author James Frey, after Oprah had endorsed his alleged confessional, Million Little Pieces. In 2006, CNN reported that Frey "admitted he lied and embellished events about himself and other characters in his best-selling book about substance abuse and recovery," causing Oprah to pull her support for Frey's Million Little Pieces:
"I made a mistake," he told Oprah Winfrey during Thursday's show. "I made a lot of mistakes in writing the book and promoting the book."
Pressed if he lied or made a mistake, Frey acknowledged more.
"I think probably both," he said.
Winfrey, whose endorsement of "A Million Little Pieces" turned it into one of the top-selling books of 2005, retracted her support of the author, saying she felt "conned" by him. "It's embarrassing and disappointing for me," she said.
CNN reported Oprah challenging Frey under the headline "Oprah to author: 'You conned us all.'" The same could be said about yet another fabulist Oprah supported even more wholeheartedly. As Christian Toto asked in 2012, while Breitbart.com was busy debunking wide swatches of another fabulist's past, "When Will Oprah Apologize for Obama's Lies in 'Dreams from My Father?'"
Winfrey will not stand for lying in print. So why is she so silent about "Dreams from My Father" and its famous author?
President Barack Obama's 1995 memoir, we've learned in recent days, is chock full of "lies and serious exaggerations." Thirty eight to be exact.
And few celebrities embraced Obama's 2008 presidential campaign with the fervor Winfrey did. So does Winfrey feel "conned" as she was with Frey's confession? Will she publicly chastise the president for his serial falsehoods?
Presumably, it was a rhetorical question, considering that Oprah went all-in back in 2008 to support Mr. Obama's bid for the White House, despite the potential for alienating half of her audience.
Which brings us to Oprah's recent incident while shopping in Switzerland, which we'll discuss right after the page break.