The Tragic Story Of Oprah's Childhood

Oprah Winfrey's career has been almost impossibly successful. At a time when women in broadcasting were largely limited to reporting local news and weather, she defied the odds to create a top-ranked talk show, launch her own production company and magazine, and distinguish herself as an actress in films such as "The Color Purple" (via Biography). Oprah's net worth of $2.6 billion also makes her the first Black American female billionaire. 

But defying the odds is nothing new to Oprah, who has been battling against adversity her whole life. Oprah Gail Winfrey was born on January 29, 1954, in Kosciusko, Mississippi, to Vernita Lee and Vernon Winfrey, who were just 18 and 20 and didn't stay together. Oprah was initially raised on the farm of her grandmother Hattie Mae Lee, while her mom moved north to find a home and secure work (via LiveAbout). 

Her grandmother helped nurture her early love of reading, but she was also an abusive disciplinarian. In Oprah's book "What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing," she explained, "I was beaten for the slightest reasons. Spilled water, a broken glass, the inability to keep quiet or still. ... The long-term impact of being whupped — then forced to hush and even smile about it — turned me into a world-class people pleaser for most of my life" (via Daily Mail). It also kept her from feeling in control over her body, an issue that would leave her vulnerable to even more abuse.

Oprah faced trauma, pain, and a teenage pregnancy

When Oprah was six, her grandmother became ill, and Oprah was sent to live at her mother's home in Milwaukee, where she was made to sleep on the porch by the boarding house owner. Her years with her mother also exposed her to even more horrifying trauma. As she has recalled, at just nine years old, Oprah was raped by her 19-year-old cousin. As time went on, a family friend and an uncle would also abuse the vulnerable young girl (via New York Post). 

Unable to seek help or confide in anyone, Oprah acted out by becoming rebellious, fighting with her mother, staying out all night, and being "wild," as she put it. She described her behavior at the time as "promiscuous," not understanding that she could set boundaries over her body. Young Oprah also didn't understand the consequences of being sexually active. As a result, she became pregnant at age 14. 

Her mother's first reaction was to take her to a girls' detention home. "I remember having a moment thinking, 'Now, I am officially a bad girl' ... and thinking to myself, sitting there waiting to be processed, that 'I really don't belong here,'" she recalled in an Oprah's LifeClass segment. As luck would have it, the home didn't have room for her, so Oprah's exasperated mother sent her to live with her father instead.

Oprah was finally in a stable environment, but her ordeal wasn't yet behind her.

Oprah Winfrey made the most of her second chance

Afraid to reveal her condition to her father, "I hid the pregnancy until my swollen ankles and belly gave me away," Oprah Winfrey wrote in a 2007 issue of O Magazine. The same day she told her dad the truth, she went into labor. The baby, a boy, died within a week, never having left the hospital or having been held by his mother.

Being so young, Oprah didn't really understand what had happened or feel any connection to the baby at the time. But her father, a former military member, knew that his daughter now had more options than she would have had if she had been a teen mom. "When that child died, my father said to me, 'This is your second chance. This is your opportunity to seize this moment and make something of your life,'" Oprah said in a LifeClass video. "And I took that chance. And understood for myself ... that now I know better, so I can do better." And the rest is history.

Many years later, during a one-woman show in Australia, Oprah not only found the courage to talk about the son she lost, but also to reveal a very personal detail (via "I had a little boy named Canaan. ... And I named him Canaan because Canaan means new land, new life."

If you, or anyone you know, have been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).