Reprinted from "The Gospel According to Oprah" with permission of Westminster John Knox Press.

Saint Augustine would make a great talk show guest. His Confessions stands as a fourth-century memoir of his life makeover through God's spiritual fitness program. Augustine says that confession is therapeutic. It alleviates depression and empowers the weak. Hearing about "past errors"--Augustine was probably a party animal before his repentance and makeover--is also helpful to others. Confessing and listening strengthen the person who confesses, as well as his or her listeners.

The Oprah Winfrey Show is renowned as a place of confession. Oprah talks about her own "past errors," guests tell their life stories to inspire or to offer cautionary tales. Fans say they appreciate that Oprah is an open, nonjudgmental listener as she hears from a wide range of guests. Her interview subjects have ranged from ex-presidents to ex-prostitutes, from convicted child molesters to such moral heroes as South African archbishop Desmond Tutu. Oprah's guests have confessed pedophilia, rape, murder, infidelity, addictions, physical abuse, and all manner of crimes and misdemeanors.

The October 1, 2004, show, "I Shot My Molester," illustrates Oprah's mix of materials and guests to get her point across. Real-life stories from two guests are shown; then the show shifts to promote the movie Woman Thou Art Loosed, based on a novel by popular preacher Bishop T. D. Jakes, who drew the material for the novel from his experience counseling abused women. Jakes also plays himself in the film. "How does coming forward help the women?" Oprah asks the pastor in her interview. Finding out you're not in isolation helps, says Jakes, who, like Oprah, turned experience into a cautionary tale.


Secrets are told for a number of reasons--to confess to doing wrong, to unveil a wrong done, to repair a harm, to seek help with a hidden problem. On the show "Confronting Family Secrets," which aired November 12, 2003, a man who acknowledged molesting his sister, a filmmaker, tells why he agreed to participate in a documentary she made about her abuse. "I decided that by not speaking that I would be contributing to the culture of silence that pervades this issue, and that is wrong. That needs to be addressed," he says. "Nothing changes in America until it is spoken about," says Jakes on the October 21, 2004, show, "Sexually Abused Women Come Forward."

The September 21, 2004, show, "Secret Lives," features two gamblers and one shoplifter, all women, and Terry Schulman, a former shoplifter who is now a therapist working with shoplifters. On the show, Oprah can play devil's advocate, posing questions that a skeptical person might ask--"I don't understand why this is an addiction"--and eliciting information that others in similar circumstances could use to face their secrets. Two guests say they wanted their stories to serve as cautionary tales. "I want to get the message out that you don't have to live in shame and secrecy," says Alice, a shoplifter. "If you're involved in something like this, reach out and tell someone," says Anne, who embezzled from the Catholic high school where she had worked in order to support her gambling habit. Secrecy harms the one harboring the secret, as well as those directly harmed by the behavior. Fear of being found out, a need for dishonesty that becomes chronic, and shame compound the original wrong. Keeping something secret also makes it impossible to repair harm. Disclosure is a step toward changing the situation for the better for wronged and wrongdoer.

True confessions

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  • Besides opening an avenue for help, confession unburdens the soul. In the June 2002 0, The Oprah Magazine, author Francine Prose writes, "I was in the third grade when I first discovered the way that coming clean could make the soul feel freshly laundered." The evocative words echo scriptural language about purification: "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow" (Ps. 51: 7). Catholics put this psychological dynamic to work in the sacrament of penance, commonly called confession.

    The "mission"--the unifying theme--of the June 2002 magazine is "true confessions." In "Here We Go," a preface that introduces each month's themed articles, the woman who has heard thousands of televised confessions writes, "While a certain freedom can come with public revelation, I've learned that the most important confession anyone can make is not on TV or in the limelight. It's in those quiet, private moments when we all take on one of the most difficult challenges--confessing the truth to ourselves." The feature "Something to Think About"--which includes provocative questions intended to prompt self-reflection, on a page that can be torn out and saved--begins: "Think of confession as life's strategic opening move. It clears the air, draws you closer to others, frees up creative thinking, leads to inner peace."

    The "0 Calendar" for the month, another regular feature, is filled with quotes about confession ("True confession consists in telling our deed in such a way that our soul is changed in the telling of it," from Maude Petre, an English Catholic writer of the early twentieth century) and suggested activities ("Schedule regular times for unburdening with a spiritual advisor, counselor, therapist, or trusted friend"). A series of stories on aspects of confession include life coach Martha Beck's advice on when, what, and to whom to confess. "Perhaps our secrets struggle to be revealed because they know that confession can perform a miracle....It can turn our worst mistakes or tragedies into beacons of hope for others," Beck writes.

    In another article, after an argument with her husband, writer Winifred Gallagher interviews four professionals--three clergy and a research psychologist--and her own mother, married for fifty-six years, about confession and contrition. Gallagher concludes, "Confession reconciles us to the fact that this is not a perfect world and we are not perfect people....I was moved by the sacred imperatives of forgiveness and reform and by the notion that something good can come from our misdeeds."

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  • Hearing

    The act of telling requires a listener. "Practice open listening," advises the June 2002 "0 Calendar." Confession is good for the soul in part for the acceptance that it can offer. It means being heard. Psychotherapy is effective when it provides catharsis--a clear sense of emotional relief from a burden, deliverance triggered by disclosure. "Coming forward releases something, does it not?" Oprah asks pointedly on the October 21, 2004, show, "Sexually Abused Women Come Forward." On that show she interviews three sisters who were all molested by their father, a Methodist minister. She also suggests a reason for keeping secrets: Have you kept this secret becausee you were afraid of rejection, of not being loved? These are simple words, easy to relate to, easy to assent to.

    Empathy and listening confer a kind of power on the listener even while the listener extends something to the speaker, namely, a sense of being heard. In the October 6, 1998, show, "Working with Emotional Intelligence," guest Daniel Goleman, author of the best-selling book Emotional Intelligence, tells Oprah that people want to be heard and understood. Oprah says they want to be validated. "And for years, when people would say to me, 'Why do you think people come on TV and tell the most unbelievable-- it's because nobody ever listened to them," Oprah tells him and viewers.

    Listening has power. It is a mark of respect and acknowledges someone's existence and experience. Oprah talked about her fundamental belief while accepting the first-ever Bob Hope Humanitarian Award at the 2002 Prime-Time Emmy Awards. "The greatest pain in life is to be invisible," she said. "What I've learned is that we all just want to be heard. And I thank all the people who continue to let me hear your stories, and by sharing your stories, you let other people see themselves and for a moment, glimpse the power to change and the power to triumph."

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