"I grew up in an environment where children were seen and not heard," Oprah said. "...I was beaten regularly."
She learned to read by the age of three. She spent her childhood days imagining herself as Diana Ross. And she was clever enough to manage writing a note to her teacher that would allow her to skip school. Oprah Winfrey dreamt big right from when she was a little child. But before she would ride the wave to the highest points of success in her life, Oprah had to endure some of the most nightmarish experiences that could have totally destroy a weaker person. But with her indomitable spirit, she survived it all and came out stronger and wiser.
"You’re an extraordinary person who lived through hell," talk show host David Letterman said during a chat with Oprah at Ball State University, Indiana, according to Irish Examiner. "You were not consumed, you prevailed."
With about 3,000 students listening to her, Oprah talked about the abuse that she faced in her childhood after being born into rural poverty in 1954 to a single mother, Vernita Lee. Her mother was only a teenager when she gave birth to Oprah, and she was sent to live with her grandmother until the age of six, according to The Telegraph.
"I grew up in an environment where children were seen and not heard," Oprah told Letterman, as quoted by Irish Examiner. "...I was beaten regularly."
There is one instance from her childhood that she recalls rather vividly. "I went to a well to get some water and carry it in a bucket. And I was playing in the water with my fingers, and my grandmother had seen me out the window and she didn’t like it," Oprah said. "She whipped me so badly that I had welts on my back and the welts would bleed. And then when I put on my Sunday dress, I was bleeding from the welts. And then she was very upset with me because I got blood on the dress. So then I got another whipping for getting blood on the dress."
Because her grandmother was so poor, Oprah was sent to school in clothes made of potato sacks. Once she turned six, she went to live with her mother; there, Oprah was forced to sleep on the porch by the woman in charge of the house.
Thrice she was sexually abused by people from her own family. She was just nine years old when her cousin raped her. "He took me to an ice cream shop — blood still running down my leg — and bought me ice cream," she said.
The instances of sexual abuse went on until the age of 14. "I was raped at nine years old by a cousin, then again by another family member, and another family member," she said on her show, according to The Telegraph.
The sexual abuse led her to become pregnant when she was just 14, and this was exactly the time when her mother sent her to live with her father, a strict man who completely restricted her from dating and other teenage stuff. Her father had no idea that Oprah was pregnant when she moved in with him.
The young teenager gave birth to a premature baby boy, but she lost him two weeks after he was born. This was the turning point in her life; even her father believed Oprah was getting a second shot at making something big out of her life. "I buried all of my feelings about it," she told Letterman, as quoted by Irish Examiner. "I really felt like that baby’s life — that baby coming into the world — really gave me new life. That’s how I processed it for myself."
Many years later, when she spoke to a crowd of 15,000 Australians in 2015, she recalled a reporter once telling her, "you should name the baby son who died," according to news.com.au.
Oprah told the audience, "So I have named him, I had a little boy named Canaan. I did have a son. And I named him Canaan because Canaan means new land, new life."
She felt immense "pain and shame" at the age of 14. But within a couple of years, she won herself a full scholarship to Tennesse State University. Eventually, she dropped out of college to become the youngest and first African-American female news anchor at Nashville’s WLAC-TV. In 1984, she moved to Chicago to be the host of the show AM Chicago. The name of the show was soon changed to The Oprah Winfrey Show, which became the country's number 1 talk show within a few weeks.
Her painful experiences became one of the reasons for her to be empathetic and connect with her guests on her show. "I know what it feels like to not be wanted..." she told Letterman, as quoted by Irish Examiner. "You can use it as a stepping stone to build great empathy for people... My story just helped define and shape me as does everybody’s story."