She told nobody she got pregnant as a young teenager, worried that she would be expelled from school. It was "emotional, confusing, and traumatic."
For a long time in her life, even after she started climbing the ladder of success, Oprah Winfrey harbored a big secret that made her feel deep pain and shame. The world didn't know about it until a member of her family sold what she kept as her biggest secret to a newspaper in the year 1990 for $19,000.
"Only my family and closest friends knew..." she wrote for Oprah.com. "I would tell no one until I felt safe enough to share my dark past: the years I was sexually abused, from age 10 to 14, my resulting promiscuity as a teenager, and finally, at 14, my becoming pregnant."
Born into rural poverty, Winfrey had an extremely difficult childhood of being passed off from one home to another and being raped by different people as a child. One of the most traumatic of all the painful experiences she endured at the tender age was becoming pregnant at 14. "The experience was the most emotional, confusing, and traumatic of my young life. I had hoped that this matter could stay private until I was fully able to deal with my own deep emotions and feelings," she told Sunday's Parade magazine, as quoted by Orlando Sentinel.
As a teenager, she kept it a secret for as long as she could, afraid that if she told anyone she would be kicked out of school. But soon enough, her body started giving it away.
"I was so ashamed, I hid the pregnancy until my swollen ankles and belly gave me away," she wrote on Oprah.com.
At the time, she had moved in with her father, and even he did not know that she was pregnant until later. "I’d intended to kill myself actually. I thought there’s no way other than killing myself. I was just planning on how to do it. If I'd had the Internet, I might not be alive because now you can just Google how to do it," Winfrey told The Hollywood Reporter.
Although she buried her feelings about the pregnancy at first, Winfrey found herself at a turning point after her premature baby passed away just two weeks after she gave birth. "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," she told David Letterman, as reported by Irish Examiner.
By her early 20s, her career as a talk show host began, and over the years, she became a raging success and went on to become one of the most powerful celebrities of her time. But even as success embraced her, she kept the death of her premature son a secret. "I carried the secret into my future, always afraid that if anyone discovered what had happened, they, too, would expel me from their lives," she wrote on Oprah.com.
In 1990, when her family member sold her secret to The National Enquirer, Winfrey felt betrayed.
"I felt devastated. Wounded. Betrayed. 'How could this person do this to me?' I cried and cried," Winfrey wrote. The Monday morning after that, the queen of media dragged herself to work and expected to be chastised. "I imagined that every person on the street was going to point their finger at me and scream, 'Pregnant at 14, you wicked girl...expelled!' No one said a word, though—not strangers, not the people I knew. I was shocked. Nobody treated me differently," she recalled. "For 20 years, I had been expecting a reaction that never came. And I soon realized that having the secret out was liberating."
Years later, Oprah revealed on stage in front of an audience of about 15,000 that she once felt deep "pain and shame" about her pregnancy, as quoted by news.com.au. But she also chose not to shy away from the controversial topic of teenage pregnancy. She talked about how it changed her and said, "I did an interview with a reporter... and she said you should name the baby son who died. 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."