explainer

Inside the complicated relationship between Oprah and her late mother, Vernita Lee.

Oprah Winfrey’s mother, Vernita Lee, died on Thanksgiving Day.

The 83-year-old passed away in her home in Milwaukee and has already been laid to rest in a private funeral, the family said in a statement.

Oprah is one of Vernita’s four children. She also had a daughter named Patricia Amanda Faye Lee, who she put up for adoption and later reconnected with. Her son, Jeffrey Lee, died in 1989, and her other daughter Patricia Lee Lloyd, died in 2003.

Oprah and Vernita always had a difficult relationship.

When Vernita gave birth to Oprah in 1954, she was an unmarried teen living on an isolated farm in Kosciusko, Mississippi.

As a result of her mum’s young age and inability to look after her, Oprah’s early life was punctuated by neglect, violence and sexual assault.

Her grandmother, who was her primary caretaker while her mum searched for work, would savagely beat the young girl at random.

“I grew up in an environment where children were seen and not heard,” she told David Letterman.

“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.

“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.”

When she was just six years old, Oprah was sent to live with her mum in a Milwaukee boarding house.

There, things only got worse.

She was raped for the first time when she was just nine years old.

“He (the rapist) took me to an ice cream shop — blood still running down my leg — and bought me ice cream,” she said during a speech at Indiana’s Ball State University in 2012.

She continued to be sexually assaulted for the next five years until, at the age of just 14, Oprah discovered she was pregnant.

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In response, her mum dropped her off at a detention home and left her there. Oprah would later escape and track down her dad in Nashville, Tennessee.

That’s when two things happened that changed her life forever.

First, she gave birth to a baby who passed away just two weeks later.

“I buried all of my feelings about it,” she told Letterman. “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.”

Secondly, her dad began to provide the direction, discipline and love Oprah had been desperately craving her whole life.

He introduced her to her great love of reading, making her read a new book every fortnight so she could write a book report about it.

He gave her a curfew and, most importantly, he gave her hope for a better life.

“As strict as he was, he had some concerns about me making the best of my life, and would not accept anything less than what he thought was my best,” Oprah said in her 2012 speech.

After years of hard work, Oprah was offered a full scholarship to Tennessee State University.

Just one year into her degree she dropped out to pursue a career in the media, joining the local TV station as a reporter and anchor.

It would prove to be the best decision she ever made.

At 24 years of age, Oprah would go on to host her first talk show, People Are Talking, in Baltimore, before moving to Chicago to take over a flailing half hour morning show.

That little morning show would soon become known as The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Oprah has often said she never wanted to be a mother because she wasn’t “mothered well”.

Over the years, Oprah was able to forgive her mother for the pain of her childhood and the two reconnected.

In the early 90s, Vernita appeared as a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show and received a makeover from one of Oprah’s assistants.

Although Vernita was never able to give Oprah the love and protection she needed, she always knew her daughter was special.

“I knew Oprah was going to be something,” she told US TV station WTMJ in 2007.

“I loved her the way that she loves people now.”

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