Here’s some background on Vicki Polin, a crusader against sexual abuse.
Since 2004, I’ve been following Vicki Polin’s work with the Awareness Center.
She deserves to be the subject of an exhaustive biography.
She’s the best known face of the anti-sexual abuse movement in Jewish life.
Her detractors portray her as satanic. Her supporters are equally fervent.
I know many people who thinks she’s nuts. I don’t think she’s nuts. I think she’s formidable. But I can’t get my head around her 1989 appearance on Oprah.
Kitty Kelley writes about it in her new biography of Oprah. Vicki Polin is “Rachel.”
Vicki gave this story to Gary Rosenblatt (Editor of The Jewish Week) and Phil Jacobs (Editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times) in 2004 but neither of them published anything on it. I guess they didn’t think it was news. I finally broke the story on my blog on May 10, 2005 (after it was sent to me by Yori Yanover).
Broadcast on May 1, 1989, the show was titled “Mexican Satanic Cult Murders,” and during one segment Oprah presented a woman under the pseudonym of “Rachel” who was undergoing long-term psychiatric treatment for multiple personality disorder.
“As a child my next guest was also used in worshipping the devil, participated in human sacrifice rituals and cannibalism,” Oprah told her audience. “She is currently in extensive therapy, suffers from multiple personality disorder, meaning she’s blocked out many of the terrifying and painful memories of her childhood. Meet ‘Rachel’, who is also in disguise to protect her identity.”
“Rachel” said she had witnessed the ritual sacrifice of children and had been a victim of ritualistic abuse. “I was born into a family that believes in this.”
“And this is a — does everyone else think it’s a nice Jewish family?” asked Oprah, introducing “Rachel’s” religion. “From the outside you appear to be a nice Jewish girl…. And you are all worshipping the devil inside the home?”
“Right,” said the disturbed “Rachel.” “There’s other Jewish families across the country. It’s not just my own family.”
“Really? “And so who knows about it? Lots of people now.”
“I talked to a police detective in the Chicago area….”
“So when you were brought up in this kind of evilness did you just think it was normal?”
“Rachel” said she had blocked out a lot of the memories, but she remembered enough to say “there would be rituals in which babies would be sacrificed.” She later added, “Not all Jewish people sacrifice babies…. It’s not a typical thing.”
“I think we all know that,” said Oprah.
“I just wanted to point that out.”
“This is the first time I heard of any Jewish people sacrificing babies, but anyway — so you witnessed the sacrifice?” said Oprah.
“Right. When I was very young I was forced to participate in that, and…I had to sacrifice an infant.”
The phones at Harpo started jangling with hundreds of irate callers objecting to Oprah’s blithe acceptance of “Rachel’s” claims about Jews practicing devil worship. Television stations across the country — New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Cleveland, Washington D.C. — were inundated with furious calls. Within hours, Jewish groups rose up in condemnation, and Oprah’s show because a national news story. “We have grave concerns about both the lack of judgment and the insensitive manipulation of this woman, who is clearly mentally ill, in a manner which can only inflame the basest prejudices of ignorant people,” Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism told The New York Times.
Arthur J. Kropp, president of People for the American Way, a leading civil liberties organization, met with his board of directors in Washington, D.C. “There’s been a lot of concern about so-called trash television,” he said after reviewing the transcript of Oprah’s show. “She was the one who introduced the religion. I don’t think she introduced it to convey any correlation between the woman’s Jewishness and what she saw, but nevertheless Oprah did do it and that was careless.”
This wasn’t the first bad publicity Ooprah had ever received, but it was brutal because she was being criticized for offending sensibilities of race and religion, which she had always appeared to champion. It was an especially sorry position for a woman who had put herself forward as a “poor little ole nappy-headed colored chile” from the lynching state of Mississippi as a not-so-subtle reminder of the viciousness of bigotry. She now felt misunderstood by her accusers, but she also recognized that her career was in jeopardy.
“We are aware that the show has struck a nerve,” said Jeff Jacobs, then COO of Harpo Productions. He pointed out to the press that Oprah had said on the air that “Rachel” was one particular person talking about her particular situation. “And she was identified at the top of the show as being mentally disturbed,” he added, not commenting on why such a person would be allowed on the show in the first place. Recognizing the danger of a national boycott of The Oprah Winfrey Show and the potential loss of sponsors, which could spell financial ruin for everyone, Jacobs quickly offered to meet with Jewish leaders in Chicago to try to salvage the situation, but neither he nor Oprah offered a public apology. When reporters called, Jacobs said Oprah was “traveling” and “unavailable for comment.”
…Feeling battered by the bruising she was taking in the nation’s press over her devil-worship show, Oprah remained close to her condominium at Water Tower Place when she wasn’t working. Serendipitously, she happened to meet Harriet Brady (nee Bookey), another resident, in the lobby. Mrs. Brady, then seventy-two, was well known in Chicago’s Jewish community as a philanthropist. She approached Oprah to introduce herself, and then said kindly, “I think I can help you.”
Within hours she was on the phone to her good friend Abraham Lincoln Marovitz, a federal judge whose contacts extended into every segment of society. He agreed to help, and for the next week Judge Marovitz and Mrs. Brady worked on Oprah’s behalf to assemble a group of representatives from the region’s Jewish community to meet at Harriet Brady’s condominium to try to quell the raging controversy.
Oprah arrived at the meeting on May 9, 1989, with Debar DiMaio and two Jewish members of her senior staff, Jeffrey Jacobs and Ellen Rakieten. They sat down with Michael Kotzin, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Metropolitan Chicago; Jonathan Levine, midwest director of the American Jewish Committee; Barry Morrison, director of the Greater Chicago/Wisconsin Regional Office of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith; Rabbi Herman Schaalman, president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis; Maynard Wishner, resident of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago; Judge Marovitz; and Mrs. Brady.
Oprah was sufficiently contrite and vowed never again to broadcast a show on devil worship. She agreed to reach out to B’nai B’rith, which fights anti-Semitism and racism, whenever her show focused on those subjects, and she promised to exercise better judgment in selecting her guests. The two sides came together over the next three days to work out two statements to be delivered to the press, which had been covering the story nearly every day. Oprah and her executive producer said, “We recognize that The Oprah Winfrey Show on May 1 could have contributed to the perpetuation and historical misconceptions and canards about Jews, and we regret any harm may have been done. We are aware of community and group sensibilities and will make every effort to ensure that our program will reflect that concern.”
Speaking on behalf of the Jewish community leaders, ADL representative Barry Morrison said, “We were all satisfied that Oprah Winfrey and her staff did not intend to offend anyone and that Oprah was genuinely sorry for any offense or misunderstanding. During the meeting, constructive recommendations were made and there was an extensive exchange of information which led to a greater understanding of Jewish perspective on the part of Oprah and her staff.”
Not everyone was pleased with the outcome. “It’s an inadequate response to the harm that may have been done on that broadcast,” said Phil Baum, associate executive director of the American Jewish Congress. “It’s not our sensitivities she ought to be concerned about. It’s a question of the integrity of her show. This apology cannot possibly reach anything like the people [7,680,000 homes, according to the A.C. Nielsen Company] who were exposed to these statements.”
Oprah refused to make an apology on her show or publicly comment on the program or the statements, but privately she embraced her two major defenders and kept Mrs. Brady and Judge Marovitz close to her for the rest of their lives. Both were invited to all her parties, and because of them she became more involved in Jewish causes.