The fascinating woman married to Bill Cosby reveals what helped her heal after their son's tragic murder, why she's stood by her husband for nearly four decades—and how she emerged from her darkest year to find joy.
You don't just meet Camille Cosby—you experience her. She exudes the kind of splendor attendant with royalty. Even hearing her name—Dr. Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby—makes you think, I want to be like that.
Diana Ross was the first woman I wanted to be like. I was 10 years old, and she—hips swinging, hair flipped—was among the first black women on television. When I was in my twenties, the wise Dr. Maya Angelou brought clarity to my life's lessons. In my thirties, I named Camille Cosby my "Sheba"—a woman who, like the Sheba in Nikki Giovanni's poem ["Poem for Flora"], inspires imitation.
The sitting room in Camille Cosby's Manhattan town house is a picture book of her life: beloved paintings—some of her husband, Bill, and their now deceased son, Ennis—in a stunning art collection; fresh-cut flowers, one of Camille's favorite things; and Shaker furniture that Bill surprised her with one year. You half expect her home to be familiar, because after years of hearing America's favorite father say "my wife, Camille," you must know who she is. And maybe you know a lot: She raised four daughters in addition to her son. She is business manager to Bill, whom she met on a blind date nearly 40 years ago and married when she was just 19; a philanthropist, who in 1988, with her husband, gave Spelman College $20 million, the largest gift ever given to a black school; and a producer, who brought us the Broadway hit and movie Having Our Say , the story of two century-old black women.
When Camille enters her sitting room, we embrace. She wears her 56 years as if she created age. Her silver-gray hair, which she has grown out from her close-cropped style, frames her face perfectly. Nothing about her-comportment would tell you that just over three years ago, on January 16, her only son, 27-year-old Ennis William Cosby, was murdered on a desolate road near a Los Angeles freeway. Or that in the brouhaha surrounding Ennis's death, she and her husband became embroiled in an extortion case in which 22-year-old Autumn Jackson claimed to be Bill's daughter.
In my more than 25 years on the air, I have interviewed hundreds of women, but today, in my first interview ever without a camera, I feel nervous. Cameras represent comfort for me; the immediacy of a live interview evokes the kind of energy that fills space. On a Saturday afternoon at the Cosbys' town-house, I sit with just a tiny tape recorder, prepared to experience the essence of Camille—as serene and comely as always, but inside, a changed woman.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Camille Cosby
Note: This interview appeared in the May/June 2000 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Oprah: When I met you, I remember feeling, "I want some of that." Not so much to look like you, but to have that energy that spoke to me of your womanness. Are you aware of your womanness?
Camille: I am more aware of it now. I became keenly aware of myself in my mid-thirties. I went through a transition. I decided to go back to school, because I had dropped out of college to marry Bill when I was 19. I had five children, and I decided to go back.
Camille: Because I didn't feel fulfilled educationally. I dropped out of school at the end of my sophomore year. So I went back, and when I did, my self-esteem grew. I got my master's, then decided to get my doctoral degree. Education helped me to come out of myself, to come out of the home, because I had been raising my children. Not that that is a bad thing; it is the most difficult job I have ever had. But that was just one part of my womanness. I had to fulfill myself in other ways, to pursue my interests, to know that I could do many things.
Oprah: What was it about you that didn't allow you to settle for being Mrs. Bill Cosby? Because there are lots of women who would have been happy with what that brings.
Camille: I don't know exactly what it was, except that for me, integrity is important. For me friendships are important, family is important, and it is a blessing if we can have monetary benefits. That's wonderful, and I love it. But I have to have the security of people who really care about me, and me about them. I want to be surrounded by people who have integrity. And, of course, my name is Camille, not Bill.
Oprah: Was the education to make yourself smarter? Did you feel that you had been "faking it"?
Camille: Looking back on those years, I don't think that I thought I was smart. I knew I was a good mother, but I didn't think that I was smart in terms of having something to say if Bill and I were seated with a group of people who were busy doing their different things. I always said, "My husband is the public person. He is the one who has something to say." I never felt I had anything to contribute, something that people would want to hear.
Oprah: Did you ever feel you were living in Bill's shadow?
Camille: I never felt overshadowed, but I looked up to Bill. He is seven years older than I, and he has always had a maturity, even when he was 26, when we married. So I respected his wisdom and his knowledge....
My life changed drastically when I married Bill; life changed for him too. Shortly after we married, his career was catapulted by [the sixties hit TV show] I Spy. So all of a sudden, we were out there, and I had so much to address, as Bill did. It was quite a beginning for two married people. As I look back, some of it is rather surreal. I think I was overwhelmed by all of it.
Oprah: What was the worst part about that time?
Camille: When Bill started I Spy around 1965. That was during the civil rights movement. Bill was the first African-American to have a leading dramatic role on television, and there was pressure on him to do certain things.
Oprah: To be the spokesperson for blacks?
Camille: That's right, and many other things that go along with that. Also, unbeknownst to us, when Richard Nixon became president, he had put Bill on his enemies list. Prior to the revelation of that, we were harassed. Our phones were tapped. We had the FBI at our house and visiting him at the studio.
Oprah: Why was Bill an enemy?
Camille: Because he had rejected a couple of Nixon's requests. That was all it was. And when that enemies list was released after Nixon resigned, we said, "This is why." It was a horror during that time. We were audited four times in one year.
Oprah: So fame was a double-edged sword?
Camille: Yes. It was a real awakening to what was going on in this country politically and sociologically. It made us grow up very quickly, and it was difficult. If Bill had made critical statements about the treatment of African-American people, he would sometimes go out and do a concert and his venue would be half full. Someone would plant information in the newspaper that he didn't like whites, for example. All of this was going on in the beginning of our marriage.
Oprah: I was in your kitchen once, whining to you and Bill about handling fame. I had the disease to please, and you said to me, "Honey, just wait until you're 40. All of this will change. You will let it all go. It will not be a threat to you anymore." How did you know that?
Camille: At 40 you become more self-assured. You realize that men don't look at you as a toy any longer; they don't flirt in the same way. And if they flirt, it is because you are really looking good. It's the real deal. Everything becomes real after 40. I'm now in my fifties, and my tolerance level for nonsense is zero. I know I'm going to be something else when I'm 60.
Oprah: So your tolerance for nonsense disappears?
Oprah: And the need to please others?
Camille: Out the window. You realize it is a waste of your time, because the older we become, the busier we become. We become busier with things we really love to do rather than being busy with other people's stuff.
Oprah: Do you have greater clarity about what is important to you?
Camille: Absolutely. Also, you know you don't have time to accomplish everything, because you're getting older, so you want to stay on course with what you want to do.
Oprah: What is most important to you, Camille?
Camille: My family: my husband, my children, my mother—my father's deceased now—my brothers, my sister. I can't imagine functioning without them. I really can't. Because after our son was murdered, it was the most crucial time in my life in terms of feeling their support. All of us were traumatized, so we had to support one another. But after I came out of that fog, after everything had settled, I realized more than ever how important family is and how no matter what we do in terms of work, we cannot put work ahead of family.
Oprah: How long were you in the fog after Ennis's death, and was it really a fog?
Camille: It was a fog in the sense that it was surreal. I couldn't comprehend this. It was horror, and I couldn't understand why this had happened. I had always taken great pride in protecting my children. I spoke to Ennis the night before he was killed and asked him to be careful about driving on the freeway in Los Angeles. So it was almost intuitive for me that something was about to happen. So then I felt bad that I didn't stop him in some way, but I couldn't. I was here; he was out there.
Oprah: Did you sense that something was going to happen, or were you just a mother being cautious?
Camille: A mother being cautious. But I must have felt it, because I said it to him. Those were the last words I said to him.
Camille: Yes. "Be careful, Ennis." Because I had just been in Los Angeles, and there were problems on the freeway. And I said crimes were being committed on the freeway. So I said, "Ennis, just be careful." I even asked him not to drive my Mercedes, but he did. You see?
Oprah: That was your car?
Camille: That was my car. But I knew a young man would want to drive a fast, sporty car, so I rented another car for him... because, frankly, I was more concerned about the police dealing with a young black male driving a fancy car than I was about someone else bothering him. So when it happened, the only thing that I could think about was catching this guy. I wanted that murderer more than anything else in the world. The LAPD and I were joined at the hip.
When he was caught, I had to wake up and see how traumatized the family had been. Then I put my energy into helping them. I realized that Bill, as strong as he is, felt totally helpless because he couldn't do anything to fix this. I couldn't do anything to fix this, either. It was done. It has taken the whole three years for all of us—Ennis's sisters, his mother and father—to rebuild ourselves. And during that period of rebuilding ourselves, we learned to communicate differently with one another.
Oprah: How so?
Camille: In a deeper, more meaningful way. We learned to not rush through things as we talk to one another. To say what we really mean. To spend more time with one another. To show our appreciation for one another. Not to just rush through a day and take it for granted that a person will be around, because that might not be true. Our daughters, who were just doing their youthful stuff, grew up. And each of them said, "Okay, I have to make changes within myself."
Oprah: The world watched Bill return to work after a couple of weeks. Did you feel any resentment?
Camille: No. I understood that perfectly, because that was his way to cope with his grief. I also opened my mind to the fact that we all had to deal with it in our own way. I even gave space to our daughters to do that. I said, "To find your way to deal with-this, you have my support, but I'm not going to project myself onto you."
Oprah: What were you doing with yourself, Camille? Because there were reports that you were sedated. When I read that, I said, "I would have to be sedated."
Camille: No, I was not sedated. I have taken a holistic approach to life for many years, and I have never been sedated. So that was a lie, which I responded to. I was very disturbed with the media, too, because they were saying all kinds of untrue things and sensationalizing their reports.
Oprah: And using you. That's what disturbed me. I thought, "This was her son, too."
Camille: Yes, yes. Thank you for that.
Oprah: The media made it "Bill Cosby's son."
Camille: That's right. But more than the nonsense about me, I was disturbed that the media did not report that the killer had a history of racial prejudice. Before killing Ennis, he was in a juvenile center for stabbing a black man he didn't know. Then he was released, and a short time after that, he killed our son, Ennis. And he used the word nigger several times, which came out in the testimony before the grand jury and the jury. And many [members of the] media refused to print the word nigger; they substituted that word with black and African-American, because that sanitized the whole thing.
Oprah: You and the family didn't go to the trial until the verdict. Did you want to see the killer?
Oprah: Did you ever want to confront him?
Camille: Even when I was there and I looked at him, his face was just not defined for me. Even now, I have a hard time bringing his face into my memory. I sat beside one of his relatives.
Camille: Beside. It's kind of hazy, in a way. Bill and I thought it was important to show up at some point, but we didn't want to be there each day, because the trial would have been about us.
Oprah: A circus.
Camille: A circus. We wanted the focus to be on what it was supposed to be on. But we didn't want the jury to think that we weren't concerned, so we decided to show up, but at the end. Although my son was killed—our son was killed—I don't believe in capital punishment. We asked for life. I really had to struggle. I had to say, "Our son was shot by this man. Should it be an eye for an eye?" And I couldn't say in my conscience that I wanted to be responsible for the death of someone else, despite what he had done to our son. But life in prison—I would not have settled for anything less than that.
Oprah: Wasn't it the tipster—a person who had been with the killer shortly after the shooting—who led the police to the murderer?
Camille: It was. The tipster led the police to a hat containing a strand of hair that the DNA test proved to be from the murderer.
Oprah: Has the killer ever tried to contact you in any way to apologize?
Camille: Never. I prefer he doesn't.
Oprah: Was there relief when the killer was caught?
Camille: A lot of relief. But then there was the reality of just dealing with one another, seeing each other's pain. Parents never think they will survive their children, unless a child is ill. But I know now that anything is possible. You cannot take life for granted; you cannot take your loved ones for granted. And when something like this happens, you have to allow yourself to live through the pain of it. It is the only way that you can heal.
I jumped into work. I jumped into a movie I was producing with my partner, Judy James, Having Our Say.... On each anniversary of Ennis's death, I was always working. This past January was the first time I didn't do that. I'd started back in June. I'd said, "Now I am going to take this time for myself." I did not work for six months. I didn't do anything except walk around, be introspective, look at the sky and whatever. You have to live through the pain before you can become comfortable dealing with the memory of the person you lost.
Oprah: Were you afraid to live in that pain because it was so horrible?
Camille: I was afraid. I was afraid to really deal with it. But I did. And I'm glad that I did. I'm stronger because of it.
Oprah: You say "I did." But do you still work at it?
Camille: Yes. Every day I work at it. This is not an easy thing. But it is becoming less painful as time goes on. Another thing I found out was that as a parent, you don't know everything about your children. When Ennis died, I had no idea he wrote poetry. He had written tons of poems that I found in his possessions and that other people sent me. I read one when I did a speech not long ago. And he was quite a poet.
Oprah: Didn't he write a poem about his sisters?
Camille: That's right. And then he wrote an article about a warrior woman; it was about me. He perceived me to be a warrior woman. I didn't know he looked at me like that. I guess he just saw me fighting for him, being his mother. I didn't know he had affected so many people's lives.
Oprah: Wasn't he creating a school for dyslexics and children with other learning differences?
Camille: He was. But I was looking at him as my son. He'd come in here and want some food, you know? "Mom this, Mom that." I was not really looking to see how much this person had been so generous and so developed in a way I never knew. I hadn't seen him as a man. It was interesting to learn so much about him, and I'm glad that I have, because it helps me a lot. It also helps me to think that Bill and I did a pretty good job. You know? That we didn't cheat him.
Oprah: I called Bill during that horrible time, trying to make him feel better, and he made me feel better. He said, "Our son lived a beautiful life. He had a full and wondrous life."
Camille: There were small children whom Ennis had spent time tutoring. He'd take them to basketball games because they were struggling in school. I didn't know he was giving so much of his time.
Oprah: I read that to get his degree, Ennis was required to work with a little boy for a year. But Ennis spent three years with the child.
Camille: That's right. That's the son we had. And that makes me feel good.
Oprah: Is that how you get through the pain? Because some people who read this will have lost a child, and they may think that they will never have another happy moment.
Camille: It is an individual thing. Not everyone can afford to take off six months. I know that. But it is important to deal with that pain. [Psychiatrist] Alvin Poussaint, a dear friend, once said to me, when my father was ill, "Camille, you are going to have to go through the pain. It is the only way you are going to heal. Go through the pain."
Oprah: When you say "deal with it," does that mean you take off six months and cry all the time?
Camille: No. It means not being afraid to think about the person. Not being afraid to even think about your mistakes relative to that person. Not being afraid to feel the loss. You know? Just let go of those fears, and whatever emotions come—yes, you're going to cry—let those emotions surface and just deal with them. Don't try to stuff them.
Camille (continued): Also, don't stay in bed. Because during that time, we received a lot of letters—which I'm just now beginning to read, because I couldn't read them at the time—in which mothers who had lost a child wrote that they couldn't get out of bed. You've got to get out of bed.
Oprah: Even if you don't know where to go?
Camille: Even if you don't know where to go. You've got to start. Of course, it helps if you have your family's and friends' support. But you must proceed. You must continue to live.
Oprah: I've heard extraordinary stories of women who can go into a prison and visit with people who murdered their children. I have never been able to understand that.
Camille: No. I can't do that. No.
Oprah: Will you ever be able to say "I forgive this person"?
Camille: I don't know.
Oprah: And is it even important?
Camille: It really isn't important. I don't think forgiving the murderer is a condition for healing, because what he did was so egregious, so outrageous, so evil.
Oprah: And you never want to ask him why?
Camille: No. Because he did it. That's all that is important to me, that he did it. Why he did it, how he did it or what led up to it—I don't care about that. The point is that he did it. That is the final act.
Oprah: What is it like to even say the words Ennis's death?
Camille: A lot of people wonder that. It is only because I took time for myself that I can sit here and talk about it like this. I miss my son. Ennis was my only son, and we had a special relationship. But I have finally accepted that he is not here. To think about him makes me smile instead of making me sad....
I could be sitting and reading a magazine, and somebody will come up and say, "I'm so sorry about your son." I find that irritating and difficult, because I'm not focusing on Ennis's death 24 hours a day. So I don't want people to say "I'm so sorry" every time they see me, because then it becomes a consistently grim thing. You know? People should talk to me like they did before he died....
I don't want to be immersed in sadness, and I know Ennis wouldn't want that. I have a life to live. And I know that my family has many things to celebrate. That we're doing great things we should feel good about. That we need to laugh to heal.
Oprah: How did you help the girls and Bill heal?
Camille: In many ways. We talked about our feelings a lot. We took a holistic approach; we had acupuncture, massages, acupressure—to relax the body, clear the mind. We spent more time with one another. I suppose I was the person who initiated bringing everybody together. I said, "Let's talk about this. Let's really communicate in a different way."
Oprah: This was during the time of the Autumn Jackson extortion case. That was two days after Ennis's death, right?
Camille: No, the extortion case began before Ennis was murdered. There were four people involved in that scheme, and the FBI was called in.... These people continued to extort on the day Ennis was murdered, even the day after. And all of them were arrested afterward.
Oprah: I thought the extortion happened afterward.
Camille: No, they were trying to extort before. Then Bill had his lawyer call the FBI, and they took over. So then we had that to deal with. But somehow we got through that. We just fought together.
Oprah: When reports of the alleged affair spread, did you feel as if someone had hit you with a hammer, or were you aware of the news?
Camille: I was aware of it—absolutely. But my priority, really, was finding Ennis's murderer, who wasn't caught for two months. So the extortion thing—if that had happened at a different time, I would have been immersed in that. I had lost my son, and nothing else was important to me.
Oprah: So what effect, if any, did the Autumn Jackson ordeal have on your family, on your relationship with Bill? Did he come to you and tell you about it?
Camille: Oh, years ago.... Back in the seventies, I knew about that.
Oprah: So when Bill did the interview with Dan Rather and said there was a possibility that Autumn was his daughter—but that he didn't believe it—did it matter to you if Autumn was his daughter? And did you want Bill to take a DNA test?
Camille: Yes. I told him to take the test so that he could be certain. I also thought that if he didn't take the test, Autumn Jackson and her cohorts could continue with their story.
Oprah: Were you surprised when Autumn didn't take the DNA test?
Camille: I wasn't surprised at all. Because anyone who is sincere about something like that—about finding out if a man is her father—wouldn't try to extort, have a ring of people working with her and then ask for $40 million. Something is wrong over there. I don't think it takes too much sense to understand that.
Oprah: Were you embarrassed about this talk of an affair, Camille?
Camille: It was embarrassing in terms of it being an invasion of our private lives. That was something very personal, between the two of us.
Oprah: But you already knew about it?
Camille: I already knew, but it wasn't for the whole world to know. Autumn Jackson obviously felt she had this to hold over Bill, that he would be embarrassed about it, that he might not have told me, that he might not have brought it to the family. But I think her focus was to threaten to expose it to the media. That was her way to extort.
Oprah: I read that you and Bill went through a time in your marriage when you were both focused on selfish needs.
Camille: We were both young. We had to go through a lot. It's difficult to learn to live with somebody, to be unselfish and to be responsible for your behavior—and even to think how you hurt others if you do certain things.
Oprah: Like fool around?
Camille: Or anything that is selfish. You go through a transition, if you are committed to each other. You cleanse yourself of all of that baggage, and you look at each other and determine whether the relationship is worth salvaging, whether you really love each other and want to be together. Then you realize, "Wait a minute. I might have been doing this because I just didn't want to think about how this would affect the other person or to allow myself to love someone with emotional intimacy."
Oprah: Onstage, Bill sometimes talks about when your marriage got its juice, when you knew, "We've gelled; we've made it." When did that happen for you?
Camille: When we knew that we really wanted to be with each other, that we didn't want to live without each other. That probably happened ten years after we were married, when we really spent time talking about what marriage means.
Oprah: Do you think marriage is difficult? People say you have to work at it.
Camille: You do. Because you are two different people, and you have to respect that. You have to learn not to project your stuff onto the other person. You have to give the other person space to do what he or she wants to do, to not be threatened by his or her absence or achievements.
Oprah: People must think that the wife of Bill Cosby is cracking up all the time.
Camille: Bill is not funny all the time. He is a serious man, a thoughtful man. And he likes to have his quiet time. He's not consistently humorous, but he is funny. It's in his bones. He sees the world from a serious perspective, but he is able to look at the funny side of human behavior. He is probably a great social scientist. That is the only way he can be a humorist. He is a storyteller. He does not like to see anyone in the family sad. So he'll do things to make us laugh, and sometimes I say, "Bill, I just want to have my moment to be sad. Don't try to make me laugh."
Oprah: He is, undeniably, the greatest husband gift-giver. What are your favorite gifts?
Camille: Bill has given me some beautiful paintings.
Oprah: Is he romantic?
Camille: Very. He has kidnapped me a couple of times. I walked out of a theater after seeing a show, and a few hours later, I was in Lake Tahoe. He does those kinds of things. Flowers to fill a room. Trips to places, unusual things, and I must tell you that I never felt I didn't deserve these things, even when my self-esteem was low. I love gifts from Bill, because he loves giving them. I'm not a great giver to him like he is to me, but it is something he loves to do. And he is so creative.
Oprah: What do you love about yourself when you look in the mirror? What are your best qualities?
Camille: When I look in the mirror, I know I'm looking at an honest person. I know I'm looking at myself, and I'm not looking at someone else I project to the world. What you see here is what you see everywhere I go....
Before I turned 40, I thought I would be concerned about aging, but I'm not. My gray hair came about because I went scuba diving with my eldest daughter, Erika. Prior to our dive, I'd been using a semipermanent dye. So when I went down in that ocean and came back up, this hair was gray. Erika said, "Mom, leave it like that." I said, "Leave it like what?" I looked at myself and said, "Oh, my God, it's time for me to accept this." I was about 42. That is part of the honesty, the honesty of my age and what is attendant with aging.
Oprah: So...have you been through menopause?
Camille: Been through it.
Oprah: Should I be scared?
Camille: No. I think menopause is individualistic. For me it wasn't a problem. Maybe it was because of my holistic approach to living, but I didn't have hot flashes or mood swings. Maybe my family thought differently.
Oprah: No hot flashes?
Oprah: I better get on that holistic program. My fear is because I hear so many women talking about having mood swings and no interest in sex. But you never feared it?
Camille: I had a fear of it before I turned 40. Forty just sounded so old to me when I was in my thirties. Then, when I turned 40, I said, "Well, this wasn't such a traumatic experience." It's okay now, because you feel more like a woman the older you get. You're not caught up in what is insignificant. You're not caught up with having makeup on all the time, or looking in the mirror every five minutes, or trying to be attractive to every man who walks by. You are a woman, and you have had all kinds of experiences by the time you are 40 or 50. So it's not about insignificant things anymore. It is about you, about what is inside you.
Oprah: What is the quality you dislike most in other people?
Camille: Dishonesty. I can't stand dishonesty. And now, after all these experiences with people, I can smell it coming through the door. I can see it. I'm beginning to look at people's auras or lack of. My antennas go way up. I'm very selective about who comes into our home now. I don't like people coming into our home whom I haven't checked out first.
Camille: Because I only want people who I like in our home. I don't want people I don't like in our home. I just don't like dishonesty. I don't like a lack of integrity. I think integrity should permeate every aspect of your life. And if you don't have it, I'm going to feel it, and that's the end of it.
Oprah: Many of the millions of women I speak to tell me, "I'm wearing a mask. My mask is cracking. I don't know who I am. I've lost my soul." What do you say to a woman who's in that place? Because for everyone, it can't be "I'm going to get my master's degree."
Camille: Oh, no. Absolutely not.... It goes back to the issue of philanthropy. I feel that all people, except for the extremely poor, can give something of themselves to others, even if it's just time or a dollar. Just being a good listener—that helps a lot. And if you give, you see how the returns are so great from the giving. So it helps one to be human, to regain one's soul.
Oprah: Is that why you and Bill give?
Camille: Absolutely. Both of us are just giving people. But we do have criteria. We don't give just to give. We want people to use the gifts to improve themselves. We give them opportunities.
Oprah: What sustains you, Camille?
Camille: Self-definition. To be loved and to have people to love. To be joyful. I'm beginning to find the joy again since our son died. I like to be joyful. What also sustains me is feeling that I am achieving something in my work. To see my daughters turn out to be okay sustains me, because I feel that that is my mothering and Bill's fathering.
Oprah: You mentioned that raising children was one of your most difficult jobs. How do you raise five children to respect their individuality? How do you raise responsible, thoughtful, kind, generous, smart children?
Camille: With five different children, you have five different ways to parent. You're not always successful, no matter what you do, because nothing is definite about how your children will turn out. Sometimes they take a wrong turn, and you have to rein them in. But in terms of environment, we moved to a rural area, and I put them in public schools. I didn't put them in private schools until they were in high school. I wanted them to be in an environment that was diverse culturally, ethnically, religiously, and this town provided that.
The children were clear that Bill and I had rules, and that doesn't mean they didn't break them sometimes, but there were rules. And if you disobeyed the rules, there would be ramifications. And we always let them know, "This home is our home, this is our money, these are our material things—not yours. You haven't earned them yet. We're giving you a gift to be raised in this environment. You have to prepare to forge your own way in the world."
Oprah: Isn't teaching children that lesson difficult? At least when they have an environment in which they don't have a lot of the things they desire, their focus is getting to that point.
Camille: I teach by example. I don't expect my children to be like me, but to have my same sense of morals and values. They are clear when I am displeased. I tell them, "I don't care what your peers are doing; you cannot do that. I don't care how much money your father and I have; you cannot have that." I am very clear, and Bill is, too. We are together on this.
Camille (continued): One of the challenges for young people—whether they are growing up in an environment like this or in another type of environment—is to not be influenced by the images they see on the tube or on the Internet or whatever the form of media is. But that is the parent's challenge, too, because I remember I was constantly countering all those images of women in the magazines that our teenage daughters wanted to look at. What we see is powerful, because we think it is real. We should teach children to become critical thinkers. We don't. We just accept.
Oprah: Our girls' idea of what it means to be a woman has been so bombarded by media images that they have no concept of what it is. How would you define it?
Camille: I think it is a combination of things—assertiveness, being loving, being smart about what you know, not pretending to know something if you don't know it. It is listening well, and it is demanding to be heard.
Oprah: I love that.
Camille: Women are told just to listen. Even little girls are told that.
Oprah: And to be nice.
Camille: Exactly. You demand to be heard. Being a woman is being erect; it is communicating well; it is having positive, reciprocal relationships with your lover, your husband, your friends, your family. In other words, if you give, you want to get back. I don't believe in unconditional love.
Oprah: I've always heard that we should love unconditionally.
Camille: No. That creates the long-suffering female. I think you have the right to not love someone if that person is not lovable.
Oprah: That is so powerful.
Camille: And that concept has to apply to a marriage, a lover, a business associate, a publicist. Even your children have to know that they are not lovable sometimes, that you don't express love for them if they can't love you back. I think it applies to everyone in your life.
Oprah: That makes sense. Over the years, women have said to me, "I love him. I love him." And I say, "Love is not supposed to hurt."
Camille: Love is supposed to feel good.
Oprah: Earlier you talked about sustaining yourself in tough times. Do you believe in something bigger than yourself?
Camille: I don't belong to a formal religion, but I am spiritual. I believe there is a spiritual force that cannot be defined in terms of how it looks. I don't believe that it is a he or a she or just an it. I think it is a combination of the above. It is arrogant for humans to create the image of a spiritual force in the image of a human, and especially a male. And until women put more pressure on the major religions to change the pronouns, we will always have a difficult time establishing our rightful place in society.
Camille (continued): I suppose I'm an animist. I see a spiritual force in different aspects of nature—the trees, the sun and so forth. Nature makes me feel serene. I like to be introspective, look up at the sky at night and think about my son and other loved ones I have lost, knowing that they are there, somewhere.
Oprah: What you said earlier about feeling pain was powerful, because the way to real happiness is through your feelings. You can't get there unless you are willing to excavate your feelings.
Camille: Absolutely. Feelings are important. I think a lot of people are afraid to be in touch with their feelings. That's why they do all kinds of busy stuff. They continuously gratify themselves with other stuff so they are not dealing with feelings. They have noise around them all the time—loud music and TV. Yet the only way to know who you are and to project that is to deal with your feelings. And if you have baggage to purge, then you have to go to those you have hurt and say to them "I'm sorry." That's difficult for people who stuff their feelings. All of us have done something to hurt somebody.
Oprah: Who has been your Sheba, Camille?
Camille: I have a couple of Shebas. My mom, very much so. She is a fighter, and she is never afraid to jump out there and protest and give her time, no matter how busy she is. Another Sheba is a friend of the family, Dr. Dorothy Height, who is 88 now. Not because she is the head of the National Council of Negro Women, but because she was right in there with all those men who led the civil rights movement. When women were asked to provide services and do the footwork, Dorothy said, "No.... You're not going to take all the credit. I'm going to be right there with you, as a woman." She didn't take a secondary role to a man then or now. I like that spirit in her, that tenacity.
Oprah: Is there anything internally—emotional or spiritual—that makes you fearful about being all that you can be?
Oprah: Nothing that holds you back?
Camille: Not at this stage. The only thing that can hold me back is myself.
Printed from Oprah.com on Saturday, March 8, 2014
© 2014 Harpo Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.