Author Iyanla Vanzant

Motivational speaker shares the painful stories of losing her daughter to a rare form of colon cancer and her grandmother’s mental illness.

In her workshops and lectures, Iyanla Vanzant focuses on helping people get their lives together. Having overcome an abusive childhood, teen pregnancy, abusive marriages and welfare, she speaks from personal experience. Vanzant is now a lawyer, ordained minister and motivational speaker with a mission of empowerment. The Brooklyn, NY native is author of numerous books, including five New York Times best sellers, and founder-executive director of Inner Visions International and the Inner Visions Institute for Spiritual Development.



Tavis: Always pleased to welcome Iyanla Vanzant to this program. The best-selling author, motivational speaker and former host of her own syndicated talk show is out today with a very personal look at recent events in her own life, including the death of her daughter on Christmas Day some years back. The new book is called “Peace from Broken Pieces,” and I’m honored to have you back on this set, Iyanla.
Iyanla Vanzant: Thank you. It’s been a while.
Tavis: It’s been a while. Glad to see you. This title I love; and I should say up front, in terms of putting this out there, this book is published by our imprint, Smiley Books, but I love this title – “Peace from Broken Pieces.” Tell me about the title.
Vanzant: Broken pieces of my life, broken pieces of my history, my story, my mind – broken pieces of my mind, my heart. I just got to that place where I had to come to peace with that. I think we just have to – you can’t fix it. I couldn’t fix it. I couldn’t fix anything, I couldn’t change anything, I couldn’t make it any different, I couldn’t undo it. I just had to come to peace.
Tavis: I opened the show – and I want to just rehash this because I want to give you an opportunity to respond to this, of course. I opened the show by reminding the audience that you’re a regular on Oprah’s hit number one daytime talk show, Barbara Walters calls to offer you your own show, you leave Oprah, commence your own daytime show produced by Barbara Walters’s company.
It eventually fizzles. After that, things start to go downhill. Your husband divorces you via e-mail, the IRS comes because you’re investing all of your money trying to save the life of your daughter, your daughter dies in your arms on Christmas Day, and then they take your company, they take your house – everything just falls into disarray. How do you find peace in the midst of that kind of storm?
Vanzant: You get still, first of all. For me, it was tell the truth. My life, my caregivers and my parents had given me a foundation that wasn’t true. It wasn’t true about who I was, who they were, and there were just so many broken and missing pieces from my story.
Tavis: Let me jump in right quick – how do people give you a foundation that is not true?
Vanzant: Okay, so for example my mother was an alcoholic. I guess I was drunk in the womb, so when I was born – and my mother died when I was three. Nobody ever told me that my mother was an alcoholic. Never told me that. Now, I happen not to drink and never understood why. Nobody ever told me that my mother was the other woman. Her and my father weren’t married. She was the other woman.
My stepmother, who ultimately raised me, they told me that was my mother, and she wasn’t my mother. So this is how people give you a foundation that isn’t true.
Tavis: That’s not true, okay.
Vanzant: They lie to you. They leave out the bad parts, they make themselves look good, and then these pathologies continue in your life. So I built a life of not really looking at truth – not that I was a liar, but I was alone in my head without adult supervision and I would make up stories and expect that reality to line up with what was because I didn’t know the truth.
I didn’t know the truth about my grandmother. My grandmother was mentally ill – straight up crazy as the day is long, to the bone crazy. Now I know my grandmother was mentally ill. Everyone knew something was wrong with her, but they were also afraid of her so nobody said anything. They knew she was physically abusive to me – they knew it. They would give me little winks and stares.
So I grew up thinking that it’s okay for the people I love, the people who take care of me, to treat me badly. That’s a pathology. I grew up with it. So I grew up and even in my career, when I went to do certain things – I don’t want to call names and call people out because it’s not nice, but people didn’t always treat me nice, and I made it okay.
I made it okay for people to lie to me, for people not to treat me well, because I inherited that.
Tavis: Okay, that’s them, whether it’s your family, whether it’s people around you, so-called friends – that’s them. How do we end up internalizing the stuff that they try to put on us so that their untruth doesn’t necessarily have to become my untruth, does it?
Vanzant: Well, I call it personal lies. We each have a personal lie, everybody does. That personal lie for me was I’m wrong, I’m bad, I did it wrong. Because people who say they love me and care about me, if they’re treating me badly, it’s because I’m wrong, I’m bad, I did it wrong, because that’s what I grew up with.
When someone’s beating the hell out of you and they’re telling you, “Look what you made me do -” I write in there about the Halloween horror. That experience taught me so many lessons. Wrong lessons, bad lessons, but I internalized that I did something that made my father beat me to within unconsciousness. My stepmother reinforced it by saying, “Why don’t you ever listen?”
My grandmother used to beat me or punish me or make me wrong, make me bad, I just internalized it. Now, through my own prayer life and my spiritual work and my sincere commitment, I was able to live beyond it but eventually the cracks in the foundation, the weight at the top, my success got too heavy and the foundation began to crack.
Tavis: I’m glad you said that, because it raises for me the question I suspect viewers and fans of yours – Iyanla, as we all know, is a perennial “New York Times” best-selling author. We watched her regularly on the “Oprah” show, as I said a moment ago.
So I’m thinking that you’re giving all these people this advice – “Acts of Faith,” millions of copies sold around the world. You’re advising people and you’re on daytime television and you’re giving speeches and you can’t turn down fast enough the offers that are coming at you. I know this because we’re friends. In that space, how are you navigating your own journey, this hell that you’re going through, while you’re advising other folk to get out of their own situations?
Vanzant: See, that was God’s work.
Tavis: Okay.
Vanzant: That came through me for the people and I could handle that, I could do that, and I was in that. That was unadulterated, that was pure. But then when I got home and when I got quiet, that’s when the cracks in my – (makes noise).
Tavis: You start hearing it, yeah.
Vanzant: Right, and I’m like, “Ooh, okay, let me go write another book. Ooh, let me go take a trip.” (Laughter) “Let me go counsel somebody,” because I couldn’t navigate it. I couldn’t integrate it in my mind. It was more like a feeling. I’m like, “Something just isn’t right here, but I’ve got the money now, not on welfare, not collecting cheese anymore, I’m not on welfare. Got the man, chased him for 37 years and got him.” (Laughter)
“Got the little Spanx and the underwire bra, everything looking good. I could go anywhere, buy anything.” So when that thing started, I’m like, “You are so ungrateful. Look at your life. What’s the matter with you?”
Tavis: What are you complaining about?
Vanzant: Right. Look at you – just ignore that. Go on about your business, go do something. So I thought that the more I gave to the world and the more work I did and the more I touched people, that that would make that go away.
Tavis: I’m going to come back to the Barbara Walters-produced daytime talk show in just a second. Let me jump ahead to – and I don’t know how you even found the space, and maybe you’ll tell me, how you found the place to even write about losing your 31-year-old daughter in your arms on Christmas Day to a rare form of colon cancer.
After all this other stuff has fallen apart on you, then your daughter dies. The question I want to ask about that before I jump back is when that happens, does it offer you a different kind of context for looking back at all the stuff prior to? Because I can’t imagine anything being more –
Vanzant: Unspeakable.
Tavis: There you go.
Vanzant: It’s unspeakable. What happened was after – I lost my mind, literally. I literally lost sanity, literally. I just lost my mind, and I saw you not long after that. I think I came to do the State of the Black Union.
Tavis: Mm-hmm, here in L.A.
Vanzant: Right, and I came out – I would come out in sanity for like five or seven minutes (laughter) and then go back to insanity.
Tavis: Short-term sanity.
Vanzant: Right, short-term sanity. But what happened was I began to read her journals.
Tavis: Gemmia, your daughter.
Vanzant: Gemmia.
Tavis: Okay.
Vanzant: Gemmia left journals from when she was 16, and as I began to read those journals and I saw that how she experienced herself, how she experienced her life and how she experienced me was nothing like I thought it was. She felt ugly, she felt unworthy, she felt disconnected, she felt useless, and this was the most beautifully, incredibly talented, gifted – she was an angel. She felt that I was emotionally unavailable and manipulative and mean.
I was “What was she drinking?” But she wasn’t here, so I couldn’t talk to her, I couldn’t get it clear.
Tavis: How do you process reading that in your daughter’s journals after she’s gone, and to your point, you can’t even get clarity on this?
Vanzant: No. You just sit in the bed like a fool, like an idiot, and you drool and you just close your door and you don’t let anybody in. But in her writings, what I saw was my life, when I was ugly and worthless and when I felt useless and untalented. I said, “Oh, my God.”
Then, it shifted and I was like, “Okay, this is me. She wrote it, but this is my story,” and then I began to look in a different way, and that’s why I discovered the pathologies, things that I inherited that without even knowing it I passed it on to my children. Things that I felt and hadn’t healed and cleaned up, without knowing it, I passed it on to my children.
She saw it, so really, her journals helped me heal because I had to look deeper than okay, it’s not just that I did the wrong thing and my caregivers beat the hell out of me, there’s something else going on here. There’s something going on here. That’s when I started to look at the foundation.
Tavis: But to your credit – not that you need credit – but to your credit, and I know this only because I read the book, obviously, that in those journals it wasn’t just Gemmia conjuring up the worst of you.
Vanzant: No.
Tavis: Dr. King always said there’s some evil in the best of us and some good in the worst of us.
Vanzant: That’s right.
Tavis: So we’re not human and divine, we’re just human.
Vanzant: That’s right.
Tavis: In those journals you also saw, though, the ways that your life positively impacted Gemmia, and the things that she learned from you and write down. So it wasn’t all negative.
Vanzant: No, no.
Tavis: Okay.
Vanzant: The things that she taught and many lessons that I gave her and how she interpreted it, I was like, “Ooh, this is good, let me write this down.” (Laughter) “Ooh, she got that one. Ooh, I didn’t see it that way.”
Tavis: Should we give Gemmia a book credit?
Vanzant: Yeah, we should put her right down there. The silent writer, if you will. So no, it wasn’t all bad, it was healing. We can call it whatever we want to call it, but I’m sitting here today, as the old folks would say, with the blood running warm in my veins, clothed in my right mind, because all things were working together for my good. I couldn’t have continued the way that I did.
Now, I don’t know why it cost me my daughter and my husband and my house, but who am I? What do I know?
Tavis: You just quoted a biblical scripture, for those who heard it and know it. The bible admonishes us, tells us that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose. It doesn’t say everything is going to be good.
Vanzant: That’s right, that’s right.
Tavis: But everything works for your good. What is that distinction about for you?
Vanzant: Well, it wasn’t good that I grew up the way I did. It wasn’t good that people beat me and I was raped as a child. It wasn’t good that I really had on-the-job training about life, and that’s the thing that I got from Gemmia. No one ever mothered me, and I had three kids. I knew how to provide, I didn’t know how to mother.
I knew how to make sure my kids ate, which is something I didn’t always do. They had a roof over their head, which is something I didn’t always have. They knew that no matter what, if you came after my babies, I’m taking you down. They knew that. I didn’t have that.
But I didn’t know how to mother, so I didn’t mother. But I discovered my father hadn’t been mothered – he didn’t know how to mother. My grandmother hadn’t been mothered – she didn’t know how to mother. So some of the things that happened weren’t good, but they’ve come together to teach me good, because I have my daughter’s daughter, so I’m a grandmother raising a grandchild, and I am for her who no one was for me. I am for her who I couldn’t even be for my daughter.
Tavis: I read a quote one day not too long ago. I’m curious as to your take on this because it dovetails to your point now, and the quote was something like – and I’m paraphrasing here – the children that God allows us to have is his way of giving us another opportunity to get it right.
Vanzant: That’s right.
Tavis: Does that make sense, that kind of resonate?
Vanzant: Oh, absolutely.
Tavis: So your granddaughter now is the chance for you to –
Vanzant: My granddaughter. Now, I didn’t have a voice as a young woman, and I now know Gemmia felt she didn’t have a voice. Neyamoja (sp) has to have a voice. Neyamoja (sp) will have a voice. I didn’t have anyone to teach me how to stand up for myself, within myself, as a young woman. Gemmia didn’t know how to do that. Neyamoja (sp) knows how to do it.
She’s working with it. She’s got to try it because she’s a motherless child. I know that void of being a motherless child – ooh – as a young woman. I know. So sometimes I look at her and I say, “Just come here, baby. I’m not your mother, but I got bosoms. Put your head right – come on. Get up in the bed with me.” Nobody did that for me.
A motherless child is – it’s a phenomena in this society that we really need to look at, particularly for the girls. Whether the mother is dead gone, incarcerated gone, emotionally gone, physically gone, a motherless child is something we really need to start paying attention to, because those young women grow up and have children. A motherless child raising a child, I know from experience, that’s a hard less.
Tavis: Yet I’m still trying to juxtapose how it is, with all this that was going on as you were raising these three babies, you still found the – not found the time, made the time to go to school at night, to get your degree.
Vanzant: Yes, took them with me.
Tavis: And then to law school and got your law degree.
Vanzant: Took them with me. Took them with me.
Tavis: Graduate top of the class. You graduate with honors. How do you do all of that with all this madness going on in the world around you?
Vanzant: Something greater than me, really. And I wasn’t easy. If you could interview the creator, he’d tell you she is a piece of work. (Laughter)
Tavis: So God, what about Iyanla?
Vanzant: Disobedient, hard-headed. I’m asking questions. He told me, “Go over here and do that.” “Well, I don’t want to do that, could I do something else?” “No, go do this.” But I learned. It’s what saved me. It’s what saved me. It’s what saved me after Gemmia died, and I write about it.
One day I was like, “Okay, enough is enough. How much is enough?” So over here I have all Gemmia’s painkillers – and you know, a cancer patient got some painkillers – and over here I have this beautiful little pearl-handled pistol. Okay, am I going to do the pistol, am I going to do the pills?
Now, I’m a Virgo, I’m a diva, so I don’t like a mess, so the pistol was kind of out. Then the pills (laughter), I was like, “Now, is this enough? I don’t want to wake up with brain damage or something because I messed up the suicide.”
Then I heard, “Will you just stop being dramatic? Stop it.” (Laughter) It’s like almost like Gemmia was whispering in my – “Don’t do drama, okay?” I’m like, “Diva down, diva down.” (Laughter) Diva down. Stop doing drama. Go over there and sit down. And so here I am.
Tavis: Wow. We sit in Los Angeles – you live on the East Coast but you’ve worked a lot here in L.A. on your daytime talk show, when you were doing “Starting Over,” so you know how L.A. works.
Vanzant: Yes.
Tavis: In this town – and I’m not going to call names either – but I know a whole bunch of folk, and I pray that I’m never one of them when I get canceled one day, who thinks that his or her life, the worth of his or her life is really wrapped in how often they’re seen on the air, how successful they are. You know what I’m getting at.
There are folk in this town who if they’re not on TV, if they’re not in the movies, if they don’t have a hit, then they’re trying to search and find who they really are because their identity is so wed to being a star, being a celebrity. So how do you process, then, going from being on “Oprah” regularly, to having your own daytime talk show, again, produced by Ms. Walters?
It goes away and you’re out there. You don’t have a book deal; you don’t have a TV show. How do you move through that space where your identity seems to have been –
Vanzant: No, no, because for me the television was the gravy, it wasn’t the cake. The cake for me was the writing. The cake for me – I’m a teacher, I am a spiritual technician, and I teach. That’s what I do. So the television was the gravy. It was the icing. For me, the books were the cake, the speaking was the cake. But all of that was gone, too.
Tavis: I’m glad you fixed that, because I’m like, gravy and cake don’t go together.
Vanzant: Right. (Laughter)
Tavis: But we’re friends; I can tell you that.
Vanzant: Icing, okay.
Tavis: Icing is much better. Go ahead.
Vanzant: I want gravy on my cake.
Tavis: Okay.
Vanzant: Yeah. So my identity wasn’t tied into that, number one. Number two, the one thing, Tavis – and I have to say this, because putting all my stuff out there like that was really risky – but the one thing that I will stand in and stand for that I knew that Gemmia knew was that my work was pure, and it was always from God to me to the people, always.
No matter how crazy I was, I’d throw some lashes on and work it out. But the thing was it was what happened with the TV shows going away. Working with Ms. Winfrey was a blessing that I couldn’t have even asked for. Who says I want to work with her the way I worked with her? Part of her Change your Life faculty, on the show once a week every week for a number of months.
Then when this deceptive intelligence of an offer came in and just created some upheaval, and I really – I was a virgin. I didn’t know anything about television, about the networks, about anything, so when it happened, when this other offer came at me, I immediately said, “No. No, no, I don’t want that.”
But then I raised it with the powers that be at Harpo – I’m not going to say Ms. Winfrey, I’ll say the powers that be – and because this industry is so jaded they really thought I was playing two ends against the middle, trying to say oh, I’m over here, I’m going to go over here.
Tavis: So in other words, if you don’t give me a show then I’m going to go with Barbara Walters.
Vanzant: Right, right, right, right, right.
Tavis: Okay.
Vanzant: But that wasn’t my intention at all, really. Really. I was just stupid.
Tavis: You didn’t know the business, yeah.
Vanzant: I didn’t know. So that created some upheaval. I ended up going to do the show with Barwall Productions, and here’s all of that wahalla and conflama, here’s the bottom line – Oprah Winfrey supported me, who I was and my vision, and Barwall did not, period. That’s it.
It wasn’t Oprah’s responsibility to sustain my vision; it wasn’t Barwall’s responsibility to line up with my vision. It was my responsibility to stand for my vision, and I didn’t. I didn’t. So I ended up leaving someone who supported my vision to be with somebody who didn’t support my vision, and they didn’t want Iyanla, they wanted some figment of their imagination.
I don’t know what they wanted, but they ended up with nothing because there just came a point when I said, “Wait a minute, I can’t – I am a spiritual technician and a teacher. I’m not shelling another almond, I’m not doing another makeover,” and they said, “Oh, the Negress is awake.” (Laughter) “Where’d she come from?”
Tavis: “We got problems.”
Vanzant: “We got a problem here.” They said, “Well, this isn’t going to work.” I said, “No it isn’t, because if we can’t stand in this vision together, I’m out.”
Tavis: As much as you’ve put on the pages of this book in terms of lessons learned, are you still getting takeaways? Are you still learning from this ordeal?
Vanzant: Yeah. Still healing, still learning, it’s not all over yet. The piece that I’m clear about is me. I’m clear about me, who I am, why I’m here, what I do, what I don’t do, what works, what doesn’t work. I’m still working out the relationship piece because all my issue was around my father and looking for my father and making men responsible for what I didn’t get from him.
I’m still working that out. Still working out some of the stuff with value, worth, money. I love money – love it – but that little girl in there still is afraid to have too much, still afraid to have too much. So I’m working that out, and how much of myself to give away. How much.
Tavis: Well, you gave a whole lot of yourself in this book, and I want to thank you for doing it.
Vanzant: Thank you.
Tavis: It is a wonderful piece of work. If you are an Iyanla Vanzant fan, as so many of you are, given that she, again, is a perennial “New York Times” best-selling author, you will want to read this one. Of all the ones I’ve read, you’re going to want to read this one about all that she has endured and how she’s still standing as strong as ever.
Love the title – “Peace -” P-E-A-C-E – “Peace from Broken Pieces,” the new one from Iyanla Vanzant. Iyanla, love you, good to have you on.
Vanzant: Thank you.
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Last modified: July 11, 2011 at 7:23 pm