Aunties and Nieces: A Complicated Relationship with Iyanla Vanzant

Updated: Nov 30, 2018

I absolutely love Iyanla Vanzant. In my head, she is the auntie who comes home for Christmas and I visit for summer vacations. She tells me about her world travels, her many loves and I am mesmerized. I want to be just like her. Technically, that’s not too far the truth. I grew up in a home with a mother who read her books, pieces in Essence and saw Iyanla as a guide on her own healing journey. It was through her work that I was able to see opportunities for Black women who felt deeply called to spiritual work outside the church’s four walls. Growing up, she continued to be an inspiration- a model to which I could aspire and envision ways of melding my faith and love for writing. More than that, she also became one of my own spiritual guides. The way I see my father changed after hearing her instruct adult children of absentee fathers to find a way to be grateful that they "lent their bodies back to God" so we could be here. And now, my mother’s books are on my bookshelf along with the others I purchased to complete my Iyanla collection. Her words have been balm for me. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one wiping away tears when she and Oprah reconciled. It felt like I was watching my two favorite aunts work things out in the corner at the family cookout. They hadn’t talked in years but, somehow, you knew that their reconnection meant everything would be okay.

Sadly, all of my excitement was short lived when I saw the announcement for “Iyanla: Fix My Life” premiering on OWN. Immediately, I began to wonder how the Iyanla who helped Mama, me and so many others get free was going to be able to do that same work on an edited reality television show. And, after a few episodes, I realized she couldn’t. Folks kept watching but it didn’t take me long to see that I wasn’t going to be a loyal viewer. I watched Iyanla yell at and become combative toward sisters who came to her for healing. I gasped when she told Geneva that she was “hoeing”, after Geneva confessed that her sister’s boyfriend raped and coerced her into having sex as a teenager. I was in shock when she called Neffe a “nasty bitch” and “vile guttersnipe right up out the hood.” I even tried to make it through the season of the “Angry Black Woman” healing house but couldn’t do it without having a visceral reaction to the way she talked to sisters. So, I just stopped watching completely. The only way I saw the season 8 premiere, featuring Kamiyah Mobley, was because a friend asked me to watch it.

Two years ago, Kamiyah learned that she was stolen eight hours after her birth and raised by her abductor. Now, at 19 years old, Kamiyah is struggling to develop a relationship with her birth family- particularly her birth mother. The premiere was supposed to be about repairing the relationship between Kamiyah and her birth mom, Shanara. However, a week before filming was set to begin, Shanara backed out. Instead of pulling the show, somebody made the decision to move forward. It culminated with an angry Kamiyah unleashing on Iyanla and Iyanla choosing to stop everything, asserting that some people just aren’t ready to be helped. I was confused that Iyanla could tell Kamiyah, “God chose you for this because you can do it” earlier but later -literally- wipe her hands clean of Kamiyah when “healing” wasn’t going as she expected. After watching, it seemed the perfect time to have the difficult conversation about my beloved auntie.

The relationship between an aunt and niece is an interesting one. There are things a niece may share with an aunt that she doesn’t with her mother. The aunt’s relationship with the world always mystifies the niece because it’s not the one she sees daily in her house. But as the niece grows up and becomes a woman, she often begins to see her aunt differently. She sees her as a woman who has been broken, tried to heal and may still need space to do more healing. But, a loving niece doesn’t allow this to affect her relationship with her aunt or cause it to lose any of its wonder. Instead, she now has to manage her expectations and may even be able to find a voice to say some things to her aunt that she never thought she could say. I am a member of the generation that sees Iyanla as Aunt. Whether she met us or not, she was there with our mothers laughing…and crying…and healing. Her words helped get our mamas out of bed in the morning so they could be their best selves for us. And while Aunt Iyanla’s latest actions have caused many of her nieces to walk away, I choose to remain. I’m committed to seeing Black women as graciously as possible simply because the world does not. With that in mind, I want to hold space that -as our aunt- Iyanla loves us and -as a woman who still has to heal herself- Iyanla’s love may not be full and healthy in its scope. And, unfortunately, when you add fame into the mix, it may become difficult to hear when your niece says, “this isn’t the aunt you once were for me or the one I need you to be.”

As much as we love Iyanla, we have to find the courage to say that what we are getting from her now is not healing work. Too many people believe that, in order to heal Black folk, you have to hurt them. Episode after episode, we’ve seen Iyanla yell at and say extremely hurtful things to her guests all in the name of healing. In this past episode, Iyanla told Kamiyah’s family that she had only two options to help Kamiyah confront her emotions: “trigger her up” or “break her down”. Kamiyah’s father then asked the most sensible question possibly ever posed on this show: “why would we want to do that?” Her answer “Why not? What do we have to lose?” broke my heart. Why, when dealing with a Black girl who was kidnapped at birth and only found out two years ago, would those be your only two options to manifest healing? Why do we feel it imperative to break Black women down in order to build them up? And why is Iyanla’s approach so different when it comes to Black men? When Kamiyah exploded, Iyanla ended her work. However, she patiently worked for over seven (yes, seven) episodes with a trifling father of 34 (yes, thirty-four). Even the way Iyanla engaged Neffe’s husband -who had his own missteps- was nothing like her interactions with Neffe. Iyanla had more compassion for the confessed murderers she's worked with on her show than for sisters who found courage to speak about their experiences with sexual assault and victimization. These hard truths have to be acknowledged and confronted. Her love is abusive and entirely too many of us are told love has to hurt to heal. This is not true. Real spiritual and therapeutic work frees us to face the uncertainty of what is on the other side of our traumas- if for no other reason than we know we are journeying with people who recognize how hard the road has already been and will be without them adding to it.

Though some would reduce what Iyanla does to a ploy for ratings, I think it speaks to the ways in which therapy/counseling get diminished or manipulated in our communities. One of the ways people justify what happens on “Fix My Life” is to remind us that the guests request to be on her show- as if requesting help somehow justifies mistreatment. Many actually see this as therapeutic because our big mamas, aunties and church mothers have been talking to and treating us like this for years. So, when someone has (what we consider to be) the appropriate credentials and they are saying/doing the exact same thing, we think it’s right. It is not. Before any real healing work can begin, trust has to be established. The reason things went left with Kamiyah isn’t simply because she may not have been ready to confront all her pain. She had not established trust between her and Iyanla and that wasn’t Kamiyah’s fault. It became clear from the very beginning that Iyanla wasn’t going to work to establish it. When Kamiyah said she had two mothers and Iyanla corrected her and told Kamiyah that she only had one, it became even more clear that this wasn’t about being the healing, safe space that Kamiyah really needed. If we are committed to doing the work of healing, it is not our job to change people’s truth but to give them the tools to live fully into it or recognize how ill-fitting that truth is for them.

Our aunts are not perfect; they have blind spots like everyone else. Just last year, I had to confront my own aunt about her unhealthy behavior and the way it erodes relationships in our family. It was difficult but necessary. Though we cannot be in close relationship, I don’t love her any less and I want life’s best for her. It’s the same with Iyanla. Her wisdom radiates, she is a light and I truly believe she loves us. Unfortunately, that love is often hard…and cold…and lacks the capacity to do the healing work she desires and intends. It’s quite possible that the work she needs to do for herself stands in the way of her love for us being all that it can be. But nevertheless, she is Aunt Iyanla and I am product of her wisdom and magic and good intentions. And I want for her the same thing I believe she wants for me: to be well and free. And I trust that we both will get there.