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Jewish World Review / June 3, 1998 / 9 Sivan, 5758

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez Tyson's triumph over tragedy

BETTY TYSON IS FREE FROM jail, having served nearly 25 years in a New York prison for a murder she says she didn't commit. She was released after a judge found that, during her original trial, prosecutors hid information which cast doubt on her guilt.

Now 49 years old, Tyson isn't bitter about the time she spent behind bars. She believes it saved her life. At the time she went to prison, she was a heroin addict and a prostitute, accused of killing a businessman who frequented local prostitutes. While in prison, however, Tyson earned her high-school degree, became a prize-winning photographer and counseled prisoners with AIDS.

"If I'd stayed out in the street, I probably would have ended up dead -- killed, overdosed or from AIDS," she told The New York Times last week.
Betty Tyson
"That doesn't mean I'm grateful to have been in prison all this time. But I turned a negative into a positive. I found out who Betty Tyson was."

As amazing as Tyson's positive attitude is, it's far from unique. Every day, I come across stories of people who have overcome adversity in ways that humble me. How can a parent whose child is murdered teach others the importance of forgiveness? How can a young man whose mother was a prostitute and taught her children to steal to support her drug habit grow up to be a law-abiding, hard-working, church-going citizen? How can a young man born without a hand become a major-league pitcher? Or another young man blinded during childhood gain admittance to Harvard Medical School? Theirs is the faith and determination to move mountains.

Yet we live in an era when increasing numbers of people consider themselves victims, unable to overcome the poverty of their childhoods or the cruelty of their parents. Time and again, we read statistics that tell us that the past predicts the future. If your parents beat you, you will grow up to abuse your own children. If you're poor, you won't do well in school. If your mother was a teen-ager and unmarried when you were born, you will likely bear a child out-of-wedlock in your teens. And the numbers seem to bear out the dire predictions.

We spend millions of dollars each year studying such correlations, trying to understand why some individuals perform poorly or end up in jail. But we often ignore the success stories -- the individuals who overcame the odds and ended up leading quiet, happy, successful lives, despite their poor upbringing, mistreatment or neglect. Perhaps we should spend more time and money trying to understand why these individuals thrived, while those around them succumbed to bad environment.

In her interview with the Times, Tyson gave a glimpse into what helped save her: religion and accomplishment. Religion taught her to let go of her bitterness and anger. Her own achievements in earning a degree and taking photos -- she won first prize in a state contest -- taught her that she could be something other than a prostitute.

Tyson also talked about the influence of her teachers and fellow inmates. My suspicion is that someone took an interest in her and helped her turn a bad situation into something worthwhile. In almost all the tales of survival against the odds I've come across, that's the case. Rarely is it simply the extraordinary individual who can muster the private will to succeed. Usually there's a relative, a teacher, a friend, even a policeman or judge who takes an interest and helps save a life.

Those of us fortunate enough not to have had to overcome the odds in the first place should lend a helping hand to the Betty Tysons of the world. If there were more of us, maybe there would be more stories like hers.


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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.