THE STORY OF MY LIFE: Betty Ferguson

April 15, 2005
Written by

One in a series of three Authorlink Interviews with Finalists for The Story of My Life
A project of ABC-TV and Simon & Schuster

By Doris Booth

April 2005

 

Betty Ferguson, one of three finalists in The Story of My Life contest

Everyone has a story to tell, but few have the resources and connections to find a publisher and an audience. For the three lucky finalists of The Story of My Life contest, however, their stories are being publicized nationwide as Simon Spotlight Entertainment, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, teams up with ABC-TV's Good Morning America to discover a first-time author of a compelling American memoir.

The finalists were chosen from among 6,000 essay entries and have appeared on ABC-TV's Good Morning America and 20/20. They are Betty Ferguson, a mother who forgave her daughter’s killer; Mercedes Florencia Brudnicki, a sister whose brother was trapped in Castro’s Cuba; and Farah Ahmedi, an Afghan girl who lost her leg to a landmine. The American public will vote (and you can too) now through April 8 on whose story they want to read. The winner, to be announced on April 22, will receive $10,000 and will have their book published by Simon Spotlight Entertainment and released on the announcement date. The winner also will embark on a national 10-city publicity tour.

An Overview of Betty Ferguson's Story:

Betty was fuming when she saw her teenage daughter's bed empty on a sticky Friday morning in August 1976. A few days later, her daughter Debbie, who was just about to enter her senior year of high school, was found strangled to death and bound by wire.

Betty was so despondent over her daughter's murder that she couldn't even attend Debbie's funeral or go to the cemetery. As police pursued their investigation, she sat at home day and night, downing one Manhattan after another. Her husband, friends, clergy and counselors tried to console and connect with her. Nothing worked. She ignored her four other children, who ranged in age from ten to fourteen at the time.

Most of Betty's energy went into picturing her daughter's horrific final moments and seething with anger towards the killer. More than anything else, she wanted to know who did it. Ray Payne, Debbie's English teacher, eventually was charged in 1977 with her murder. For Betty, the sentence of life without parole wasn't enough. She won a $1.4 million civil suit against him.

Yet the victory that Betty had thought would release her from rage instead felt hollow. Feeling her health and sanity slipping away, she knew that to survive she had to find a path other than vengeance. As she struggled to find a way to squelch her pain and anger, one word kept popping into her mind—forgiveness.

Betty contacted and eventually visited her daughter's killer in prison in 1987. Her mission was to forgive him. Now Betty talks of Raymond Payne with true love and still keeps in touch with him.

Betty works for the state of Pennsylvania as a mediator in its victim/offender mediation program, begun in 1998, which allows a victim of violence or the family of a victim to meet the person who committed the crime.

Here, in the second Authorlink interview with the three finalists, Betty talks about why, and what it means to her to have written the story of her life.

"For 11 years I stayed

 

pissed off, hurt, and angry.

The anger was running my life."

—Ferguson

Betty Ferguson

Talks of Forgiving Her Daughter's Murderer

Read more of her story

AUTHORLINK: How can you possibly forgive the man who murdered your daughter?

FERGUSON: For 11 years I stayed pissed off, hurt, and angry. The anger was running my life. I took my anger everywhere I went—to bed with my husband, to work, shopping, everywhere. Damn him, damn him. Then, I started to study what I was doing with my life. The tragedy had turned me into an angry, bitter woman. But when I was angry at Ray it hurt me. I didn't want to hurt me. I wanted to save my life. My children were angry too. They were copying their mother. I started going to workshops on forgiveness, and I began looking at forgiveness as a possibility for saving my own life.

The whole world told me forgiveness was not an option, but I felt I had no other choice but to let go of being mad at Ray. Someone told me that if I ever wanted to have a peaceful heart, I would have to forgive him. When my sister died, I heard the Lord's Prayer at her funeral, and it said, "Forgive those who trespass against you." I wanted to do it for me.

"The first time I faced him in court, I hated him. By the time I faced him in prison, that hatred had turned to love."

 

—Ferguson

AUTHORLINK: When did you first meet Ray?

FERGUSON: Our family knew Ray. He was Debbie's teacher. My husband graduated from high school with Ray. The first time I faced him in court, I hated him. By the time I faced him in prison, that hatred had turned to love. Before visiting him, I sat down in the chair and cried. Then I said to myself, to God, and to Debbie, "I'm willing to forgive Ray. Show me how, and I will follow. I am willing to care about him." As I repeated those words, my heart began to feel lighter.

AUTHORLINK: Not everyone in your family agreed that forgiving him was a good idea.

FERGUSON: My husband said, "Forgive him? You have got to be joking. " My son airbrushed a T-shirt for me that read, "Forgiveness is my favorite F word." I was the only one who thought forgiveness was a good idea. My husband would not go with me to see him.

AUTHORLINK: What happened on your first visit?

FERGUSON: I looked into Ray's eyes and saw him as a man, as a person. His eyes were blue. I put my arms out to hold him. I said, "Ray." He said,"Betty." I took his hand, and he showed me where we could sit on the prison patio. I stared at him. "Can I touch you?" I asked. He said, "Yeah." I let myself touch his arm. He was just a man. We talked for 3 hours.

AUTHORLINK: How did you feel at that moment?

FERGUSION: Ray asked if there was anything I wanted to know. I said I would like to know where she was going that day. He told me this and more. They are things I have promised never to repeat. When I left I had a peaceful, happy heart. I came home that day and told my husband, "I did it, and I feel good."

"This experience has done wonderful things for my family. For the first time in 30 years,

 

my kids can talk about

the murder . . ."

—Ferguson

 

 

AUTHORLINK: What made you want to enter the contest for The Story of My Life?

FERGUSON: I watch Good Morning America every day, and I heard the co-hosts talking about it. I thought I would like for my four living children to know their mother. After Debbie died, I couldn't be there for my kids. I ignored them. Now I want to leave them a book. I want them to know my anger wasn't their fault, that their mother was in extreme pain. This book is a way to let my kids know their mom. Only the winner will be published, I believe. But whether I win or not, it's important to have my story written down for my children to read.

AUTHORLINK: You worked with a co-writer assigned by Simon & Schuster. What was that experience like?

FERGUSON: I have been so excited since learning that I was a finalist in December. Gary, my co-writer, came to my house for three days and said "Tell me everything." I never thought my story would ever be published, or even written down.

I want all my children to read the story. I haven't let them read much of it yet. I wanted them to wait until it is finished and hopefully published. This experience has done wonderful things for my family. For the first time in 30 years, my kids can talk about the murder, where they were that day. I am currently a counselor at a crime center, so I know the importance of talking about such tragedies.

I let my youngest son, Glen, read the first chapter of the story. He told me later, "Mom I have learned the importance of making sure the last thing you say to someone when they leave you is something nice. The last thing I am ever going to say to you is 'I love you.' "

AUTHORLINK: And what if you don't win the contest?

FERGUSON: Whether I am chosen in the contest, I've already won. My family has won. This experience has taught my children, and even my grandchildren, so much in the last couple of months. It has taught us all how to talk about the murder.

AUTHORLINK: Had you ever wanted to be a writer or thought about writing anything else?

FERGUSON: I have never thought about being a writer. I don't know what else I'd write. But you never know.

AUTHORLINK: Is it hard to talk about the tragedy?

FERGUSON: It's not hard; it's emotional. I will never be mad at Ray again.

AUTHORLINK: Do you feel he should be released from prison?

FERGUSON: I don't support him getting in or out. It is not up to me to decide. I'm a mom. I learned a lot about Ray in the last few years. I even met his parents for dinner. Ray's mom and I were just two mothers who didn't like where our kids were—her's in prison and mine in heaven. We remained friends until she died.

AUTHORLINK: Some people say you are a brave lady.

FERGUSON: I didn't know I was brave. The murder was killing me from the inside out, and I wanted to heal my heart and get well.

AUTHORLINK: How does it feel to be in the glare of the media?

FERGUSON: Initially, when people heard about me on the news, they wanted to throw rocks at me, thought I was awful. My first husband has never talked to me again, not even to this day. But now I am in a different place. Everyone calls me and wants to talk to me about forgiveness.

AUTHORLINK: Does forgiveness really work?

FERGUSON: As a mediator and victim advocate, I get to meet people who are able to do what I did, and I have seen them heal in front of my eyes. In addition to counseling, I am a volunteer at the Whole Life Health and Education Center in the evenings, teaching holistic modalities. I have dedicated my life to forgiveness because I know that it works.

—Doris Booth

 

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This post was written by Doris Booth