Success is a slippery word. Ask a dozen people to define it, and you'll receive 12 different answers, none of them wrong. Take a poll on how to find it, and hundreds of paths will suddenly appear amongst the trees. The right trail is always changing, multiplying and contracting--different for each of us. See? Slippery.
So how would you define success for a poor black boy growing up in 1970s New Orleans? Would you lower expectations if you knew his father was so abusive he once attempted suicide to escape the beatings? If you knew he was molested by several different people in his community, would that alter how you judged his progress through life? For this boy, success might simply mean surviving childhood. Maybe, if he's lucky, he'll find the path that leads to being a kind man with a decent job. Nothing special.
"Nothing special" is not good enough for Tyler Perry. The little boy from New Orleans not only survived, he became the most unlikely power broker in Hollywood, earning millions and connecting with a legion of fans with his poignant, funny, down-to-earth interpretations of African-American family life in his plays, movies and sitcoms. Perry took his own route to success, if only because the easiest paths were blocked by his turbulent childhood. But his upbringing also gave him the tools he needed to hack through the trees and underbrush as he blazed his own trail.
"You have to understand everything that has happened to you, especially things beyond your control, weren't about trying to destroy you as much as they were about molding and forming you as a person," says the creator of Diary of a Mad Black Woman, the Madea series and Tyler Perry's House oj Payne. "That's really difficult for a lot of people to understand. But if you begin to realize every moment in your life happened for the greater good of who you are, you can use it for others. It can really elevate you and change your whole trajectory. 1 think that's what happened to me."
THIS TOO SHALL PASS
Perry's experiences were enough to break most people. The pain and anger grew inside him like a fire, eating away at him. It wasn't until he caught an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show championing the therapeutic benefits of jour-naling that Perry's outlook began to change. But even on the private pages of his diary, he couldn't be truly honest about his tragic upbringing. Fearful others might read his words, he invented characters who revealed his experiences and feelings. In the process, he let the hate and venom flow through his pen. He was still livid, but he had a place to siphon off the bile when it threatened to overwhelm him.
"Journaling gets it out of you and on to paper; it is a catharsis;" Perry says. "It helps you to understand, unload and heal. And what is amazing about it, if you go back to something you'd written a year ago--be it fear, struggles, something you couldn't get past--when I went back and looked through all the things 1 thought were huge for me to get past, being able to read [about them] inspires me. It encourages me that everything is OK; this too shall pass."
But it wasn't until a friend found his diary that something clicked.
"Man, Tyler, this is a really good play."
Suddenly, Perry looked at his words in a new light and a different kind of fire settled in his stomach. He left New Orleans for Atlanta--not exactly a hotbed of performance art, but Perry's path to success is not one well-traveled.
"I knew I wouldn't be in a position to come to Hollywood and audition and act and all those things; I had to have another way," Perry recalls. "I knew more of what I didn't, want to do than what I did want to do. ... I couldn't imagine going to L.A. It's such a tough road for people. I have such a respect for people who can come into this town and get into this system and strive and be successful. It drains me; it rips at the very fabric of my soul to do that. …