Breaking Night by Liz Murray

Unsentimental Education

This article from The New York Times Sunday book review tells the story of Liz Murray who brought herself out of poverty. Murray’s story is an example of a Cinderella story in real life rather than the traditional fairy tale setting.
TARA McKELVEY
Published: September 8, 2010
Graham Greene once said that writers should keep a chip of ice in their hearts. It’s sound advice, with exceptions. Despite her generous portrayal of her troubled family life, Liz Murray succeeds as an author. Few parents would seem to have been more deserving of contempt than the ones who raised her

BREAKING NIGHT

A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey From Homeless to Harvard

By Liz Murray

334 pp. Hyperion. $24.99

Murray was born in the autumn of 1980 with drugs in her blood (but healthy), and her memoir follows the trajectory of a Narcotics Anonymous narrative — an account of despair and redemption like the ones told nightly, as she writes, in “the basements of urban churches.” In her case, she suffered not from the ravages of her own addiction but from those of her parents. In pacing and style, however, “Breaking Night” reads more like an adventure story than an addiction-morality tale. It’s a white-knuckle account of survival, marked by desperation, brutality and fear, set in the wilds of the Bronx.

Murray’s parents usually burned through their monthly welfare check within a week, spending the money on cocaine, while Murray and her older sister, Lisa, scrambled to stay alive. They subsisted on eggs and mayonnaise sandwiches, occasionally splitting a tube of toothpaste and a cherry-flavored ChapStick to dull their hunger pangs. Once her mother left them alone with a child molester, a man who also supplied their mother with drugs. Despite such appalling, reckless behavior, Murray loved her mother, a “radiant and wild-looking” woman with “long, wavy black hair” who wore “flower-child blouses” in the East Village in the late 1970s and died of AIDS at 42. Murray also admired her father, a graduate-school dropout who kept The New Yorker by his bed and read voraciously, continually renewing his library card in a new name because he never returned the books.

She describes the everyday life of a coked-out household where blood was spattered on the kitchen walls, on clothes, even on a loaf of Wonder bread. She recalls that her mother’s track marks became so thick that her arms looked like “pale hamburger meat.” As children, she and her sister dined on Happy Meals in front of the television while their parents tripped on drugs: “The four of us together. French-fry grease on my fingertips. Lisa chewing on a cheeseburger. Ma and Daddy, twitching and shifting just behind us, euphoric.”

By age 6, Murray knew how to mainline drugs (though she never took them) and how to care for her strung-out parents. She showed uncanny maturity, even as a child, and later managed to avoid that malady of teenagers and memoir writers, self-pity. It was a luxury she couldn’t afford in her crime-ridden neighborhood, where she spent her nights looking out the window to make sure her parents returned safely from scoring drugs. Murray’s stoicism has been hard-earned; it serves her well as a writer.

Murray chronicles her days as a homeless teenager, and as a student at the Humanities Preparatory Academy in Manhattan, after her mother died and her father moved into a men’s shelter. She eventually wrote an essay about her experiences that won her a New York Times College Scholarship. She went to Harvard. She inspired a movie, “Homeless to Harvard,” that was broadcast on the Lifetime network. She survived.

Her mother, Jean Murray, comes across as a tormented character who did her best as a parent, despite addiction and mental illness, and was buried in a pine box, her name misspelled, in a pauper’s grave at the Gates of Heaven Cemetery. (Her husband didn’t show up for the funeral.) Till the end, Jean was adored by her daughter, despite the hardship she inflicted on those around her. “Breaking Night” itself is full of heart, without a sliver of ice, and deeply moving.

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About Elisabeth Gruner

English professor, University of Richmond
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One Response to Breaking Night by Liz Murray

  1. Emily Marsch says:

    This sounds like the type of Cinderella story that Karen Rowe would advocate because it features a very capable, self-sufficient and independent Cinderella. Murray, the Cinderella figure, goes from “rags to riches”–or, from “Homeless to Harvard,” as the film is called–due to her own hard work and perseverance. I suppose one could argue that the New York Times College Scholarship acted as a fairy godmother figure/external assistance and that Murray therefore wasn’t entirely independent, but nevertheless I think it’s important to note that the reason she got the scholarship in the first place is because she earned it through her writing, by working for it.

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