I first heard of this book when my mom mentioned that she’d stayed up all night reading it. This was a couple of years ago, but my mom’s strong reaction to the book made an impression on me. Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey From Homeless to Harvard (2010) by Liz Murray is pretty much exactly what it looks like from the title. It is a memoir by the author of her childhood and teen years in the Bronx. I found this book to be, at times, difficult to read. The never ending dysfunction, neglect, and downhill spiraling was depressing. However, Murray is able to turn things around and not follow in her parents’ footsteps. She is an incredibly inspiring person with a remarkable story. I will be going into detail about Liz’s life below. It doesn’t really feel like spoilers because it’s more about the journey than what happens, but if you want to read the book unaware, it might be better to stop now.
Liz describes what it was like growing up in the Bronx with her older sister, drug-addicted parents and mentally ill mother. Her childhood was a story of neglect and hunger. Her life was so different from a “regular” kid’s that she simply did not fit in with the rest of society. Their life orbited around the monthly disability checks her mom received for being mostly blind. For that first week, they would have food before her parents spent the rest of the money on drugs. Their bathtub was clogged up, leaving a putrid lake that made regular washing difficult if not impossible. By the time Liz was in kindergarten, she was intimately familiar with all manner of drug paraphernalia and use. Liz would go to school, dirty, and exhausted from making sure her mother returned from her latest drug run, made fun of by children who had parents who could take care of them.
By the time she was twelve, Liz was trying to make money for food herself by washing people’s windows at a gas station and bagging groceries for tips. When her mother leaves her father to live with another man, Liz’s older sister chooses to go with them, but Liz refuses to leave her father. It’s not long after that she’s put in a group home for never going to school. Although the group home allowed Liz regular meals, and it was where she learned that people really did shower every day, she hated it. She was surrounded by people who saw her as a number and didn’t care about her. The other girls in the home were mostly terrifying. In fact, her whole life, Liz was afraid of social services. She had zero interest in being torn from her parents and put in the care of strangers.
Liz left the group home and went to live with her mother. She discovered that her mother was dying of AIDS. Unable to deal with it, Liz and her best friend, who was being abused at home, took to the streets. They stay on the streets and stay with friends as much as they can. School goes by the wayside. She hooks up with a man who truly seems to understand her and is incredibly compassionate with her mother, but he turns into a controlling drug dealer. Her life starts spiraling downward as she becomes totally dependent on him.
But then a number of things occur that turn things around. Liz’s mother dies, and Liz is inspired to finish high school for her. She finds a remarkable alternative high school with caring, involved teachers. By this time, Liz’s father had been kicked out of her childhood home and is living in a homeless shelter. Liz is still on the streets, but she gets her father to sign her in to the high school, and she manages to graduate in two years. It is remarkable how Liz was able to succeed given the bare minimum of information and access to resources.
I was surprised that Liz, even as a child, was able to distinguish between her parents’ love and their neglect. Even as she went hungry, she somewhat understood that her parents were trying to do their best and that they loved her. I can’t imagine how it would affect a child whose parents care more about drugs than themselves. And she even states in the book how much it hurt that her father did not fight for her when child services came to pick her up and bring her to the group home. But she really seems to have forgiven her parents for everything and has gone on to make a life for herself. Liz Murray’s ability to clearly articulate how it felt to be outside of society from her earliest memories and how little social services could do for her was eye opening.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.