Book Review: Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard, by Liz Murray


Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard
by Liz Murray
Hyperion
2010
334 pages

“breaking night”:  urban slang for staying up through the night
until the sun rises.

That’s a pretty apt description for Liz Murray’s life.  Growing up in the Bronx, hers was a childhood where the family’s only source of income (her mother’s social security check; she was legally blind) fed her parents’ cocaine habit instead of their two starving children. Once the money was gone, the only food in their roach-infested apartment would be rotten mayonnaise sandwiches and eggs – if that.  Oftentimes, Liz and her sister Lisa ate toothpaste and – for a “treat,” cherry-flavored Chapstick.

Because of the reference to Harvard in the subtitle, you would expect this to be a story where Liz attended school faithfully, earning straight As and attending an Ivy League college. 

It isn’t.

That would eventually happen, but as a young child, Liz’s priority was survival instead of school.  She would stay up all night waiting for one or both of her parents to return from the bars or from scoring nickel or dime bags of cocaine from their dealers on the Bronx streets, and then watching her parents in the kitchen as they got high.  Like many young kids, Liz wanted to be helpful; she did so by setting out her parents’ drug paraphenalia so that it would be ready when they arrived home.

She writes candidly – and graphically – of their drug use, bringing her reader right into the kitchen with her.

“I eventually outgrew my tolerance for being witness to all of this: my parents’ naked arms under our flickering flourescent light; the very moment a needle punctured their flesh, thin and vulnerable as grape skin; their blood drawn up the syringe in a red cloud, and then shot back in again, causing their electric rush to overtake their faces.  Then, blood all over – blood speckling the walls, across their shirts, onto our newest pack of Wonder bread, on the sugar jar. Maybe worst of all was watching them overuse one spot on their bodies, the way it swelled and began to darken, to shine, and even to smell.  The way Ma searched desperately for a clean spot on her feet or between her toes.  For more than the gore aspect was their desperation that grew more obvious to me over time. That’s what the whole thing was – an ongoing movie of their desperation playing out in front of me, as though I were seated alone in a dark cinema, watching an eerie slow-motion black-and-white film of their lives crashing and burning. It wore on me, and where I had once tried so hard to be involved, I now grew tired and longed to go anywhere else in order to escape it.” (pg. 111)

Even after Liz’s mother was diagnosed with AIDS (of which she would succumb to in 1996, as well as her father several years later) and her father relinquished her into the custody of the state – which swept her into a group home for girls – the family’s situation didn’t improve.  In fact, Liz became homeless at 15, surviving on the streets or secretly stashed away in friends’ bedrooms after their unknowing parents went to sleep. Sneaking out before dawn, Liz would then go surreptiously bag groceries at supermarkets (she just walked in and started bagging) for tips and the occasional shoplifted Oscar Mayer Lunchable that would become her only food that day.

She made a friend named Sam, and together the two girls were homeless together, often staying in seedy motels paid for by Liz’s shifty boyfriend Carlos.

“It’s not like we were those homeless people you saw pushing shopping wagons full of sad things like picture frames, electornic parts, and bags of clothing; such obviously broken people that you could guess, just by looking, what it was that bent and broke to get them there.  Compared to them we were lucky, without whole lives that needed pushing in carts or carrying in bags that kept bustng open and spilling to remind them just what it was they held on to, and why they refused to stop carrying it.

We were still young.  And no matter where we slept, I knew… I had only to carry with me my family and the notion of home. A bundle easy enough to grip, made light by fmailiarity, things I’d carried with me all along …. I’d been practicing all my life for this, carrying things. For others it came as a shock. No matter how exhausted we were or what slant he [Carlos] put on the situation, I was only breaking night, fending off the dark until the sun rose each day, when I’d start over, ready and able to do it again.” (pg. 191)

Liz’s story is obviously  incredibly inspirational – and it is the basis of her life’s work as founder and director of her own company called Manifest Living. Her life’s work is to empower adults to create the results they want in their own lives. She is inspirational, articulate, beautiful, and charismatic – and living proof that our past doesn’t have to define our future. “Breaking night” is more than a street term here; it is the symbolism of going through the darkest and scariest times of one’s life and emerging whole into the light that is waiting.

In that regard, Breaking Night is proof of how story itself can outshine what is, in this case, writing that is not always quite all there.  I don’t know enough about the editing process to speak definitively, but it almost seemed as if there were two separate editors on this one.  On one hand, there are several incredibly moving and heartwrenching passages in this memoir.  (The ones I’ve quoted from in this review are, to me, among the most moving of them all.) But there are other recollections that tend to fall a little flat, to be an almost journalistic type of recitation of events that makes the reader feel (at times) a bit distanced. 

Despite that, Breaking Night is an important and worthy book for two important reasons.  It shines a light on the dark world of teenage homelessness, a world in which I have (thankfully) not had to spend any amount of time. Sadly, more than 1.6 million teenagers do. According to the website for the National Coalition for the Homeless, “[t]he number of the homeless youth is estimated by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the US Department of Justice. Their most recent study, published in 2002, reported there are an estimated 1,682,900 homeless and runaway youth. This number is equally divided among males and females, and the majority of them are between the ages of 15 and 17 (Molino, 2007).  According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, unaccompanied youth account for 1% of the urban homeless population, (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2007).  Plain and simple, it is a disgrace that we have an estimated 1.6 million homeless teens in the United States. 

Secondly, this memoir is a testament to the power of forgiveness and love.  I’m amazed by people like Liz Murray and Jeannette Walls (author of The Glass Castle, to which Breaking Night has been compared) whose hearts are able to find a peaceful place within to accept what their parents did and didn’t do for them as children.  It is unfathomable to many of us who grew up differently; indeed, many who have read memoirs like this can’t surmise how that is possible.

But it is, as Liz writes, sharing a special moment with her mother.

“She looked at me with tears in her eyes, ‘I’m not a monster, Lizzy,’ she said.  ‘I can’t stop. Forgive me, pumpkin?’

Then I was crying too; we both were.  We ended up on the bathroom floor together, hugging each other, her syringe resting on the surface of the sink, directly in my view, my mother’s arms riddled up and down with aging needle marks.  In the softest voice, she kept asking me for that same simple thing: ‘Forgive me, Lizzy.’

So I did.

She didn’t mean to do it; she would have stopped if she could have.  ‘It’s okay, Ma, I forgive you,’ I assured her.  I forgave her in that moment, and I forgave her again two months later when she went into the frezerr and took the Thanksgiving turkey we’d gotten from the church and sold it to a neighbor so that she could buy another hit. Forgiving her didn’t mean that I wasn’t devastated.  I was heartbroken and deeply hurt whenever they left us hungry. I just didn’t blame Ma or Daddy for my hurt. I wasn’t angry at them.  If I hated anything at at all, I hated drugs and addiction itself, but I did not hate my parents. I loved my parents, and I knew they loved me.  I was sure of it.” (pg. 50-51)

And this:

“One winter night, around four a.m. when Daddy was exhausted, he gave in to my demands for a walk around the neighborhood in the virgin snow.  The early-morning hour and the new snow, which sparkled like a bed of bright diamonds beneath the glow of the Bronx street lamps, insulated us, and made it seem as if the crunching underfoot was the only sound for miles.  The more I pressed him, the more we walked.  He told me stories of his psychology studies in college; he taught me things he’d learned there, insisting I would need them someday. ‘I love you, Lizzy,’ he told me.  We walked for miles that night without seeing another soul in the empty, snow-covered streets, until it felt as if there really was no one else; as if Daddy belonged only to me and the world belonged only to us. And I knew that I was loved.”  (pg. 51)

Knowing that, despite everything, you are loved.  Maybe that’s the key to breaking through the darkest of nights. 

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