A child of drug-addicted parents, Liz Murray, author of the memoir “Breaking Night,” managed to find her way to a productive adult life through some combination of gumption, smarts, luck, and the certainty that her drug-addicted parents loved her as much as they were able. “They were incredibly loving people,” she says. “There was not a day in my life without my dad saying, ‘I love you very much.’ And my mother called me pumpkin, and said, ‘You are the best thing that ever happened to me.’”
As a small child Murray did have at least a semblance of a stable family life. “It was our version of stable,” she says. “Other people wouldn’t have called it stable. There was stability in the sense that there was love.” But as she moved into elementary school and then junior high, her parents’ addictions grew more intense. Her mother had several schizophrenic breakdowns and hospitalizations, and Murray’s own school attendance diminished. By the time she got to high school, she stopped going altogether.
And still she ended up with a degree from Harvard.
Murray will talk about her life on Tuesday, April 12, at 7:30 p.m., at the NJ State Theater in New Brunswick as part of SmartTalk Connected Conversations. Cost: $25-$75. Visit statetheatrenj.org.
Murray’s mother had grown up in the Bronx with an abusive father. As would later happen to Murray, her mother ended up homeless as a teen and dropped out of school. But what distinguished Murray from her mother was that she stayed away from drugs.
Murray’s father was the only child in a middle class, Long Island family. While in graduate school at New York University he started selling drugs because he was taking them, and then dropped out to deal fulltime. An elaborate scam he developed — impersonating doctors’ offices and printing prescription pads to secure strong pain medications — landed him in federal prison for three years. While selling drugs he met Murray’s mother at a party and the couple had one daughter, Murray’s older sister, Lisa. While Murray’s mother was pregnant with her, her father went to prison. While he was away her mother moved back to the Bronx and went on welfare.
“They partied really hard in the ’70s, then the party was over,” Murray says. “My sister and I grew up in the aftermath.”
Eventually Murray’s parents split up and her mother moved in with a boyfriend. Lisa moved with her mother, but Liz remained in the Bronx apartment.
“I stayed with my dad, wanting everyone to come back together,” she says. But that lasted only until she was 13 and the truancy officers caught up with her and checked her into a group home, where she stayed for a year.
In the meantime, her father had moved to a shelter, unable to afford rent without her mother’s welfare check, so Murray moved in for a period with her mother, sister, and the boyfriend. At her new school, she managed to hook up with a group of peers who became very close friends. But soon she felt overwhelmed by the huge Bronx school and stopped going.
She was also not comfortable living in the boyfriend’s apartment. The last straw came when he kicked out Murray’s homeless friend, Sam, whom she had been hiding under her bed most nights. Worried about Sam’s safety and fearful of truant officers, she went out on the streets with Sam, and later a boyfriend joined them.
They slept on friends’ couches, on the top landings of apartment building, in parks, or on subway trains. “Couch surfing is the first stage of homelessness,” says Murray. “It works only until the day people stop answering their doors.”
Like her mother had, Murray tended to assume that “later” she would deal with her problems, go to school, and fix up her life. But things changed when her mother died from AIDS. “She also had things she wanted to do,” Murray says. “She wanted to be sober, to have a good home for us; she wanted all this stuff, but she died so she didn’t get to do it. What got illuminated for me is that you can say ‘later’ your whole life, but there is no later once you have passed away.” This realization gave her the sense of urgency that soon sent her back to school.
She managed to find her way to an alternative high school, the Humanities Preparatory Academy on 19th Street in Chelsea. Starting her first class as a freshman at 17 she had a lot of catching up to do. So she jumped right in, signed up for all the classes she could, plus Saturday classes, night school, and independent studies. She managed to finish in two years.
What kept Murray going was an environment of devoted teachers intent on creating community and mutual respect. This was entirely different from what she had been used to. “I’d gone through a lot of public school that didn’t work,” she says. “I’d gone to huge high schools in the Bronx where you heard teachers say, ‘I get paid whether or not you learn.’ People were so apathetic; they didn’t care if I didn’t show up. They didn’t notice.”
The quality in the teachers at “Prep” that meant everything to Murray was a simple one. “They listened,” says Murray. The school was kept purposely small, with no more than 150 students, and was driven by a social mission of responsibility, diversity, and humanity. “The teachers remember everyone’s names and the principal notices when somebody is absent. The environment sends the message that a person matters, and I had never been in an environment where someone listened and cared.”
Murray would stay at school as late as she could, until the janitor or the last teacher left. Then she would usually go to a friend’s. A nonprofit about a mile from her school, The Door (door.org), provided her and other homeless teens with food, healthcare, and tutoring.
On a field trip to Boston, Murray fell in love with Harvard. But to make any private school a reality, she needed scholarships galore. So she won one from the New York Times. She attributes her success to her complete cluelessness about the paper’s revered socio-cultural position and the difficulty of securing one of its scholarships. So she wasn’t particularly nervous. And when she won, she was totally amazed at what came next: from the newspaper story about her to the woman who showed up at her school and offered to do her laundry.
She did get into Harvard, off the waiting list after a couple of months of obsessive trips to the mailbox. She remembers her first day. “My roommate’s mom was helping her daughter move in, putting vitamins and stuff in her drawers. An ABC News crew was filming me, and they helped me move in,” she says.
As to how well she fit in? “We would laugh about our cultural differences. On holidays, we would go to the Bronx, and they would eat in a Spanish place in a bad neighborhood, and I would show them everything,” she says. “Then I went to their houses and they showed me the wealth they grew up in — it was like a cultural exchange.”
She didn’t graduate until 2009 because she was going part time while running her business, Manifest Training, and also took some time off to care for her father, who was ill with AIDS and other ailments.
Her business is a coaching and leadership company offering workshops to inspire adults to reach goals important to them. Her four and five-day workshops use experiential exercises focusing on trust, empowerment, and contribution. The business grew out of speaking invitations following the publicity she got for her scholarship.
A psychology major at Harvard, Murray thinks she would like to be a therapist. “For my whole life I have been curious what makes the difference in a person’s life,” she says. “As I’m studying for my GREs and looking at psychology programs, I can’t get that curiosity out of my head: why does one person end up in one place and another in another?”
Murray is also giving back. Recently she joined the board of the Door, where she is part of a team that will be launching one of the first high schools for homeless teens in the United States, scheduled to open in August. For more information, check out Broomestreetacademy.org or Murray’s own site, Homelesstoharvard.com.
Murray thinks certain qualities of her own personality have helped her to succeed:
Double check. “One quality that was always extraordinarily helpful — I don’t know where I got it from, but it was always part of my nature — is double checking things,” she says. She always questions why something is or is not true. “So many people tell you what you can and cannot do, and most of time they are people who haven’t tried,” she says. So she always presses them until she gets to the real truth.
Forgive and move on. “I don’t personalize a lot of things,” says Murray. “I didn’t think that my parents being addicted to drugs was about me or at me.” If she has issues, she does not dwell on them. “I don’t do paralysis by analysis,” she says. “I get up and do something, and I think that kind of persistence, not holding on to things and moving on, has served me quite a bit in life.”
Deal with your feelings. Her past is still there, of course. Murray misses her parents, who are now both dead. But if she starts to dwell on her losses, she says, “I deal with it, talk with it, or go into Barnes and Noble and get self-help books.”
The process of writing her memoir was very cathartic for her. “It felt like I was dialoguing with my parents when I was writing it — like I was sitting across the table and talking to them,” she says. “Parts were very intense, and parts were just an outlet to talk to them. At moments it made me laugh, at moments I was hysterical, but overall it was incredibly healing.”
The title of her memoir is “Breaking Night,” which is slang among her Bronx compatriots for staying up all night until the sun rises. “When it came time to name my memoir,” she says, “I thought, ‘What could be better than moving from darkness to light.’”