Breaking Night: A Journey From Homeless to Harvard

“Breaking Night”

Urban slang for: staying up through the night, until the sun rises.

Listen to Rose Aguilar’s interview with Liz Murray:

Liz Murray was born in 1980 to loving but drug-addicted parents in the Bronx. When she was just three, she watched her parents shoot up on the kitchen table as roaches weaved their way in and out of the door crack.

When Liz was six, she would watch her mom desperately search for veins and then follow the dried, spattered blood spots along the wall when she missed.

In her remarkable new memoir, “ Breaking Night,” Liz writes, “Every night was like this. While Ma and Daddy injected themselves with cocaine and ran in and out, like a tag team, I stayed close by and shared the night with them. I helped keep them safe. And even if they were high, they were still right there, within my reach.”

Liz’s parents got high two and a half weeks out of the month, nonstop. They were so addicted, they often spent their last few dollars on nickel bags when the fridge contained only a jar of rotten mayonnaise and an old, watery head of lettuce. Raised in squalor, Liz and her older sister Lisa occasionally split a tube of toothpaste and cherry-flavored ChapStick because they were so hungry. Stomach burns became common.

After Liz became furious with her mother for stealing five dollars from a birthday card to buy a bag of cocaine, her mother went to the bathroom and flushed it down the toilet. “I’m not a monster,” her mother said. “I can’t stop. Forgive me, pumpkin?” They embraced on the bathroom floor and cried together. “And I forgave her,” she said during an interview on Your Call. “My mom taught me that people can’t give you what they don’t have.”

Liz’s mother turned to drugs at a young age after she and her family endured violence from their alcoholic father.

In her book, Liz consistently emphasizes that she hated drugs and addiction, but she did not hate her parents. “I loved my parents, and I knew they loved me. I was sure of it,” she writes.

But at 15, her family unraveled and Liz found herself on the streets. She learned to scrape by, foraging for food and riding subways all night to have a warm place to sleep.

After her mother’s death from AIDS, Liz, then 17, decided to turn her life around. After several rejections, she was finally accepted into Humanities Preparatory Academy, an alternative high school in New York City. She stayed with friends whenever possible, but more often than not, she completed her assignments in hallways and subway cars where she slept.

The teachers’ dedication to seeing their troubled students succeed gave Liz the encouragement she needed to excel in her 11 classes and eventually become engrossed in Shakespeare and travel with student groups to represent the school in regional conferences.

“I began wearing colorful clothing, taking my hair out my face and, slowly, looking people in the eyes. I learned that my voice mattered,” she writes. “But I think that it was the teachers themselves who were my biggest lesson at Prep. My teachers, my role models, became my compass in an otherwise dark and confusing world.”

Squeezing four years of high school into two, Liz went on to win a New York Times scholarship and was accepted into Harvard. She graduated in June 2009.

Today Liz gives motivational speeches around the world and encourages troubled kids to stay away from drugs and alcohol and not let their hardships hold them back. She’s currently on a road trip to support Blessings in a Backpack, an organization that gives hungry children backpacks filled with food to eat over the weekend when schools are closed. She’s hoping to raise enough money to feed 50,000 children.

Liz’s story speaks to the growing, but often ignored problems of childhood poverty, neglect, and hunger. According to national child abuse statistics, a report of child abuse is made every ten seconds and almost five children die everyday as a result of child abuse. One out of every six children (12.4 million) is at risk of going hungry and according to the new Census numbers, more than 20 percent of all children live in poverty.

Rose Aguilar is the host of “Your Call,” a daily call-in radio show on KALW 91.7 FM in San Francisco and on KUSP 88.9 FM in Santa Cruz. She is author of “Red Highways: A Liberal’s Journey Into the Heartland.”