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When I first read the review on this book I was unsure if it was worth reading, after all there seem to be so many of these type of stories about abused or problem children who managed to make a decent life for themselves against all odds. Still, I suffer from depression and I know that reading something like this can lift my moods and give me a much-needed boost after reading. I'm so glad I did read this; it was on the librarian's desk ready to be placed on the new bookrack, as I was about to leave. Fate decided for me.
The author, Liz Murray was someone I knew nothing about, probably since she's American. I haven't seen the television film made about her inspiring story 'Homeless to Harvard: the Liz Murray story.' Now I know about her from reading the book I will be certain to visit the website to find out more. Evidently she travels the world delivering motivational speeches and conducting workshops.
The Story behind the book.
Liz Murray was born into a world without hope. The second daughter of two drug-addicts and alcoholic parents, she and her sister Lisa lived through circumstance that would have turned a weaker character into the same pattern as her parents. Of course we already know that she turns out fine, but how she got there against all odds is a fascinating and sometimes humbling read that is so true to life that it will have you in tears long before the end. Many of these tears will be because she doesn't think of herself as anybody special, she's a fighter and it shows, but more about that later.
The early years.
A large part of the book is about the years between the late 1970's to the 1990's when Liz herself became homeless at the age of just fifteen. Lisa was born in 1978 and Liz just over a year later in September 1980 with drugs in her system but without any birth defects. With her father in prison and her mother just managing to stay off the hard drugs long enough to keep the family together, Liz remembers things from very early in her life when both parents started doing coke and getting drunk to come down from their highs. The story itself reads as if a very young woman is writing it, maybe someone semi-literate and it's something I imagine that the author did without planning it, there is no self-pity and the love for her family comes across as strong as if they were ordinary people, not addicts.
Parts of the story are hard to read. The young Liz talks compassionately about both her parents. Her mother came from a rough Irish family who routinely beat her until she ran away from home aged thirteen. Her father came from a poor background without a father and a loveless mother who still managed to get him through school. Her mother was almost blind from her twenties but still managed to find her way into the nearest pub. Her father was in and out of prison. The children were never beaten, though they were often dirty, hungry and lonely, Liz insists her parents loved her and her sister.
Liz writes in a matter of fact way about stealing from shops and houses, doing all sorts of odd jobs to scrape enough money together to feed her and Lisa. A skinny little kid crawling with lice and emaciated by hunger she still talks about waiting throughout the night for her parents to come home from wherever they've been doing drugs or getting drunk. She holds her mother through her 'downers', washing the mess from her bottom and cleaning up vomit. She doesn't seem to think it unusual to hand over birthday money and anything she manages to beg or steal to give her mother to buy a 'baggie', more drugs to stop her shaking. Through this her sister manages to help but is mostly in school, unlike Liz who is bright but cannot stand school.
As the story moves on the reader discovers why Liz plays truant and after making sure her parents are alright she often runs about at night, hence the title of the book, 'breaking night' is the Bronx slang for staying up all night until dawn breaks. As she gets older Liz is betrayed by her mother and becomes homeless herself. I won't say why, I don't want to give away any more of the story. Throughout the years when she's still at home we see that neither of the girls take drugs and in Liz's case she doesn't drink alcohol. This isn't prudish; she wants to be in control of her mind and body.
While she is homeless and sometimes sleeping at friend's houses or in doorways, Liz decides to go back and finish high school. How she manages to get a school to accept her and then her battle to be accepted for college, not any college but Harvard, is a large part of the story and even though we know she succeeds it doesn't distract from the book at all.
With an autobiography there isn't much I can say about plot or characterization. Liz tells her story from the heart and I imagine it took some doing. While you or I might expect her to be bitter she only blames herself when things go wrong. There is no hiding her feelings of loss and inadequacy, for many years she couldn't meet anyone's eyes. When she writes about the dirt, the inches of grease in the kitchen, the bath that's so dirty it stinks, she isn't blaming anyone, she's showing us what drugs do but not preaching. Neither did I ever get the feeling she was writing more to shock or make people feel sorry for her.
Writing the book was as much a part of herself as her determination to motivate other people, more lost souls who need a step up. She's saying, 'look, this was my life, I hated it and decided to do something about it.' Neither is it one of those books where you eventually start to feel uncomfortable about the disclosures. We all know that some people who have survived terrible childhoods can become just a bit too much. As a race the British tend to sweep things like this under the carpet or relegate the stories way back to the past. I think of American's as rather brash sometimes and the cult of 'motivation' a bit in my face. Liz Murray never makes me feel this way.
Of course it's hard to read a book like this. I don't want reminding of my own faults but I see so much of myself in the girl who wanted to be loved more than anything else. I came from a pretty poor background myself, we didn't have an indoor toilet until I was in my late teens and a bath was a luxury. My dad was a compulsive gambler who often spent our food money. That didn't stop me loving him and holding his hand right to his last breath.
I imagine other readers will see different things themselves. People that have tough childhoods don't as a rule feel that envious of others, they are too busy just getting by.
I feel sorry for the author because she had to fight every inch of the way to get what other people take for granted. I admire her for turning her life around and helping others do the same. I put the book down and sighed. For a while I will feel uplifted and that's worth the price of a book, isn't it?
Highly recommended, I will buy this to keep. It costs about £3.91 on Amazon and used from £2.20.
As always thanks for reading.
©Lisa Fuller 2011.
Breaking Night is the autobiography of Liz Murray, a young woman who was homeless at fifteen yet still made her way through the doors of Harvard University. It's both depressing and inspirational in equal measures, and completely absorbing.
This book see Liz Murray track her life from early childhood to her entry to Harvard and it really is an incredible journey. Born with drugs in her system to loving but deeply flawed, drug-addicted parents in the Bronx, Murray's childhood is really quite horrifying. This part of the book can be quite difficult to read - the image of Liz and her sister sharing a tube of lip balm because they were so hungry will stay with me for a long time. In most other books where the children are seen to be struggling in such a way, the parents would likely be vilified for their neglect, however as this is being written from the perspective of their daughter you get a much less black-and-white view on things. You come to see them as Liz sees them: extremely troubled individuals who try as best they can but whose relationship with drugs defines them more than their relationship with their children.
After the trauma of her upbringing, Liz found herself living on the streets at fifteen, though after what her parents went through she never touches drugs. Having dropped out of school, we see her alternating between sleeping on friend's floors and sleeping on the streets, getting into relationships with dangerous men and basically living from day-to-day with no real plan other than to find something to eat and somewhere the sleep. Yet what is so amazing about this book is that there never seems to be a tone of self-pity: everything is told in an almost matter-of-fact way which makes it even more harrowing.
This book won't be the easiest read of your life by any means, but it's an incredible insight into the poverty-stricken lives that some children are still born into. It is also an incredibly inspiring story about how - and I apologise if this sounds cheesy - someone can overcome these incredible challenges. Despite her childhood and life on the streets, Liz manages to complete high school - cramming four years into two years - and makes it to Harvard.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone that isn't afraid to hear about the realities of living in poverty and wants to be inspired by a truly incredible woman. It is probably not a book if you are looking for some escapism as it can be quite harrowing and really stays with you for long after the book is finished. I believe this book is really quite reasonably priced on Amazon at the moment (about £3.90 for an e-reader copy or paperback copy), so I'd definitely suggest that this is worth a go.