Breaking Night Summary

Liz Murray

Breaking Night

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Breaking Night Summary

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Breaking Night is a 2010 memoir by Liz Murray, recounting her journey from homeless teen to Harvard undergrad.

Murray grew up in the Bronx in 1980 to drug-addicted parents, who though loving were unable to provide anything resembling a steady home for Liz and her older sister Lisa. Murray’s family survived, barely, on welfare. They would spend their monthly checks within a week, mostly on drugs, leaving Liz and Lisa scrambling to stave off hunger. They would subsist on egg and mayonnaise sandwiches, at times even having to settle for toothpaste and ChapStick to keep hunger at bay. She recalls that by age six, she knew how to inject drugs (cocaine and heroin being their main vices) and also how to care for parents that should have been caring for her. She describes looking after her mother when she’d come home drunk: ““I’d take my mother and clean her up; help her, naked and vulnerable, into a warm bath; shampoo her hair as clumps of it came out in my hands. Sometimes she’d vomit in the tub and we had to start all over again.”

Still, she describes her parents with love and sympathy. She understands that her mother started using drugs at thirteen to escape her own painful childhood, and that she suffers from schizophrenia alongside addiction. She writes to her mother: “People had done that to you all your life, hadn’t they? Treated you like something they needed to back away from. Me too…. You and me, Ma, reminds me of how pearls are made. People see pearls as beautiful, perfect gems, but never realize that they actually come from pain…” She also describes her father’s voracious reading habit, with copies of the New Yorker stacked by his bed and myriad library cards (a new one taken out each time a book was not returned). She also realizes that he suffers from OCD in tandem with his drug addiction.

But though she loved them, her home life was irredeemably squalid. She describes the apartment as containing blood-spattered walls, an odor that could be smelled from the hallway, and herself as dirty and lice-infested. Her parents’ negligence and hunger for drugs was such that she left them in the care of a child molester with whom she traded sexual favors for drugs, who abused Liz in her mother’s absence. Her mother collapses under the weight of guilt, unhappy memories, and a diagnosis of HIV.

When her mother finally decides to detox and leave her father, Liz decides not to go with her, staying in the filthy environment she grew up in. However, her unreliable home life leads to her continued truancy from school and she is eventually placed in a home for girls. She finds the regimented nature suffocating, and worries about her father’s welfare. She is released into her mother’s care, but decides instead to make a go of it on the streets alone, making her homeless at fifteen.

She carried a crumpled snapshot of her mother at a similar age with her as she navigated her itinerant lifestyle. During this time Murray rode subways for shelter, slept in stairwells and in friends’ apartments, and continued to skip school. She dated a charismatic drug dealer named Carlos, but managed to keep her parents’ example in mind and avoid addiction. At the death of her mother from AIDS, Murray finally felt motivated to return to school and seek her own stability in life. Though still homeless, she was dedicated to finishing high school in two years and earning all As.

She achieved her goal by relying on the kindness of her friends—often using their showers or camping in their rooms but having the leave before daybreak, a habit that gives the book its title: “breaking night.” As she approached graduation, she began to think of college, and applied to a New York Times scholarship and admittance at Harvard, both of which she achieved. She then rents an apartment with her sister, finally having built a true home.

In her straight-forward, no-frills prose, Murray paints a portrait of a damaged childhood without strains of self-pity. Though it is a testament to her perseverance, Murray does not write to gloat, but still expresses surprise about how her life has turned around, stating: “Had I known how difficult it was supposed to be to interview with Harvard or the New York Times, had anyone told me that these were hard, nearly impossible things to do, then I may have never done them. I didn’t know enough about the world to analyze the likelihood of my success.” She credits those friends, teachers, and strangers who showed her kindness and gave her the support she needed to reach goals that seemed unattainable when she was a homeless teen. Uplifting but frank, Murray’s memoir provides a moving portrayal of one woman’s unlikely success when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds.