Saturday, October 1, 2011

Liz Murray on Her Tumultuous Childhood in "Breaking Night"

(This interview originally ran in the Newark Star-Ledger in October 2010)

In her searing and raw autobiography “Breaking Night : A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard (Hyperion, $25) Liz Murray chronicles her childhood living with drug-addicted parents in the hard-hit streets of the Bronx during the crack wars of the 1980s.

Murray’s mother was a legally blind beauty and part-time prostitute. Her father was an ex-graduate student from Long Island. The focus of their lives was using cocaine, with their two daughters being almost an afterthought. Living in a filthy apartment, Murray and her sister mostly fended for themselves. In one horrific period, the mother exposed her daughters to a child molester for free drugs. Murray hooked up with a group of other kids from broken homes who protected each other. She was homeless for four years, but fell into a nurturing alternative high school where she was mentored and miraculously accepted into Harvard University. Murray’s memoir is a riveting look at drug abuse, shattered families and her own resilience.

Murray, 30, is a motivational speaker who lives in New York City. She spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley on her cell phone from the Detroit Airport.

Q. When did you start writing the book?

A. The book you just read I wrote in one draft when I was 19. I rewrote it several times this past year. My journal from when I was homeless was everything. When you are reading “Breaking Night,” you are basically reading that journal. I ripped the pages out and said, “Okay, I am going to write about what really punched me in the gut when I was out on the streets.”

Q. Early in your memoir, you have a brutal image of your three-year-old self watching your parents shoot up cocaine. Why did you use this incident?

A. When I started writing about that time period, when my dad came out of jail, I wanted to remember the innocence of not really knowing what the significance of what they were doing was. All I knew was that I wanted to get close to them and to be included. To trace the moment of when I really had no idea what I was in for, it was when they started shooting up in front of me. I want the reader to be taken down the rabbit hole with me.

Q. By nine or 10, you were on the streets, hanging out with other feral kids. You managed to create a de facto family that helped each other. Could you describe your tribe?

A. I didn’t realize this at the time, but especially when my friends and I were adolescents, we were recreating our lost families with each other. There are a lot of teenagers across the country whose families were not together. My situation was not unique. We looked for family where we could get it.

Q. Your mother died of AIDS at the age of 42. In one scene, your mother tries to sell your sister’s winter coat to buy a five-dollar hit of cocaine. A contemptuous drug dealer tosses her a Narcotics Anonymous sobriety coin. What does that coin mean to you?

A. It’s in a frame in my room next to my bed. I’ve kept it all these years. When I have this coin near me, I feel close to her. The essence of the Serenity prayer on the coin is that there are things you can control and things you can’t. When I hold that coin, I have peace in my heart. I know we loved each other the best we could. I can let the other painful things go.

I wrote this book for the community of families impacted by drug abuse. I hope this book winds up in every drug recovery center. I’d like to show you can survive a family devastated by drugs, that you can move towards forgiveness and move on with your life.

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