Breaking Night: Liz Murray’s Journey from Darkness to Light
You might recognize Liz Murray's name from the Lifetime movie Homeless to Harvard, which tells the story of her journey from living on the street in New York City to attending the Ivy League college. In her book Breaking Night, Murray writes about the emotional rollercoaster she went through as a homeless teen girl roaming the streets of The Bronx. Although the going got rough, Murray overcame adversity by asking for help, relying on friends, and believing that it is possible to change your life. Murray tells Teen Voices about her struggle and survival.
Liz Murray: The title comes from urban street slang. In The Bronx, there's this saying that when you stay up all night, it's called "breaking night." I thought everybody used that term because it was so commonplace, and when I was homeless as a teenager, I didn't actually identify myself as homeless. It first started with couch surfing at my friends' houses and then it deteriorated to walking the streets of New York with my friends until the sun came up. I would always just say, "Wow, we broke night. We're breaking night." I soon realized I wasn't only breaking night. I was homeless. When it came down to naming my memoir I could think of no more appropriate title than moving from darkness to light, so that's where the title comes from.
The memoir covers my life from the time I was born until I was 18, when I dropped an application to Harvard, and when I was just getting off the streets. It's really a journey about love, because there was so much love in my household even though my parents were heavily drug addicted and neglectful. We had so much love. It's really about forgiveness and making choices in your life that are in no way based on your past. It's about really getting to a point where you realize you can make choices about your future which are in no way based on your past and that kind of message about empowerment. What most people are familiar with is the "Homeless to Harvard" tagline from the movie [the television movie version of Murray's book]. And while it is, the story is so much more about what it takes to overcome adversity in your life.
TV: Talking about surviving homelessness must be very difficult. Has it become easier over the years?
Murray: There were very traumatic and difficult experiences in my survival like losing my mother to AIDS, but there hasn't been a point in my life where I haven't been surrounded by people who love me and whom I love. Even when I was homeless, I had really great friends and I've always had a very strong group of people around me who I love; people who are still in my life today. When I had nowhere to live, these were the people whose doorsteps I came to, who let me sleep over, who took care of me and loved me very much. Even in my darkest moments, I still had people who cared.
TV: You are living a life that is very different from the lives your parents lived. How have you gone about doing this?
Murray: The love that my parents had for me was a foundation. I was given a gift in a very complicated way. Tragedies serve as a reminder of what is very important in life. Before my mother died, I was really procrastinating my whole life away. When she died and I did not get a chance to see her again, I realized I did not have the "later" that I thought I had. It really was a huge wake-up call for me. There isn't always going to be a later. I think I was fortunate enough to learn from my parents' mistakes.
Murray: I've lost both my parents and there was a lot of trauma around it. I learned to be a survivor really early on. Things happen, but you have to keep moving. There wasn't really a time period where I sat and really truly mourned my parents, and what was so interesting was that in the process of writing your memoir, inevitably you have to write about your parents before you write about yourself. You have to write about where you came from.
When I sat down to write the memoir, I was able to trace my lineage, where I came from, how my life took shape, and it felt like sitting down and having a conversation with my parents who were long gone. I connected with that feeling, with that relationship. It was almost like being able to connect with them again even though they are not here anymore. That took me up and down some very intense rollercoasters of emotion that were very tough to deal with "“ but also, in a way, a beautiful sadness.
TV: How can teen girls who are in the situation you were in rise above the adversity they are facing?
Murray: Right off the bat, I learned to ask for help. No one gets where they are going alone. There are good places and bad places that offer help. I ended up in a bad situation in foster care at one point, and I made the mistake of thinking, "Well, if that situation was bad then there must be no one who can help me." That just wasn't true. I ended up finding teachers and a nonprofit called The Door that really helped me. It is about identifying those places that can help meet your needs and not being afraid of asking for that help.
Surround yourself with a really great support system, find friends that are sharing your goals. If you want to go to school, find friends who are also trying to go to school. If you want to study for something, find friends who are studying for something. Join a group of people who are reaching for the same thing you are reaching for. Surround yourself with support, and in that context of having those relationships, it'll really help lift you out. No matter how bad it is right now, it doesn't have to be that way. Life changes, and no matter what happened in your past, you can change what is going to happen in your future.
TV: Can you tell us about Manifest Living?
Murray: I do workshops now to help people transform their lives. Manifest Living is a series of adult workshops that offer tools for empowerment. Those tools will help people get from where they are now to where they want to be and I do that through experiential training like games, exercises, and team building.
TV: How did your relationship with education ultimately help you overcome homelessness?
Murray: Education was like somebody lowering a ladder into the place that I had been born into and offering me to climb out. And rung by rung, step by step, I did. It was really a pass to a life that was so much brighter than the one I had ever known.
TV: What do you want readers to take from your memoir?
Murray: For those families impacted by drug and alcohol addiction, I want them to know that healing and forgiveness are possible. Also, for people to realize their lives are filled with so much more possibility than we might have ever imagined, that really no matter where you come from, every moment is a new moment. Every single day is another chance, and your life is in so many ways a blank slate. Choice by choice, inch by inch, you can carve out a life for yourself that is not in any way limited by your past.
Photo credit: Steve Hart
Tagged as: authors, books for teens, Breaking Night, forgiveness, Homeless to Harvard, homelessness, Liz Murray, memoirs, motivation, overcoming adversity, redemption, survival, The Door, tools for empowerment