Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Breaking Night: A Readerly Response

I've had this readerly response to Liz Murray's memoir brewing in me for months now. But I'm too busy and burned out from school papers to get all academia on ya. Let me just say I so wanted to pluck the kid-Liz-Murray right out of the Bronx apartment she shared with her drug addicted parents and her sober sister, Lisa.  The story is that Liz's Ma and Daddy spend most of Ma's disability check (Ma is blind and schizophrenic) on cocaine, which means Liz and Lisa go hungry for about 28 days out of the month. Ma and Daddy are so caught up in the cycle of drug binging that nothing is done about their daughters' empty stomachs, or the increasing filth in the apartment, or the water in the bathtub that won't drain for months, eventually turning grimy and foul, or the facts that Liz is not sleeping and that she's ditching school and DHS workers are showing up with increasing frequency at the door.

With no adult supervision and with basic needs unment, kid-Liz-Murray does what any other resourceful kid in her situation would do: she skips school most days and goes out to look for food or money for food. Somehow she averts the clutches of DHS workers long enough to pass each grade through to high school, at which point Ma is so desperate to get out of the drug cycle that she leaves Daddy and moves in with a new boyfriend ("Brick"), but not before revealing to Liz that she (Ma) is HIV positive. Soon after, Liz is taken into custody by child welfare and sent for a time to a "diagnostic residential center" before she is released into Brick's custody. What seems like a fresher start for Liz, Ma, and Lisa takes a rather downward turn as Ma continues to drink heavily and decline from AIDS and Liz lapses into truancy from school. Rather than risk being caught by DHS again, Liz decides to head for the streets where her life takes on a rhythm of uncertainty against the backdrop of friendships with other homeless youth who are also struggling to survive. Sleep comes when she can cajole a friend into letting her stay on a bedroom floor, or else on the subway or when she can find a stair landing in an apartment building somewhere, alone or with friends.  Kid-Liz-Murray's life gets more complicated with a drug dealing boyfriend from whom she finds herself needing to escape, and then Ma actually does die, from AIDS, in the middle of what should have been kid-Liz-Murray's high school career.

In case you haven't guessed it, Breaking Night is a My Horrible Childhood sort of book in the vein of Angela's Ashes or The Glass Castle.  It was almost too awful to read at times, and I found myself shaking from trauma by proxy.  But you haven't seen the subtitle of this book yet: It's this, and it's a doozy: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard.  Indeed. This has a happy ending.  So happy, in fact, so redemptive, you'll wonder if Liz Murray has been on Oprah, and in fact, when you Google, you'll see that Murray was the recipent of Oprah's "Chutzpah Award" (did you know this existed?).  We find out from the book jacket that, today, Murray is the founder of Manifest Living, a company that helps grown-ups realize their potential and reach for their dreams.

But how did she get here? Well, kid-Liz-Murray had a revelation one homeless night that her friends would never be able to pay her rent. At that moment she realized she needed to get an education. What ensued was what I'll call a courageous attempt to get herself enrolled in an alternative high school, while homeless. Only two years away from turning 18, Murray managed to complete all her high school credits with high honors in those two years. She won a New York Times Scholarship, received much press, and was accepted to Harvard. Since then, she wrote this thoughtful, well-crafted book, and o yeah, her story was made into a movie on Lifetime.

If this were fiction it'd be an awfully predictable read, all-loose-ends-tied-up sort of read, but I forgive Murray the closure. The story was so riveting, well-written, and awful that, in fact, I sincerely celebrated its redemptive pieces, and wished for her only more happiness. And maybe another Chutzpah Award. Hell, I'd even watch the movie on Lifetime.

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