Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness,
Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard

by Liz Murray

Hyperion, 2010. ISBN 978-078-686891-9.
Reviewed by B. Lynn Goodwin
Posted on 11/09/2010

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Life Lessons

Whether you've had a bad year or a bad life, Liz Murray's Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard will put your problems in perspective. Young Liz craves her parents' love and attention, but when the welfare checks come, she watches them mainline their stash from the kitchen door, her father inserting the needle into her legally blind mother's arm. She portrays her parents with love, forgiveness, honesty, and a mature perspective common to children of alcoholics and addicts.

At fifteen she takes to the streets, living with friends, sleeping in stairways, and sharing a motel room with her boyfriend Carlos, until she realizes that he is as addicted and dysfunctional as her parents are. Though she could not live with her parents, she checked in regularly and provided care as AIDS attacked their already debilitated bodies. Murray always carried her mother's picture and NA (Narcotics Anonymous) coin in her backpack.

The poverty of her life on the streets, in stairwells, and other people's couches wore her down. A former truant, she grabbed the opportunity to earn a high school diploma rather than a GED at eighteen. An alternative high school named Humanities Prep provided the support, community, and accountability she needed to thrive. With the encouragement of Perry and other exceptional teachers, she earned her high school diploma in two years rather than four. When she found the description of the New York Times Scholarship, asking only for an article about the obstacles she had overcome, she poured out the required essay in one afternoon and evening.

Murray's memoir was written after the Lifetime movie about her life, Homeless to Harvard, came to the screen. The book takes us into her head and heart in ways the film could not. Murray writes objectively, honestly, and without self-pity. She shows her early naiveté honestly and shares her gutsy exploits on the streets without apology or defensiveness. She builds her own family; a network she calls her tribe, and discovers that friends are there for you but don't pay your rent.

Her prose is direct, detailed, fair, and balanced. Her descriptions are sometimes gritty and sometimes lyrical. They are always heartfelt.

Although the narrative slowed while she lived on the street, in the motel, and under Carlos' thumb, Murray may have been capturing the way her life felt. I wish she had showed more of her life at Humanities Prep, but maybe that will be part of a sequel. Breaking Night will give readers a new perspective on overcoming desperate circumstances. It offers an empowering message about surviving and thriving.

Read an excerpt from this book on Kindle for the Web

Liz Murray completed high school and won a New York Times scholarship while homeless. She graduated from Harvard University in 2009. She is the recipient of numerous awards and is the founder and director of Manifest Living, a New York-based company that empowers adults to create the results they want in their own lives. She travels the world delivering motivational speeches and workshops.

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