Tavis: The odds against Liz Murray ever going to college, let alone Harvard, could not have been any longer. Born to a drug-addicted mother, she spent much of her teenage years homeless on the streets of New York. But at 16 she pledged to break out of her circumstances and committed herself to getting an education – an unlikely plan that led to a scholarship, as I said, at Harvard.
The acclaimed new book about her ordeal is called “Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard.” Liz, an honor to have you on the program.
Liz Murray: It’s great to be here. Thank you for having me.
Tavis: I suspect this is a story that one could have kept to oneself. You don’t have to tell the negative in your back story, particularly once you are a graduate of Harvard. So why even tell all of this?
Murray: Great question. I had a calling inside of me. I had a sense that when I was going through experiences like living on the streets, losing my parents to AIDS, just having my whole world turned upside-down, there was this feeling inside of me like I was meant for something greater.
I’ve come to find out in my life I think most people feel that way. I bet someone watching this right now goes, “You know what? I have a book in me that I need to write. There’s something I need to create.” What I learned in life was to listen to that intuition and that voice and it was a calling to get this message out there with the hopes of changing other people’s lives.
Tavis: Speaking of other people, I suspect there are a number of folk watching right now, and if they’re not watching, they certainly exist in this country, young people like yourself, kids, who have been born to drug-addicted mothers, and in your case mother and father both on drugs, which is again the case for a lot of young people watching this show now, I suspect.
What’s your message to them about how to survive what they’re going through, given that you came out all right on the other side?
Murray: I think that part of it in my experience is that there’s a lot of – naturally so – a lot of anger and blame towards your parents, that you got gypped and you didn’t get the good parents you could have gotten. In my own case, what I realized pretty quickly is that when parents are drug-addicted it’s a disease. I see that and I was blessed to have that vantage point, to understand that you didn’t do anything wrong, it’s not personal.
They’re simply sick, and it’s not personal. You just have to take the lesson that okay, I’m going to have to take life into my own hands at some point. A big piece of that is then also learning to ask for help.
So when I grew up in the Bronx we always had everyone telling us watch out for the system, watch out for child welfare, watch out, they’ll get you, and I grew up with this feeling of society is over there and they’re dangerous and not safe. I spent time in a group home that wasn’t safe, and from that I got a false message that there’s no help out there I can trust.
I came to find out later that there were certainly nonprofits and adults and teachers who I could lean on. It just took me some years of suffering before I had to get there.
So to the young people that are in those situations, if you’ve had a bad experience in foster care, if you’ve had a bad experience on the streets, in a group home, there are places where there are resources for you and people that you can trust.
Tavis: When you are exposed to what you were seeing with your mother and father every day, how do you end up – I can see this one of two ways. Either you end up attempting to – either you end up doing drugs yourself or because of what you’ve seen you run as far as you can in the other direction.
Murray: Yeah, no, I’ve never been high a day in my life, and I owe a lot of that to my parents in a big way. They had lived this ’70s heyday, disco-dancing lifestyle that came crashing down, and my sister Lisa and I grew up in the aftermath of what happens when the party is over, and we watched them every day getting high. There were a couple of things that I took.
One is, of course, I never want to get high. I would see how graphic the track marks were, how sick they were, and viscerally, I could just never get high. But the other piece that was a gift my parents gave me was they loved me very, very deeply, and when I think about the transformation that occurred later on in my life I look back at that love and I see that as a pivotal piece.
I think that my parents just being who they were showed me don’t make the mistakes that we’re making.
Tavis: How do you argue, how do you know, how did you know that your parents loved you when everything they were doing ran counter to that? They were doing drugs, they weren’t taking care of you, you and your sister were fending for yourselves, you were eating nothing. Where’s the love part?
Murray: Yeah, I know people – believe me, I’ve gotten – in fact, I was actually – I do a lot of public speaking, and just a little tidbit is that I was at a university not too long ago and I was on a panel. There were six speakers, and there’s a roomful of academics. The topic was compassion and forgiveness.
Halfway through the afternoon I found out that the entire room was filled with psychiatrists and psychologists, and when I said (laughter) I was not –
Tavis: There’s your problem right there.
Murray: Yeah. I said, “I’m not angry at my parents,” and they all began to write something down and they came up to me with denial. The one gentleman had statistics and a bowtie, really, and they somehow went together, and he said – he started to quote me the studies he had read to sort of tell me about myself.
I looked at him, I said, “Sir,” I said, “A Ph.D., bless your heart – you weren’t there.” Nothing replaces the experience, and I was there when Mom came home from the bar, she hustled five, ten bucks from some men on the streets, she gave the money to my dad, said, “Peter, go buy us a bag of coke,” and I knew I didn’t have a hot meal that day.
But then what my eyes and my heart and my focus went to, well, Mom hasn’t had a hot meal in two or three days. I need a new winter coat, but Dad, Dad’s sneakers are taped together, they’re crumbling and breaking off of his feet.
So my parents were always teaching me that people can’t give you what they don’t have, and therefore, when my mom sat at the foot of my bed at night and she tucked me in and she would kiss every part of my face, tell me her children were the best thing that ever happened to her, she loved me so much. My dad had been in a Ph.D. program studying psychology and dropped out to live like this. He would take me on long walks, say, “Lizzie, I’m going to teach you everything I know. You’ll need it one day, sweetheart. I love you, I treasure you,” and then they would leave to get high.
So again, the lesson that people can’t give me what they don’t have, and if there’s anything I took from it, it was okay, I don’t really expect anyone to hand me anything. There’s going to be me and the world. How do I create what I dream about in the world, since I’m 100 percent responsible for my life?
Tavis: I think the other thing, with all due respect to that room full of academics – and you told him exactly right; you weren’t there – what they don’t get when they’re not there, and anyone who’s ever dealt with this in their family understands this, it’s the point you make in the book – it is a sickness.
Tavis: It’s not that they don’t love you. They can’t help it, because they are addicted and they are sick. That doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t love you.
Murray: Clearly. Really, this book, if there’s any families that have been impacted by drug and alcohol addiction, I really encourage people to pick up this book because it moves towards healing and forgiveness for that group, and I really in many ways wrote it towards that demographic.
But the gift from that, Tavis, is that knowing, okay, well, no one’s handing me anything, and it gave me a sense of how do I engage with the world, there’s no middleman. I actually get to say what happens to me, I’m in charge of my life, and I grew up with that sense of ownership, independence and responsibility, which clearly at some point it paid off.
Tavis: I don’t want to give the whole book away, but top line for me, the turning point that allows you to make that transition from being homeless from getting into Harvard.
Murray: Yeah, oh, wow. Well, I’d been living on the streets of New York, and I was sleeping at my friends’ houses, sometimes in the subway. I carried a picture of my mother, which is actually in the beginning of “Breaking Night.” Even if you go on Amazon, you can see the picture. She was 17 years old in the picture. It’s when she was homeless in New York City.
So I realized when she died and I lost her I saw how I was recreating her life and becoming part of a cycle, and I decided to break that cycle and I went to school. I found some great teachers in New York City at a place called Humanities Preparatory Academy.
My teacher, Perry Weiner (sp), who I write about in there, was a fantastic teacher, and with their help I went to school while I was homeless, though I hid my homelessness. It was my secret. Inch by inch, choice by choice, day by day I just worked towards getting the best grades I could possibly get, and then when it came time to apply to college my teacher encouraged me.
Well, I was actually walking through Harvard yard – we went on a field trip. I’d never been anywhere – anywhere, okay? I’m homeless, I was black clothes, purple hair, I’m a mess. They take me somewhere and I thought I moved up in life because I had the window seat on Amtrak. I had no perspective.
When they took us away for that field trip to Boston, my teacher Perry said, “Let’s go to Harvard yard. Let’s take a group picture in front of the statue for the yearbook.” I’m standing in Harvard yard and on my back in my book bag is my clothes, my journal, my mother’s picture, her NA coin, everything in it. I have my life on my back, and in front of me I see these Harvard students.
I’m exalting them – they’re amazing, they have accomplished so much – and then it dawns on me. Wait, don’t I qualify? Can’t I apply to this? It was a beautiful moment when I had taken something and you know when you just – I could never do that, right, and I think a lot of folks, I could never do that.
But to realize that really what separated me from the people I admired was the work, and I had done the work, thanks to the support I had from my teachers, thanks to the nonprofits in my community, and I decided to apply.
I had no idea what would happen, but that’s hardly – the outcome is not the point, Harvard’s not the point. It’s the fact that really, to the attempt and to know that I would do everything I could to make this happen.
Tavis: So now you just have one question – what’s the name of that book again? (Laughter) It’s called “Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard,” written by Liz Murray, and I don’t think you need much more encouragement to go get this one.
Liz, congratulations and not just on the life but the book and what you’re doing to help other people, so thanks for coming on.
Murray: Thank you very much for having me, Tavis.
Tavis: Oh, honor to have you.
[Walmart – Save money. Live better.]
Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.