We’re all a weird mix of nature and nurture. The lives we forge for ourselves owe something to our environments and something to a grit we were seemingly born with.
Liz Murray’s transformation from homeless teenager sleeping in hallways in the Bronx to best-selling author, Ivy League graduate and the founder of an innovative nonprofit that works with at-risk youth brings those issues into sharp focus.
Can you describe the first three decades of your life chronicled in “Breaking Night”?
My memoir tells of growing up with loving but drug-addicted parents in the Bronx and my subsequent homelessness as a teenager after I lost them to addiction and to AIDS. I was 16 when my mom passed away and Dad died 10 years later. It’s the story of how I overcame those obstacles with the help of mentors, teachers and nonprofits. Eventually, I got into Harvard.
How did you circumvent the pitfalls of your upbringing?
Change doesn’t just happen in a moment. It unfolds over a lifetime. But after my mother died, I was able to look ahead and project what my life would likely become if I didn’t do something to alter it. I knew if I kept living where I was living with my drug-dealing boyfriend and never went to school, I’d be repeating a cycle. Poverty is generational. To escape it, I’d have to do something intentional.
What do you want audiences to take away from your story?
I can bust up the myth of the bootstrapper in a big way. Poverty is complex. Willpower alone isn’t enough. We don’t get where we’re going alone. I had people in my life who may have been addicted to drugs but who loved me and told me, “You are meant for something more.”
If you hear that often enough, it becomes the voice inside your head when you make choices.
Don’t you get angry at your parents? You write about about making dinner out of half a tube of toothpaste.
You can’t get angry at the weather. People have limitations, and it’s not always personal when they let you down. My mother was legally blind, she had schizophrenia and she was trafficked [as a prostitute] as a youth. But her face would light up like it was a miracle every time I entered the room.
The book ends when you’re attending Harvard. But you dropped out for several years before eventually returning to graduate. What happened?
I’m working on a second book right now about those years. I left Harvard and took care of my dad very intensely when he was dying.
I realized I was living in two worlds. All the people I loved and my relationships were in one world and my upward mobility was in another world. Holding those worlds together was so tough. I did it for a long time but eventually I couldn’t.
What’s happened in the eight years since publishing your memoir?
I’m married now. My son was born in 2011 and my daughter in 2013. I’m about to complete a master’s degree in psychology. And we’ve just started the second year of our nonprofit, the Arthur Project [named in honor of Murray’s uncle]. Most mentorship programs take high-risk kids and put them with untrained volunteers. We pair kids in middle school with people training to be clinicians. We spend about 500 hours with each student per year. The Arthur Project has been one of the great joys of my life.