In Breaking Night, Liz Murray recounts her life experience from birth until age nineteen, when she wins a prestigious New York Times scholarship and is accepted into Harvard University. For most of her life, Liz’s parents—known throughout the book as Ma and Daddy—are at the center. At the center of their lives, however, is the intravenous use of cocaine.Their extreme addictions create for Liz, and for her older sister Lisa, a confusing and dangerous world of neglect and squalor in which the girls, lacking in almost every basic need, must struggle to survive in New York City. While Lisa eventually takes refuge in a dedication to her schoolwork, Liz feels much more compelled to be a part of her parents’ lives, no matter how harrowing. As a young girl, she stays up most nights with them as they hustle for money and drugs. When she gets old enough to attend school, she often chooses to (and is allowed to) just not go. Her priority—her responsibility, she believes—is to keep her parents safe.
Despite her dedication to her parents, by the time Liz is fifteen their marriage has disintegrated. Her mother has moved in with another man and claims she wants to get clean. Her father soon permits Liz to be taken to a juvenile facility for excessive truancy. Once released, she quits school for good and begins to live on the streets. Friends replace family. As freedom and excitement turn to burden and exhaustion though, Liz becomes romantically involved with a charming but deceitful young man named Carlos—her first love—who offers to be her support. But when his drug use and neglect begin to mirror that of her parents, Liz “resolve[s] to never be so needy again.” Over the next two years, bolstered by the commitment and understanding of the staff of Humanities Preparatory Academy, Liz takes double class loads, sleeps and studies in stairwells when necessary, and discovers her ability to change her life for the better.
At the heart of Liz Murray’s amazing and well-written memoir is a question, one that she never directly asks, but which is there nonetheless: What is the nature of human will that it can, in the face of great difficulty and pain, continue on toward health and happiness? Whatever your opinion, there’s no denying that Murray had something in her that demanded a better life. And she got one.
1. The book begins with Liz Murray comparing herself—physically and otherwise—to her mother. In what ways are they alike? What specific instances of difference can you find? What do you think it was that allowed Liz to actualize her dreams in a way her mother couldn’t?
2. What do you make of Liz’s intense need, when young, to assist in keeping her parents safe (pp. 53-55)?
3. Consider the strong statements made by Liz’s father about not caring what other people think of you (pp. 20, 59, 62, and 189). Is this always good advice? Is social opinion, or even shaming, an important part of culture? When and when not?
4. Articulate the different identities and resulting roles that the two sisters—Lisa and Liz—develop when quite young. Do you agree with Liz’s idea that Lisa’s time with a loving family explains her distant relationship with Ma and Daddy? What do you make of Lisa’s harsh attempts to motivate and encourage Liz to go to school, or her cruel, disconnected treatment of her? Do you agree with the therapist’s theory that the sisters couldn’t be close because they were in competition for scant resources? How does their relationship evolve?
5. Throughout the book—beginning early, when Liz is quite young—she expresses self-blame (pp. 50-51, 68, 107, 117, and 210) regarding her troubled situations. Discuss this as a behavior in children. What purpose does it serve for them? What are the consequences for Liz as she matures?
6. Spending time with the Vasquez family began a desire in Liz to keep her home life a secret (p. 79). What role, if any, does this developing ability to hide significant elements of her life play throughout her life? When does this deception seem important? In what ways might it be harmful?
7. Discuss the transformative ideas Liz is presented with after a day hustling to pump gas for tips (pp. 88-89).
8. Eventually, Liz begins to shift from wanting to be involved with her parents, to the point of keeping watch during their drug activity to wanting to escape from her life with them (p. 111). What are the causes or changes in her that help explain this shift?
9. Examine the relationships that Liz has with her central group of friends. What do they provide for her that makes her feel that they are her new family?
10. Talk about Liz’s intense relationship with Carlos. In what ways was it valuable or important? In what ways was it similar to or different from her life with her parents?
11. Consider the different essential needs of Liz at different stages of her life. What was most important to her when she was a girl who didn’t yet attend school? During elementary school? At St. Anne’s? At Brick’s? On the street with Sam? Once back in school, at Prep?
12. Articulate and discuss the specific things—in addition to an education—that Perry Weiner, the co-founder of the Humanities Preparatory Academy, offered to Liz.
13. After hearing Liz’s story, what do you think about the nature of human will? Why are some people able to overcome such hardships and create a successful life, while others never can? Consider the role and function of social services. Did the institution fail, or did Liz refuse to be helped? Why do you think Humanities Preparatory Academy was so much more successful helping Liz?
Questions for the Author
1. Throughout your book exists a question never quite explicitly addressed: What do you think explains why you were able to survive such a horrible life and become an intelligent, successful person? Why don’t so many others in similar situations?
At some point it became clear that no matter what was happening around me, I always had the power to choose how I would respond. The power of choice is something I see a lot of people unfortunately overlook. It seems much more common for people to become fixated on their history, or on what other people did or didn’t do, but none of that really helps you move forward. Only choosing what you plan to do next can help you take charge of your future.
My life taught me that even though there were plenty of things I couldn’t control, like my parent’s drug addiction, their failing health, my family unraveling, I could always, always choose the next right thing to do in my own life. What’s great is that the power of choice is accessible to anyone. No matter where you are in life or what’s happening around you, you can always choose the next right thing, and then do it.
2. Can you say more about your experience with you father’s library books? You mention that they made you feel close to him, but to what extent did they serve, perhaps without you even realizing it, as academic training you didn’t get avoiding school as you did?
My relationship with my father’s library books shaped my love of reading and broadened the size of my world. There was just something about holding those heavy books, with their crinkly covers, that I fell in love with as a kid. When I read my father’s library books, I felt like I was traveling. Like the books were showing me that there was a world much bigger than my neighborhood, and that life didn’t have to look like this life. Life could look a lot of ways. I know that helped me academically too, but more than anything, reading opened my mind and my heart to a deep curiosity for what the world had in store for me when I was ready to step into it.
3. Breaking Night must have been very emotionally challenging to write. How did you temper that during the long process of the writing? What, if any, technical challenges did the book pose?
I don’t know if I’d say it was emotionally challenging to write Breaking Night, but I would certainly say it was very emotional. But I needed to get all of that out anyway and writing was actually a great opportunity to do some much needed processing about the things that happened to me. It was deeply healing in that way. And it also gave me a chance to experience a sort of dialogue with both of my parents, even though they are no longer physically here with me. I love them so much and in many ways writing Breaking Night was a bit like writing them a love letter, straight from my heart and soul to theirs.
Though there was one big technical challenge I encountered in writing such an emotionally charged book, and that was writing the death of my mother. I just could not write about my mother’s death in typical book format, it simply would not come out that way. It wasn’t a story to tell, it was an experience to share. That’s why at the end of the day I decided to use a letter I had written her, even if it was so choppy and personal I took the risk that it may not make perfect literal sense to my readers, it was just so raw, honest and from my heart that it was the only way I could bring that moment into Breaking Night. In the end though, I’m really pleased with the way it tied into the bigger text. I hope in reading it, my readers can feel within the pages how deeply our family loves one another.
4. There are so many mentions in the book of mirrors, of looking into mirrors and examining yourself. Was it in some ways a decision as an author to access the symbolic component of the act or was this something that was powerful for you in a literal sense?
Up until I read this question, I had no idea that mirrors appeared to frequently in my book. Funny as it sounds, I’ll have to go back and count that now, I really did not do this intentionally.
5. Did you decide on any limitations about the intimacy and details in your book? How did you handle talking about others, Lisa, for example? How did she react when she read the book?
Lisa and I still haven’t spoken too much about the book. I’m not sure she read it all the way through. I sent her an early draft and I know she started reading and told me she put it down because it was already painful enough to live through the first time. After that, I thought I would give her some space about it and she has yet to bring it up again other than to say she is very proud of me for writing it, which I am so grateful for because in so many ways Lisa is the person who first inspired me to write. Lisa is a poet and a great writer. When we were growing up she’d write poems and read them to me all the time, and I do believe that her example influenced me to begin journaling, which eventually led to me writing. So it means a lot to me that she’s proud because she has been a huge inspiration in my life. In terms of Breaking Night, I believe we’ll delve into it more deeply one day when we’re ready to, we’re just not there yet.
I did limit information I gave about other people’s stories in the book. There was much more to tell about Sam, Lisa, and even my parents, but those pieces of information were either not mine to tell or they were not essential to the story of Breaking Night. As for limitations the level of intimacy with my own story, I really didn’t have many limitations, I mostly put it all out there. I remember telling myself I would write one very revealing, open draft that really exposed me and then I would edit out parts that went too far. But in the end, I just kept everything that came from my heart in that first draft, without taking out any of it. The result is that I don’t always come out in the best light, but that’s okay, human beings are messy. It was a messy journey and I wanted to tell it how it is and not remove anything from that first draft because came from my heart.
6. Can you talk a little about your father’s stern edict to not care about what other people think? Has that always been helpful for you? Were you concerned about what people would think while you were writing the book?
My father was another huge influence in my life, and his belief that you should let go caring what people think about you liberated me immensely as a child. It gave me the freedom to notice and fall in love with having friendships with more offbeat people, creative types, free-thinkers. My dad made me love people who think outside the box, and he taught me that it’s okay to think outside the box too, which is a mindset that has enabled me to overcome obstacles in my life, tenfold.
Not that I have ever completely let go caring what other people think about me, I wouldn’t want to do that because feedback can be very valuable. And I care how others feel. But what I did take away from my father’s lesson is that there are moments in life when focusing on the opinions of others can hold you back. Sometimes when everyone is insistent that things have to be a certain way, or they insist they know what’s possible and impossible, you need to think for yourself. When I hear people tell me something can’t be done, I immediately begin to think of ways to do it anyway. I know my dad gave me that gift and that gift has shaped my life. It gives me the courage and determination to plow forward where others may give up. Ultimately, I credit my dad for showing me to think for myself and that’s a beautiful thing.
In terms of how that applies to writing Breaking Night, sure I wondered what other people would think of me after reading it, but then I just kept telling myself, “well Liz, this is your truth. You are writing your truth.” And I wanted to share my truth with my readers. My highest hope in doing so is that it will be useful to someone, that my being this raw and this open will give others the permission to do the same. That in some way, sharing my story will liberate others to embrace their own stories, and ultimately inside of accepting their truth, they will find the courage to move on.