Urban survival – a former street kid explains how


“Breaking Night” by Elizabeth Murray. Hyperion Books, 2010. 334 pp. hardcover, $24.99.

Read this book. And, guaranteed, you’ll want to go to the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown on Tuesday, May 17 at 6 pm and meet the author, who is in town for a presentation and book signing sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Women’s Network. Entrance fees range from $5 to $25.

Elizabeth (Lizzie) Murray, an 1980s child of the junkie generation, will rivet you with “Breaking Night,” the account of her life surviving on 188th Street in the Bronx. Likely, she’ll do the same in person.

You may know this true story from press coverage and a 2003 Lifetime Channel movie “Homeless to Harvard.” Ms. Murray was born on Sept. 23, 1980 to intravenous drug users (cocaine) in New York City. Then it got worse.

During her first six years with lice in her hair and hunger pains in her belly, Ms. Murray learned how to survive and how to become a caretaker to her parents, Jean Murray and Peter Finnerty, whose addiction placed them and their kids, Lisa and Lizzie, in the harm’s way that only big city poverty, crime, and bureaucratic cynicism can provide.

Here are two thoughts about this dirty little street urchin who finished high school in two years while living on the street.

The first is that Lizzie probably beat 10,000 to 1 odds to graduate from Harvard University in 2009, after interrupting her studies for a few years to provide home hospice to her daddy, dying of dirty-needle AIDS several years after her mother died of the same disease.

The second is something a wise man told me years ago: “You are not responsible for what happened to you, but you are accountable for what you do about it.” Lizzie figured that out. She worked to keep both her body and soul together. Then she did something about her circumstances and herself.

Today, Ms. Murray, now 30 years old, runs Manifest Living, a company she founded in New York City that teaches empowerment skills.

The heartbreaking details of her first 16 years are outlined in “Breaking Night,” clear vivid details delivered in an understated, conversational tone that allows us to understand how she shaped a survivalist character without any functional support system.

Only later, when she took action by disappearing from the NYC childcare system, determined to put her in institutional and foster care, did a peer network emerge to provide a skeletal relief system – sneaking into friends’ bedrooms to crash after their parents were sleeping, a first boyfriend’s support that would turn bad. Survival was the goal.

“Breaking Night” (a street term for staying up until dawn) is a well written book. I stopped reading when the details forced me to take an emotional break.

“Breaking Night” will remind you of similar stories. Two that came to me are Agnes Humbert’s memoir, “Resistance,” written after World War Two, of her years in forced labor for her French Resistance activities. The second, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” is Viktor Frankl’s classic text on observing how his fellow inmates survived Nazi death camps despite physical powerlessness and lack of resources of any kind.

These three stories of horrifying suffering are testimonies to the indomitability of the human spirit, provided we choose not to see ourselves and not behave as victims. Ms. Murray talks directly about that theme in this book but makes her point most clearly by describing her childhood behavior, that was outward-directed, always toward taking an action, helping and protecting her parents, and later herself and her sister.

“It is what it is,” is a popular catch phrase today. Often it’s code that means, “There’s nothing I can do about it.” Ms. Murray’s life shows that reality is a set of circumstances and that we can change those circumstances.

M.V. Women’s Network Program: From Homeless to Harvard, Tuesday, May 17, 6–8 pm, Old Whaling Church, Edgartown. Book signing, dessert reception. $20; $15 members; $5 high school students. mvwomensnetwork.org.

Jack Shea is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Times.