Sunday 4 December 2016

Review: Breaking Night by Liz Murray

Century, €15.49

Published 20/02/2011 | 05:00

From Christina Crawford to Frank McCourt we've all become overly familiar with the memoir of the less-than-perfect childhood.

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Few could claim an upbringing as abysmal as that of Liz Murray, author of Breaking Night. Murray, the second child of drug-addicted parents (who both later died from Aids), basically reared herself, became homeless in her teens, spent time in a horrifying group home for truancy yet, amazingly, managed to get a place at the prestigious Ivy League university of Harvard.

The territory here is familiar to fans of misery-lit: Liz's parents are woefully inadequate -- welfare cheques are spent on drugs; Murray and her older sister Lisa are hungry, dirty, smelly and lice-ridden; and the family apartment is a public health menace (Liz's father nicknames the black slimy water that is permanently present in the bathtub "the Blob"). However, what distinguishes this from the usual tales of awfulness and abuse is that Murray never presents her parents as one-dimensional monsters. Yes, they may well be utterly useless as a father and a mother ,but they are not bad people. Murray is wise enough to see that as addicts her parents' main priority is to get high (they favour mainlining cocaine, a sight that Murray becomes well acquainted with while still in her stroller).

It is obvious from the very start of the book that Murray loves her parents and they loved her back -- to the best of their ability as addicts. An addict will usually put drugs first, but once in a while Liz's mother, Jeanie, surprisingly puts her children before her addiction. In one very telling incident Jeanie abandons a sugar daddy who had been keeping her in drugs after she finds out that he has been grooming both of her daughters, and has sexually assaulted Liz. Ironically, Murray always felt very deeply about the sexual and physical abuse Jeanie had suffered herself as a child and "wanted more than anything to take the pain away from her".

Most of the time, though, the drugs come first; at one point Jeanie attempts to sell Lisa's winter coat only to be sent packing by an outraged drug dealer who tells her to go home to her kids. "Everybody's got a high horse apparently," Jeanie cries in frustration after the incident. Not long after she is diagnosed as HIV positive, Jeanie leaves the family home to move in with her new boyfriend -- the distinctly unappealing Brick (who is not a drug-user but likes a drink to steady his nerves). Older sister Lisa goes with their mother while Liz remains with her father. Soon after she is taken into care because she refuses to go to school and by the time she gets out of the children's home her father has lost the apartment and is living in a shelter. At 15, after a year at Brick's one-bedroom apartment, rarely attending school and daily helping her paralytic mother clean herself up after a morning at the local bar, Murray, her boyfriend Carlos and her best friend Sam take to the streets.

While Breaking Night is a gripping and fascinating read it is not for the faint-hearted. Some may hold Murray up as an example of the American Dream -- a self-made person, who pulled herself up by her own bootstraps. And, yes, the fact that Murray got herself into Harvard while living on the streets is inspirational, but the real revelation is that she is able to both love and forgive her parents and in doing so has ensured that her past has not become her present.

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