You may not know Liz Murray by name, but you may be familiar with the TV movie Homeless to Harvard, Lifetime’s version of her teen years, during which she transitioned from sleeping in doorways and subways to an Ivy League dorm of one’s own. Breaking Night allows Murray to tell her own story, beginning in early childhood, and it’s a truly harrowing tale.

Born to two loving but profoundly drug-addicted parents, Liz and older sister Lisa must fend for themselves almost from birth. Forced to run interference between truant officers, social workers, dealers, pimps, “Ma” and “Daddy,” Liz runs wild from an early age, stealing food from supermarkets and pumping gas for tips, while Lisa maintains an almost militant focus on schoolwork as a possible means of rescue. As their parents split up and Ma is diagnosed with HIV and then AIDS, the family fractures completely. Lisa goes to stay with Ma’s new, abusive boyfriend, and Daddy ultimately signs away his parental rights to Liz, who takes to the streets with a boyfriend who seems perfect, but looks increasingly unstable with every passing day.

Murray does a wonderful job telling her own story, giving an honest account of the powerful love that connects her family even as addiction and disease separate them. She captures the giddy freedom of being a teenager completely on her own, but counters it with a perfect take on the impact of homelessness: “The strain of not having your most basic needs met can drive you a little crazy. Hunger wears on your nerves; nervousness wears on your energy; malnutrition and stress just plain wear on you.” (I was homeless for over a year as an adult, and that says it all.) Because of her parents’ history, she stays sober throughout this ordeal; not using drugs or alcohol means feeling the cold, hunger and loneliness without a buffer, and likely also gave her the clear vision needed to finally enroll in the alternative high school that turned things around for her.

We know things end well for Liz, but she wisely ends Breaking Night as she’s waiting somewhat frantically for the mailman to bring the fateful “fat” envelope bearing an acceptance letter from Harvard. A beloved teacher tells her to “relax, have some compassion for yourself,” and really stop and absorb how far she’s come. It’s as necessary for us as it is for her, considering the journey we’ve just been on together. Murray’s story is a jarring ride that leads to something better—a sense of possibility.

 

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