Book by: Liz Murray
Review by: Maria Vita Calkins
Department of Teacher Education and Family Studies
Advisors hear many stories from students about obstacles they have overcome, and challenges they still face. For those who feel they’ve heard it all, reading this book may just change that perspective!
Even an experienced advisor is likely to feel shell-shocked reading the harrowing experiences described by the author. In Breaking night: A memoir of forgiveness, survival, and my journey from homeless to Harvard, Liz Murray describes her childhood in disturbing detail. Liz’s story of her amazing journey raises basic questions about motivation, resilience, and the power of forgiveness.
Born to drug-addicted parents, Liz essentially raised herself. In their Bronx apartment, Liz and her family lived hand-to-mouth on welfare. “The first of the month, the day Ma’s stipend from welfare was due, held all the ritual and celebration of Christmas morning” (p. 14). For a few days there was plenty of food for all. But the money soon ran out, spent on alcohol and drugs. For the rest of the month, Liz and her sister survived on free lunches, rolled-up mayonnaise sandwiches, and when all else failed, toothpaste or cherry Chapstick.
Her childhood was a constant struggle to maintain a balance between keeping herself alive, keeping her parents safe, and gaining their approval & attention. “Sleep on school nights was impossible. Somebody had to watch the windows and time how long they took to come back. Somebody had to keep them safe (p. 53). Liz worried that if she didn’t do this, no one would.
When her mother was diagnosed with AIDS, the family finally fell apart, and Liz landed on the street. For three years, she survived, sleeping in stairwells, in the houses of friends and friends of friends. She panhandled, scavenged in trash bins, and rode the subways at night to keep warm. School was all but forgotten.
After her mother succumbed to her illness, Liz enrolled in an alternative high school. This decision changed her life. Liz earned her diploma in two years, while continuing to live on the street. She began to realize her true potential.
How did this happen? How do some children manage to both survive and thrive, despite huge risk factors, while others fall victim to their toxic environments? Liz survived because she was resilient, she clearly demonstrated the capacity to “recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change (Merriam-Webster online).
The key to understanding this story lies in conceptualizing resilience as a process, rather than as a personality trait, a static “something.” Building on some very basic strengths, Liz was able to develop resilience over time. She does not always demonstrate a high level of resilience, but taken as a whole, her story enables the reader to observe the development of resilience as it evolved.
There are important lessons in this book for advisors and students feeling particularly discouraged or overwhelmed. One unique aspect of Liz’s story that may resonate with students facing major obstacles is her forgiving attitude toward her parents. At first her devotion seems baffling. As her narrative continues, it becomes clear that her parents do love their children, but in an idealized, dysfunctional way. This forgiveness enables her to move forward in her life. Students struggling with self-blame or blaming others may begin to appreciate how blame might be holding them back. Developing forgiveness, like resilience, is a process (Masten, 2001).
Finally, when viewed through the lens of resiliency theory, obstacles and setbacks are positives: each problem successfully resolved builds one’s resilience. Successful people don’t necessarily experience either more positive events or fewer stressors compared with those who are less successful; rather, the difference lies in how these life events are interpreted. As Liz’s understanding of the world develops, so do her perceptions of her potential future. As Friedrich Nietzsche famously said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” In Liz’s case, that could not be truer. And this is certainly good news for you and your advisees.
Masten, A. (2001). Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development. American
Psychologist 56(3), pp. 227-238.
Resilience (2011). In: Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved May 8, 2011, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/resilience
Breaking night: A memoir of forgiveness, survival, and my journey from homeless to Harvard
(2011). Book by Liz Murray. Review by Maria Vita Calkins
, Hyperion. 352pp., $14.99, ISBN: 978-1-401-31059-2