Liz Murray speaks as part of UB's Distinguished Speaker Series
Best-selling author, Harvard graduate talks overcoming homeless youth
Liz Murray watched her parents strap their arms and shoot heroin.
They chose buying drugs over feeding their kids. Murray and her sister often ate ChapStick and toothpaste to curb their hunger.
But Murray has always chosen to focus on the “blessings in the path [she] walked.”
Murray, now a New York Times best selling author and advocate for homeless youth, spoke in Alumni Arena Wednesday night as part of UB’s Distinguished Speaker Series.
Murray didn’t blame anyone for her situation growing up. She found ways to benefit from her lifestyle and knew there were other people who felt like backing down at times. So she put the graphic images, conversations and memories of her adolescence onto blank pages and turned it into a best-selling book titled Breaking Night: a Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard.
Murray grew up in a part of the Bronx, New York that “everyone tried to get out of.” But years later she found her way out of a dark tunnel and ended up in Massachusetts and became a Harvard University graduate.
Needless to say, Murray didn’t quite fit in with her peers.
When other students talked about vacations overseas and Christmases in Connecticut, Murray joked about the only 12 holidays of the year her family celebrated.
“The first of every month when the Welfare check came,” she said.
But the money didn’t go toward lavish meals or new shoes. Murray and her older sister, Lisa, often saw her parents buy heroin and cocaine and then spend $35 on a month’s worth of groceries.
Her parents grew up in the 70s, also known as the “disco era.” They partied and had fun and Murray and her sister just so happened to come into the picture when the party was ending.
“But I was loved by my parents and I felt loved,” she said.
Some nights her mother stood at the end of her bed telling Murray that her children are “the best thing that ever happened to her.” Her father, who dropped out of college, took Murray to the library every Saturday morning and complied a stock of books in their apartment that were never returned.
They just couldn’t stay away from the drugs.
Murray said that when people are addicted, they’re “only brought down,” and that’s what happened to her family.
Her mother was unstable and her father couldn’t pay rent. Murray dressed in rags and kids picked on her for smelling bad. She slept on the desks from being extremely exhausted and her teachers sympathized for her. Then her family was broken apart.
Murray was taken to a group home at the age of 13 while her sister lived with her mother’s boyfriend.
“[Lisa] was a really good student and very determined,” Murray said. “But me, I never went to school so no one really wanted me.”
Murray later lived with her mother when she got sick. Along with being a drug addict and alcoholic, her mother was schizophrenic, legally blind and had AIDS.
The tension in the household became too much to handle. Murray ran away, and with no one to turn to, lived on the streets. She slept on subways, in parks and sometimes at a friend’s if they had room.
But Murray’s darkest time hadn’t hit yet.
When she was 15 years old, she got a phone call in a motel saying her mother had died. Murray knew of her mother’s condition.
She remembers her last conversation with her mother. She begged Murray to go back to school. Murray’s last words to her mother were, “I’ll see you later.”
“She was the sweetest, kindest, most generous person and she was so encouraging,” she said.
At the time, Murray’s father was in a homeless shelter. She then told herself to take reasons why she shouldn’t change and turn them into reasons why she should.
Murray applied to many schools and people often turned their backs on her. She was 16 years old with an eighth grade education. That was when she met Perry, her teacher and mentor who later changed her life.
Perry helped her complete high school in two years. She took 10 classes each semester and managed to keep straight As. She graduated top of her class and received a New York Times scholarship that got her a full ride to Harvard.
But Murray thanks the people who helped her get to where is today. She is still close friends with people from high school. That is also where she met her husband father of her two children, James Scanlon.
She remembers seeing him in class and thinking he was cute. Then she decided to make the first move.
“We were in lunch and he sat next to met with a plate of mashed potatoes,” she said. “So I stuffed my hand in his food and said, ‘Looks like I have to buy you dinner now.’”
In late 2006, another tragedy struck.
Murray was living with her father at the time. She remembers sitting down with him one night joking and laughing.
“He was a funny guy,” she said. “He was brilliant and lovable, but he was also a drug addict.”
Later that night, her father passed away in his sleep. Murray still remembers the note he left her days before he died that read, “Lizzy, I left my dreams behind a long time ago. But now I know they’re safe with you. Now we’re a family again.”
One thing that Murray can still hold on to is her relationship with her sister Lisa. She said they handled their parents’ addictions very differently, but have grown closer. Lisa is now a teacher in New York City.
As for Murray, she is currently pursuing a Master’s in psychology at Colombia University and mentors youth at the Covenant House in New York City. She urges students to express their gratitude and to not treat someone like they’re broken.
Looking back, Murray said that not only being determined changed her life, but the people in her community. Her neighbors who helped her get by. They did everything from baking her brownies to paying her rent. Because of them, she never slept on the streets again.
Murray distinctly remembers one woman helping her by taking her dirty clothes to the laundry.
Murray said that as the woman drove off, she stopped and said “I can’t do much, but I can do that.’”