When Elizabeth Murray was 16 years old, she had already seen far too much of the unforgiving side of life, and she had begun to ask herself if what she knew was all there was. What she knew was that she’d recently buried her mother, who died of AIDS, in a donated pine box with her name misspelled on it. Mr. Murray’s addict father, who was suffering from AIDS himself in a homeless shelter elsewhere in New York city, could not attend. Ms. Murray herself had dropped out of high school and was homeless.
“I was one of those people on the streets you walk away from,” she says without hesitance. Some nights she was sleeping on couches, if she were lucky. Most nights, though, it was the D train, or a park bench. Some nights it was no sleep at all. Through the nights she couldn’t find a place to sleep, the homeless teen would stroll the streets until the sun rose. She called that “breaking night.”
Four years later, at age 20, Elizabeth Murray was a Harvard student, immersed in an elite education funded by a New York Times scholarship. The story of how she went from homeless to Harvard unfolds in the pages of her first book, Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, which the author will discuss on Tuesday, May 17 at the Whaling Church.
Breaking Night begins with the 16-year-old Murray on a friend’s couch in the middle of a New York city night, tracing the lines of her face which are so painfully similar to her mother’s. “I wonder if, like me, Ma spent most days afraid of what would happen to her,” the author asked herself. “I’m afraid all the time lately. I wonder where I will sleep tomorrow—at another friend’s apartment, on the train, in some stairwell?”
Elizabeth Murray’s mother had had a mantra: “Someday life will get better,” she would say out loud, before disappearing into the bathroom with drug supplies and the author’s father. Shortly after burying her mother, Ms. Murray had her epiphany.
“Like my mother, I was always saying, ‘I’ll fix my life one day.’ It became clear when I saw her die without fulfilling her dreams that my time was now or maybe never,” she says.
“This freedom opened me up to declare, ‘What do I want my life to be about?’ And what occurred to me, first was education. I realized that life could be so much more than ordinary.”
Murray got herself back to school, and while still homeless, she finished high school in two years, receiving straight As throughout. On getting into Harvard, she recalls in her memoir: “Three thousand high school students applied for the six scholarships offered by the New York Times. Had I known that – and had I known how difficult it was to make it to Harvard – then I may never have applied for either the scholarship or my college place. But I didn’t know my chances of success; I only knew that I was going to carve out a life for myself that was in no way limited by my past.”
Now 30 years old, and a bestselling author and motivational speaker, Ms. Murray is inspiring thousands with her story. Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story is the title of a recurring Lifetime movie starring Thora Birch. Ms. Murray was awarded the White House Project’s Role Model Award and Oprah Winfrey’s Chutzpah Award, and she founded Manifest Living, a New York-based foundation which “empowers adults to create the extraordinary in their own lives.”
When Ms. Murray speaks, she talks about her crossroads, the wall she says we all face at least once in our lives. “I thought my pain was so unique, but it turns out that many folks could relate to hitting a wall at some point in their lives,” she says in her lectures. “It’s getting to a place where you’re overwhelmed, you feel resigned, the obstacles getting in your way are just too much. Too much, you can’t handle it. That turned out to be a universal human experience. I’m in my element and I feel joyful because I know I can speak from experience on a few things, and one of them is when you hit those bottoms in life. What I’ve found is, when you can overcome that lowest point and you can push past it and keep going, it’s the results that you get on the other side that will often transform your life.”
Joyfully, Ms. Murray loves to tell audiences about waking up on a daily basis feeling “invigorated,” and how it feels to “get the life pushed back into her.” She loves to talk about turning the less-than-ordinary into the extraordinary.
“What I’ve learned is actually no one knows what’s possible until they do it,” she says. “Not until your butt’s in the chair, the application is submitted, the attempt is made. You don’t know. No one knows. And that’s what’s kind of cool about life. That’s what’s so beautiful: Every single day is another chance.”
Liz Murray will speak at the final program of the season of the Martha’s Vineyard Women’s Network, cosponsored by the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, on Tuesday, May 17, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Whaling Church on Main street in Edgartown.