Author Talk: October 15, 2010
Liz Murray is the author of BREAKING NIGHT, the awe-inspiring memoir about what it’s like to grow up in a dysfunctional household governed by drug-addicted parents and how she struggled to withstand the overwhelming odds that had been stacked against her. In this interview, Murray talks about how love can help people overcome the challenge of changing their lives, elaborating on the importance of community and the dangers of self-imposed limitations. She also discusses the differences between BREAKING NIGHT and the 2003 Lifetime movie inspired by her personal story, explains why her book doesn’t read like a “misery memoir” --- in spite of her horrific childhood --- and reveals why she decided to promote her stunning story the old-fashioned way: by driving across the country on a bus.
Question: What’s your book about?
Liz Murray: BREAKING NIGHT is first and foremost a story about love and family, and about what happens when tragedy strikes your life, the bottom falls out, and you’re faced with the challenge of reinventing yourself from the ground up. What do you do with that challenge? Is it possible to change your life --- even in the face of devastating loss? This book is about breaking past any limits you have placed on yourself and how love helps you do that.
Q: How is BREAKING NIGHT different than Lifetime’s 2003 movie about you?
LM: BREAKING NIGHT is very different than the Lifetime movie. The film, which I love, focuses on my family’s tragedy and how I came to study at Harvard despite that tragedy. The book reveals parts of my life that the film does not --- particularly my experiences as a teenager and a young adult --- and it affords me the opportunity to tell my story in my own words.
People often ask how I got to where I am now. Through writing my own story, I’m able to show the thought processes and realizations that were key for me in piecing together how to climb out of poverty. BREAKING NIGHT is also very clear about the role of love (of all kinds), education and community in my transformation.
Q: On one level your childhood was grim, but BREAKING NIGHT never feels like a “misery memoir.” Can you talk a bit about that?
LM: If you haven’t seen drug addiction up close --- and I include alcoholism in this statement --- you can almost miss that it really is a disease. When I was a child, this realization wasn’t a conscious thought so much as it was an instinct: I just knew my mom and dad were sick. While I was devastated by their addiction, I wasn’t angry at them. And I knew I was loved. My parents loved me just the way anyone else’s parents love them. Only in my case, they just so happened to be drug-addicted, mentally ill, and HIV-positive so they couldn’t care for me in a normal way.
I believe that people can’t give you what they don’t have. It’s not like Ma and Daddy were running off being better parents to some other kids and coming back to be malicious to us; they just didn’t have more to give us, and I knew that. It’s not that they were selfishly withholding resources from us and using it for themselves. If I hadn’t had a hot meal all day, Mom hadn’t had one in two days. If I needed a new winter coat, Dad had duct tape holding his sneakers together because they had holes in them. People can’t give you what they don’t have.
Q: Are there any habits that you retain today because of your childhood experiences?
LM: I love to eat! It may be from my childhood, I’m not sure, but I am never happier than when I’m sitting around a dinner table with the people I love, sharing food and connecting. I remember, when I was homeless, I used to promise myself that one day I would be able to walk into a diner and order anything I wanted off the menu, and that would mean that I’d made it, that I was finally doing okay. Today I can do that, and I take comfort in knowing that I won’t have to go hungry again.
Q: What message do you hope readers will take from BREAKING NIGHT?
LM: I want BREAKING NIGHT to push readers to rethink whatever limits they’ve placed on their lives, and I want it to inspire them to surpass those limits --- to step into what is possible for them. Inside of that, I also want this book to help strengthen the relationship people have with their community. My life is evidence that a person never gets where they are going alone. We all need a little help along the way.
Forgiveness is also a huge piece of what I hope to convey in BREAKING NIGHT. I want readers to rethink our human tendency to place blame and hold grudges that close off possibility in relationships based on anger and resentment. My hope is that readers will be inspired to try on someone else’s shoes --- whether it’s a homeless person, a family member they are angry at, or someone else they find tough to understand --- and through the book they will be able to relate to the situation with a deeper compassion for the other person’s humanity, for their struggle and their unique soul.
Q: You speak all over the world, to audiences ranging from school children to heads of state. What about your story seems to resonate? Are there any common reactions?
LM: I started out speaking to small groups of high school students in New York City. When my story received national media attention, I was invited to speak at a few very large conventions. More than 10,000 people attended one of them. These were business people, CEOs of large corporations, even Gorbachev was there. I was terrified, but it went well. The audience was in tears and so was I, and afterwards dozens of people came up to me to ask me to speak to their organizations. I had no way of knowing at the time that speaking would become such an important part of my life. For 10 years now, I’ve traveled the world delivering speeches and workshops that inspire people to lead their best lives.
I believe my message and the tools that I teach resonate with such a diverse group of audiences because we all know what it’s like to face adversity in our lives, and we all know what it’s like to have an instinct that tells us life can be so much more fulfilling than we’ve allowed it to become. We also sense how creative we are as human beings and how much we have to contribute. The work I do taps into these questions and instincts that everyone has, and it inspires them to declare what it is they truly want in their lives. Then they’re able to access the tools that support them in making those results happen.
After people hear me speak they tend to want to express their dreams to me, and they seem earnest and invigorated to pursue them. Often, they tell me that they want to forgive their parents, or they tell me about a non-profit they want to create, or sometimes that they want to go back to school. They tell me my message is a wake-up call.
Q: You’re driving around the country on a bus to promote this book --- why?
LM: September is Hunger Action Month, so my book tour became a bus tour with a mission. I work with an organization called Blessings in a Backpack that supplies children with backpacks of food to take home on Fridays so they have something to eat during the weekend when the school cafeteria is closed. If I’d had access to a program like Blessings in a Backpack when I was an undernourished child in New York City, I may not have gone to bed hungry all those nights. Thankfully, with this organization’s continued commitment, thousands of children across America won’t have to. I want Americans to know that it costs only $80 to feed a child for a year. Blessings currently serves 38,000 children each school year. My goal is to use my story to motivate people to donate money at www.blessingsinabackpack.org so that we can increase that number to 50,000 children by December.
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