Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Breaking Night Review

About the book: Liz Murray was born to loving but drug-addicted parents in the Bronx. In school she was taunted for her dirty clothing and lice-infested hair, eventually skipping so many classes that she was put into a girls' home. At age fifteen, Liz found herself on the streets when her family finally unraveled. She learned to scrape by, foraging for food and riding subways all night to have a warm place to sleep.

When Liz's mother died of AIDS, she decided to take control of her own destiny and go back to high school, often completing her assignments in the hallways and subway stations where she slept. Liz squeezed four years of high school into two, while homeless; won a New York Times scholarship; and made it into the Ivy League. Breaking Night is an unforgettable and beautifully written story of one young woman's indomitable spirit to survive and prevail, against all odds.

My take: I love reading a really great memoir.  I detest reading a badly written memoir.  A badly written memoir has a tendency to interpret events rather than staying in the moment.  Jeanette Walls has an amazing gift for staying in the moment and telling her story without moralizing or interpreting meaning.  Since then, I've read a scant (if any?) memoirs that have been so poignantly and honestly written.  Liz is one of those gifted authors in the same class as Jeanette Walls.

Liz is born in 1980 to a couple in their twenties who have already lived a life in the midst of drugs.  Liz is the younger sister of Lisa, two years older.  Both girls are exposed to the drug culture while toddlers.  In fact, Liz was born with drugs in her system.  Liz describes the scenes of waiting for the welfare check, her parents running to cash it, child in tow, and either mother or father risking life and limb to buy a hit or two.  Within a few days, the money is out and the cupboards are empty.  She vividly remembers the blood splatter on walls, food, and counter since they mainlined cocaine, the feeling of responsibility for causing her parents' problems; if she'd only be better, this or that wouldn't happen, and the constant draw to please.

Living in filth, hunger, and no parental supervision, Liz watches the family disintegrate, drops out of school, and finds herself living on the street as her mother dies of AIDS, her intelligent father becomes completely indigent, and she becomes a stranger to her sister.

The story is riveting as it introduces the reader to a way of life that is incredibly in the same country as I am.  Liz does not paint herself as a heroine, which I so appreciate.  She paints herself as a human being trying to survive and, ultimately, as a survivor.  She is not a saint, nor does she try to describe herself as such.  She writes of her own choices and consequences and accepts herself holistically.  She beautifully describes how she does not define herself by circumstance but by her decisions every day.  Actually, she expresses the idea much more articulately than I just did but, because it is an ARC, I can't quote it and I've already loaned it out.

It is amazing to me that this book is written by a 27 year old woman.  Her writing skills far exceed what one would expect from someone of her age and academic experience.  As previously mentioned, she can be compared to Jeanette Walls.

Most touching to me, however, was the last couple of chapters as she describes her quest for education.  She saw her independence in education.  She describes interviews at alternative high schools and, ultimately, the alternative high school that accepts her not only academically, but also as Liz Murray, herself.  The staff and programs available to her provide her with a feeling of acceptance and safety.  They love her and honestly care about her.  It is through them she sees her potential and serves as a launching pad for who she is becoming.

On a personal note, I am a high school counselor, working at an alternative high school.  Unknowingly, Liz coached me on how to do my job.  While reading this book, I finally had to get my butt off the sofa and grab a colored pencil.  She articulately describes what qualities in her teachers (counselor) provided a nurturing environment.  In fact, I would recommend this book to any professional in the helping field; social work, teaching, counseling, nursing home aide, etc.  Liz gives an honest description from the other side of the desk.  She gave me a perspective I would not have gotten from a textbook or even from a student sitting on the other side of my desk.  They express appreciation but lack the articulation for describing what they truly need.

To be seen.  To be heard.  For someone to act.  To not pity but to provide a nurturing environment. Provide high expectations and to hold her accountable.  She tells of one teacher who called each student who did not show up to school that day and ask if the student would mind sharing with him the reason, ask for a commitment to come tomorrow, and he kept copious notes and held the student accountable.

Where will Liz Murray end up?  I don't know but she'll be great. 

Epilogue:  This book is now in the hands of my principal.

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