Liz’s success story was so unbelievably inspiring that it was made into a movie even before a book version was released. Nothing could be more difficult than charting your own course to success without parents to guide you and a roof above your head. Not to mention that you are surrounded by people whose lives revolve around day to day survival. But Liz proved that even the direst circumstances could be turned around if one has the right attitude.
It all began with a desire to make something out of her life. Given how fleeting our days are on this planet, Liz thought she could either live pathetically or triumphantly. Either way, she must endure life and while it was easier to just go with the flow, the idea of wasting away just did not sit well with her. Armed with nothing but will and guts, Liz braved scaling the impossible for someone who had drug addicts for parents. She gave it a shot and before she knew it, she’s enrolled in Harvard!
To fully appreciate what Liz has achieved, we better go back in time, back before she was even born…
When Two Drug Addicts Fall in Love
Liz’s mom’s parents both psychologically unfit to raise children. Her father would beat his four children, while their mother would hum while cooking something in the kitchen as if nothing was wrong while they wailed and screamed for him to stop. At the age of thirteen Liz’s grandma left her four children and husband, to fend for themselves.
When Liz’s mom could no longer take the beatings, she left and wandered in the streets. Growing up into a beautiful young lady, Liz’s mom used her looks to avoid starving to death. As expected, she ended up with the wrong crowd, drinking and smoking pot. Then she discovered there’s lots of money in drug-dealing. It did not take long before she got totally hooked.
Peter (Liz’s father) on the other hand, had his own issues. His father abandoned he and his mom in his adolescence. His Irish mother while not the talkative type was a good provider making sure that even without Peter’s father, she provided for his needs. Taking on two bookkeeping jobs and ensuring that Peter would be well provided for she sent Peter to an elite school however though Peter’s eyes he felt what his mother lacked in her show of affection, she compensated it for and with material things.
More than just the material things, Liz’s father longed for was someone he could talk to about his insecurities. Someone who would assure him that what he’s going through is normal and all of that would soon come to pass. Surrounded by rich kids in school, he found superficial comfort in their camaraderie. He spent weekends in his friend’s beach houses and learned to pop uppers when he was in high school while his mother was busy with work.
After finishing school Liz’s father enrolled in college to study Psychology. In spite of his drug dependence and hippie lifestyle, he finished college and second year of graduate studies.
Earning more than average with his consultancy job after graduating also made buying drugs more possible for Peter. Soon, his drug addiction got the better of him and he gave up his master’s so he could focus more on drug dealing. It was in this business that Peter met Liz’s mother. He was 34 years old and she was only 22. To her, he was the perfect man—learned, attractive, and authoritative.
With their shared interest in cocaine, their future was unfolding. The attraction became more intense and Liz’s mother fell pregnant. With Lisa now part of the equation, Peter and Liz’s mother began their life as a family.
Money was easy at first. The three lived in a decent apartment in Bronx, New York. That part of the district would soon become one of the most notorious New York block. Peter had his own share of fortune in the growing drug business.
Other drug dealers and their minions call Liz’s father Peter “professor” because he’s the most educated among them. Using fake prescriptions to amass prohibited drugs went undetected until Liz’s mother as exposed in an undercover police operation. Her arrest led to the discovery of Peter and her meticulously systematic operations.
To make matters worse, Liz was then about to see her first light of day. Her parents were in court during the last trimester of her mother’s pregnancy. She must be her lucky charm because the judge took pity on her upon seeing her very pregnant belly. Instead of serving time behind bars, she was just given probation. Peter, however, was not as lucky as her partner. He was locked up in prison and sentenced to three years for the fraud he’s committed.
Liz’s Early Life
Liz was born on 23 September 1980. At the time her father was still serving jail time while her mother struggled to be sober; Peter’s first sight of Liz would be behind a glass partition. Liz was given her mother’s surname, Murray because the couple were both unmarried and Peter due to his incarceration was unable to verify his paternity.
Liz’s mother did her best to start all over again. She renovated the house and transformed it into a wholesome home. They lived on the welfare that the government gave their legally blind mother. It was not really abundant but it got them through nonetheless. Those were the most peaceful years of her life. For a time, she was a responsible and sober mother to her daughters.
Serving three years in prison did little to reform Peter and drugs started to find its way back into Liz’s parent’s lives. It was a gradual decline. Their mother began neglecting house chores she had once faithfully done. Before Liz even learned how to read, she’s been introduced to the world of drugs. She wrote in her memoir:
"I learned that Ma and Daddy shared strange habits together, the full details of which were hidden from me. Ritualistically, they would spread spoons and other objects along the kitchen table in some kind of urgent preparation. Over the display, they communicated in quick, brief commands to each other. Water was needed—a small amount from the faucet—and so were shoelaces and belts. I was not supposed to bother them, but observing their busy hands from a distance was allowed. From the doorway, I often watched, trying to understand the meaning behind their activity. But each time Ma and Daddy were done setting the strange objects across the table, at the very last minute, one of them would close the kitchen door, blocking my view entirely.
This remained a mystery until one summer evening when I parked myself in my stroller (which I would use until it finally gave under my weight) in front of the kitchen. When the door was closed to me again, I didn’t budge from where I sat, but remained and waited. I watched roaches weaving their way in and out of the door crack—a recent addition to the apartment since Ma had stopped cleaning regularly—while each minute dragged by. When Ma finally emerged, her face was tense, her lips pursed together." (Source: Book Reporter)
This is Liz’s earliest recollection of finally making her way into her parents’ daily routine; from the moment her father got out of prison up to the time she and Liz was in her teens.
Liz Learns Survival
With both of their parents lost in their own world, Lisa and Liz grew up neglected.
Sensing at school that other kids didn’t like hanging around with her because she was lice-ridden and stank Liz dreaded going to school. Her parents without a job and surviving on Liz’s grandma’s welfare—most of it were used to finance their addiction. Within five days each month the money would be spent leaving the whole family with little to eat for the rest of the month.
Liz knew that cocaine always took precedence over anything else in their parents’ lives. They didn’t care if there was any food for her and Lisa as long as they had their shot. Albeit they did not physically abuse their kids; Liz recounts that it’s their hopeless dependence on cocaine that kept them from becoming responsible parents. Through it all, Liz tried to understand her parents. However out of hunger, Liz and her sister would eat Chap Stick, toothpaste and anything else to appease their grumbling stomach.
Then one day, Liz just stopped going to school altogether. She just stayed home and read as many books as she could. Her parents couldn’t care less as they had nothing in mind but cocaine. So bad was their addiction that they started selling their things just to finance their shots. Her bike has to go, the toaster, the TV, anything that could make money was sold for cocaine. Once her paternal grandmother sent Liz a birthday card with a five-dollar bill; her mother was so desperate for money she stole it and bought her fix. When Liz found out what her mother did, she confronted her. Liz was taken aback by her mother’s remorse. She flushed her cocaine and told her daughter, “I’m not a monster. I just can’t stop.” And then she asked forgiveness and Liz forgave.
At nine years old, Liz began working at a department store so she didn’t have to solely depend on her parents for food.
She was 11 when her mother confessed that they were sharing needles with other addicts. This resulted in her contracting HIV. Needless to say, her father had it too. All Liz could remember then was her mother telling her to forget about it the moment she asked if she’s going to die. The disease spread not only in her parents’ system but also into their marriage. Fights and arguments followed and escalated until they both gave up and decided to go on separate ways.
Liz was torn whether to go with her mom or father. She chose to be with her dad because she couldn’t bear leaving him by himself and her mom had found a new boyfriend named Brent. Unfortunately for Liz and her sister their father spiraled down, his life out of control and homeless, forcing her to go live with her mom and Brent.
Liz returned to school and met a classmate, Sam, who eventually became her close friend. Both kids’ parents were lousy at parenting and soon Liz and Sam cut classes and started hanging out with the “wrong crowd”. Liz’s mother soon sensed what’s going on and told Liz to stay out of drugs if she doesn’t want to end up just like her. Liz knew her mother meant it. Unknown to Liz’s mom, Liz loathed the smell of alcohol and smoke. She needed no lecture on the dangers of doing drugs because she’d seen it ruin her family.
Liz lost her mother just before Christmas of 1996. Her coffin was made out of pine box and they had her name misspelled. Liz’s father Peter did not make it to the funeral. Lisa and Liz had to move out of Brent’s home. In order to survive, they had to sleep in different friends’ houses, under the bridge, or in the subway.
From Homeless to Harvard
When Liz’s friend Danny took her in for the night, Liz met his girlfriend Paige.
At 22 years old, Paige had a steady job and was a runaway like her. Paige told Liz about alternative school. “If Paige was able to do it, why can’t she?” thought Liz; so doing some research on alternative schools and locating each one of them Liz sent her applications. After being rejected countless of times, she figured it was not as easy as she had thought.
In her memoir Liz recall’s feeling torn between spending the last of her money she earned out of begging to buy pizza which meant giving up her dream of going back to school and making the most of her life. For a 16-year-old girl, that was a dilemma. However remembering her mother and how she procrastinated about mending her life gave her the push she needed to keep going.
After many applications Liz met Perry Weiner. Perry founded Humanities Preparatory Academy, or Prep and unlike other school heads Liz had approached, Perry was very accommodating and felt trustworthy. Liz told Perry everything except that she was homeless. Two years later, Liz had completed her high school with A grades and had been chosen as one of 10 students to go on a fieldtrip to Harvard University. Instead of feeling intimidated, she felt a sense of belongingness. It would have been possible if only she had money.
The New York Times scholarship couldn’t come at a more perfect occasion. It was open to needy students provided they compose an essay and convince the publishing company that they were worthy of being helped. All they had to do was explain how they overcame their obstacles. Liz got a pen and paper and “the essay wrote itself.”
That essay became “Homeless to Harvard.” Her classmates and teachers couldn’t believe that she was struggling with homelessness all along. Help came pouring in and, yes, she won the scholarship. Three years after she entered Harvard, "Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story" was released, a film featuring her life.
Liz becomes an Inspiration
Even as she had already entered Harvard, it didn’t come easy for Liz. She was hounded by her past and had to leave school to care for her sick father who underwent heart surgery. Their relationship was restored and they became a family once more.
Liz had a short stint in another university while she took care of her father on the side. Upon his death, she went back to Harvard and completed her degree in Psychology. Soon after getting her diploma, she wrote a memoir titled “Breaking Night.” It easily became a New York Times bestseller.
What makes Liz extraordinary is not the fact that she completed her university degree despite her dysfunctional family background. What makes Liz more worthy of our respect is that she found a way to give back. She currently directs the company she established called Manifest Living. Liz also speaks at universities advising and inspiring young people how important education is and how it was able to transform her life.
Liz was also recognised by Oprah; becoming the first recipient of Oprah Winfrey's Chutzpah Award. She’s received the White House Project's Role Model Award and a Christopher Award, shares the stage with Steven Covey, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Dalai Lama, and Tony Blair in some speaking events.
Rather than become bitter, Liz focused on becoming better. As a successful entrepreneur, she’s now in the position to help kids who have a troubled family life and inspire them to hold on to their dreams. She’s a testimony that if you couple dreams with action and will, you’re sure to find a way out of misery.
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Manifest Living
- Me to We
Awards and Achievements
- 2000: Entered Harvard University
- 2003: "Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story" was released featuring her life
- 2009: Graduated from Harvard University
- 2010: Released her memoir "Breaking Night"
- 2013: Was the commencement Speaker at the Merrimack College in North Andover, MA
- Was the first recipient of Oprah Winfrey's Chutzpah Award
- Recipient of the New York Times scholarship
- Founder of Manifest Living
- Featured speaker at the Charles R. Wood Theater, as part of the fundraiser "Your Help Carries WAIT" for WAIT House
- Recipient of the Appalachian Women’s Fund inaugural Women of Vision award
- Breaking Night made it to The New York Times Bestseller List within one week
- Has been featured on ABC News, 20/20, Good Morning America, the Today Show, and CNN
- Received the White House Project's Role Model Award and a Christopher Award
- Spoke alongside Steven Covey, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Dalai Lama, and Tony Blair
- 2013: Awarded an honorary doctorate of public service at the Merrimack College in North Andover, MA.
Wikipedia (Liz Murray)
Daily Mail (From homelessness to Harvard: How the daughter of drug addicts turned her life around)
BBC (From homeless to Harvard)
Post Star ('Homeless to Harvard' subject to speak at local benefit)
High Country Press (Liz Murray Encourages High Country Women To Pay It Forward)
Star Bulletin (Her story tells of triumph over greatest odds)
The New York Times (TELEVISION REVIEW; A Girl on the Street Finds a Path to the Ivy League)
Thrivenet ("From Homeless to Harvard" - Liz Murray's Story)
University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown (Commencement Speaker to Share Her "Homeless to Harvard" Story)
The Guardian (Liz Murray: 'My parents were desperate drug addicts. I'm a Harvard graduate')
Success.com (Your Personal Best: From Homeless to Harvard)
Kidz World (From the Streets to Success)
The Huffington Post (Star Power: Liz Murray's Journey From Homeless to Harvard)
The Daily Pennsylvanian (Formerly homeless student to enter Penn)
BBC (How Liz Murray went from homelessness to Harvard)
Book Reporter (Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey From Homeless to Harvard)