Breaking Night


Liz Murray

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Breaking Night Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Liz Murray's Breaking Night. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Liz Murray

Liz Murray grew up in the Bronx with her two parents, both of whom were drug addicts. She was homeless for most of her teen years, and her mother died of AIDS in 1996. However, Murray graduated from the Humanities Preparatory Academy in Manhattan in just two years, after which she won a New York Times scholarship and earned acceptance to Harvard University. At present, Murray is a motivational speaker; Breaking Night is her detailed autobiography.
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Historical Context of Breaking Night

Two major historical events loom over Breaking Night: the War on Drugs and the AIDS crisis. Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, the use of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and other drugs increased enormously in American society. These substances were particularly easy to procure in large cities such as New York, and neighborhoods like Greenwich Village quickly became famous for their drug culture and nonconformist spirit. The War on Drugs was officially “declared” by President Richard Nixon in a 1971 speech, but it is more often associated with the 1980s and the presidential administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. During this decade, punishment for the use or sale of drugs skyrocketed, even as the use of these drugs continued to grow. Another important historical event of the 1980s, at the time when Liz was growing up, was the AIDS crisis. Beginning in the early 1980s, a frightening number of Americans died from a little-understood immunodeficiency disease, AIDS. Among the many demographics at risk of contracting the disease were gay people, people who had unprotected sex, and intravenous drug users. Liz’s parents—and, by extension, Liz herself—are victims, first, of the War on Drugs (Liz’s father is jailed for selling painkillers) and later of the AIDS crisis (they’re both diagnosed with the disease).

Other Books Related to Breaking Night

Dave Pelzer’s memoir A Child Called It (1995) bears a certain resemblance to Breaking Night. Both books deal with child abuse and poverty, and both have a fundamentally optimistic message: with hard work and determination, suffering people can lift themselves up. Jeanette Walls's memoir The Glass Castle (2005) similarly describes a young girl's experience with poverty and reckless and negligent parents, and her efforts to escape that life. Another memoir to which Breaking Night bears some resemblance is George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), in which Orwell, not unlike Liz Murray, describes his experiences living in destitution in big cities, supporting himself with various low-paying jobs, and balancing his enormous intelligence with his material needs (although, as Orwell acknowledges, his poverty was partly a self-imposed journalistic experiment). Readers might also check out James Mills’s 1966 novel The Panic in Needle Park, the basis for a brilliant film directed by Jerry Schatzberg and starring Al Pacino. The book details the experiences of two young drug addicts living in poverty in New York City in the 1970s, much like Liz Murray’s parents (who met in Greenwich Village around the same time). Notable literary works primarily or partly set in the Bronx, where Liz grows up, include Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (2009) and Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), which has memorable scenes set at the Bronx Zoo and Fordham University.
Key Facts about Breaking Night
  • Full Title: Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey From Homeless to Harvard
  • When Written: 2009-2010
  • Where Written: Massachusetts and New York
  • When Published: September 2010
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Nonfiction / autobiography
  • Setting: New York City (mostly Manhattan and the Bronx) and Massachusetts (Boston and Cambridge)
  • Climax: Liz’s acceptance to Harvard
  • Antagonist: Poverty, drug addiction, and sexual abuse could all be considered antagonists in this book
  • Point of View: First person (Liz)

Extra Credit for Breaking Night

TV movie. In 2003, the Lifetime channel released a TV movie based on Murray’s life, starring Thora Birch (who also played the teenaged daughter in American Beauty).

More degrees. Since earning an undergraduate degree from Harvard, Murray has continued to earn honorary degrees. In 2013, for example, she was awarded an honorary degree from Merrimack College, and later delivered that year’s commencement address.