Liz’s mother, or Ma, tells Liz’s father (named Peter Finnerty, but referred to throughout as Daddy) that she is pregnant. At this time, Daddy is in prison. Ma snorts lots of cocaine, and has done so ever since she was a teenager. Ma hates her mother, and her father is a drunken, abusive man. At the age of thirteen, Ma leaves her parents and begins living on the streets of New York. Liz now knows that Ma was a prostitute during her earliest years on the streets.
Liz begins by jumping back in time to tell her “origin story,” and discusses her parents’ histories. Ma runs away from home to avoid her abusive, alcoholic parents. But, as with so many troubled youths who run away from their parents, she goes out of the frying pan and into the fire: she winds up becoming increasingly addicted to drugs and working as a prostitute in a dangerous city.
Ma meets Daddy in the mid-1970s. At the time, Daddy is witty and charming. His parents are middle-class Irish people, and his father, just like Ma’s, is a violent, drunken man. Daddy’s parents divorced (even though they were Catholic) when Daddy was still a child, and Daddy grew up lonely and sensitive. He doesn’t know his father well, and his mother is cold and emotionless. However, she takes good care of Daddy, and works hard to send him to a good school. In high school, Daddy reads a lot. He also becomes a drug addict.
Daddy and Ma have a lot in common: mostly they both leave their parents, with whom they have deeply conflicted relationships, to move to New York City. And both Ma and Daddy have serious problems with addiction.
Daddy gradates from college “in the heart of New York City.” He begins getting high more often, and becomes a top drug dealer in Greenwich Village. After a few more years, he abandons a graduate degree in social work and begins dealing full-time. Around this time, he meets Ma.
Daddy has a college degree, but believes that it would be more lucrative to sell drugs than it would be to pursue a conventional career. And for at least a few years, it seems, he’s right. The problem is that this “career choice” doesn’t have many long-term options.
Daddy and Ma love each other, but they express their love by doing drugs together, including cocaine, amphetamines, and heroin. In 1978, Ma gives birth to Lisa, Liz’s older sister. Around this time, Daddy begins selling painkillers to old graduate school friends. The scheme is clever: Daddy poses as a doctor in order to pick up large quantities of free painkillers, and then sells the pills for a big profit.
Daddy uses his intelligence to mastermind a highly lucrative painkiller scheme. For the time being, he has enough discipline to execute the plan successfully; however, he and Ma are becoming increasingly addicted to drugs, meaning that, as Liz shows, they slowly lose the ability to function as responsible adults.
The scheme ends when Ma—by this time addicted to painkillers—shows up at a pharmacist’s office and gets arrested. First, the pharmacist is suspicious of Ma’s appearance and tells her to wait for twenty minutes. Partly because she’s addicted, Ma ignores the obvious red flags and stays in the pharmacy, and soon the police come to take her jail. Shortly afterwards the police arrest Daddy, confiscate his drug supply, and send him to jail on numerous counts of fraud. At the time, Ma is pregnant with Liz. Daddy is sentenced to three years in jail, but Ma is allowed to go free.
By the time Ma gets arrested while buying painkillers, it’s clear that addiction has significantly damaged her life. Most people would have the wherewithal to run out of the pharmacy when the pharmacist disappeared for a full twenty minutes. But Ma has become so desperate for painkillers (she’s using them, not just picking them up) that she lets her addiction blind her to reality. While three years is, quite arguably, an excessive sentence for Daddy’s crime, the mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealing increased markedly in the 1980s, during the heyday of the War on Drugs—meaning that, had Daddy been caught a few years later, he probably would have served even more time.
With Daddy in prison, Ma rents an apartment in the Bronx, at the time one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in New York City. She calls Daddy in prison on the day Liz is born. Ma goes on to support her children with money her own mother sends her. Because Ma and Daddy aren’t legally married, Liz is given her mother’s surname, Murray.
For the time being, Ma manages to support herself and her children in spite of her drug addiction. In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, the Bronx was experiencing record levels of crime (1981 was the most violent year in the borough’s history).
Daddy returns from jail when Liz is three years old. In the following months, Ma becomes more neglectful and she and Daddy begin going into the kitchen to use mysterious “spoons.” One night, when Liz is still a little girl, she sees Ma and Daddy walk into the kitchen and close the door. When Ma walks out, Liz cries, “All done!” Ma laughs and tells Daddy, “She knows!”
Liz grows up surrounded by drug addiction: the sight of adults using drugs is as normal to her as watching TV. Liz doesn’t say what kind of drugs her parents are using (most likely it’s either heroin or cocaine, both of which can be dissolved in a spoon and injected into the veins). Instead, the scene is presented from a child’s point of view, which makes it more disturbing.
By the time Liz is five, her family is almost entirely dependent on welfare. Every month, government checks arrive in the mail. Ma qualifies for relief because she’s legally blind, due to a degenerative eye disease. She and Daddy spend their relief money on drugs, electricity for their apartment, and food. Narrating in the present, Liz says she can still remember waiting in line to cash government checks with her mother and, sometimes, Lisa. She sees all kinds of people waiting for their money—some of whom seem able-bodied and perfectly capable of working.
Ma and Daddy have become so dependent on drugs that they spend a large portion of their welfare money on them, and seem unable to prioritize their children’s needs. (Notice, also, that Liz implies that many welfare recipients are “scamming the system”—i.e., pretending to have some kind of disability in order to get free money from the government. This is a highly controversial argument, often associated with a conservative viewpoint.)
There are many times during Liz’s childhood when Ma disappears suddenly. One day, for instance, the family goes to see the film Alice in Wonderland. Ma leaves halfway through the film, and Liz later finds her waiting at home. But when Liz and Ma stand together in the check-cashing line, Liz knows Ma will never leave.
From a very early age, Liz is able to understand what makes her mother tick. Liz recognizes that Ma is dependent on drugs and, by extension, the money needed to buy drugs. This means that Ma is more dependable in situations involving getting money or drugs than she is in situations involving taking care of her children.
Whenever the government sends a check, Liz and her family have a great day. She and Lisa feast on Happy Meals from McDonald’s, and Ma and Daddy inject drugs into their veins using their “spoons.”
Lisa is older than Liz, and sometimes, she plays tricks on Liz. But Liz also enjoys being the younger sister: thanks to Lisa, she approaches new experiences with “a kind of borrowed knowledge.” Whenever Lisa makes a wrong move, Liz knows what not to do.
Liz is a thoughtful, cautious child who understands the importance of looking before she leaps. The passage also stresses that Liz and Lisa have a tough relationship, and rarely get along as children.
Daddy supports his family partly by going through other people’s trash. He travels into Manhattan and finds wonderful things that wealthy people are about to throw away—for example, he once finds a brand-new keyboard.
Daddy is still a resourceful, inventive man, which arguably makes his drug addiction even more tragic. He’s smart and talented, but drugs prevent him from leading a fulfilling life.
As Liz grows up she learns how to behave around her father. Daddy likes to ridicule things for being too weak and “girly,” and as a result Liz trains herself to sound strong and confident.
Liz knows how to act tough around her father—a skill that helps her for the rest of her life, but one that also indoctrinates her with harmful ideas of femininity as being inferior to masculinity.
Liz also notices that her parents smoke strange, smelly cigarettes. Often, Liz and Lisa don’t have anything to eat because their parents spend too much on drugs. Lisa gets mad at her parents for not buying more food, but Liz usually tries to be more agreeable. Even though she doesn’t like her food (mostly eggs), she knows there’s no point in complaining about it.
The strange cigarettes are probably joints (i.e., marijuana cigarettes). It seems that Liz had extraordinary willpower and self-control even at a young age, while Lisa acts more like a “normal” kid would.
While pregnant with Liz, Ma had a nervous breakdown, and during this period, Lisa went to live with a wealthy foster family. Ma often says that Lisa is tough to please because she’s gotten so much attention, food, and toys during her time with the foster family. Unlike Liz, Lisa expects “what was owed to her,” and nothing else.
Notice that Lisa becomes more upset with her parents’ because she’s experienced an alternative: during her time in a foster home, she’s seen that not all parents are as negligent as her own—and, furthermore, that not all households are as poor. Liz, who’s only ever lived with Ma and Daddy, didn’t have this experience, and so she has an easier time accepting the status quo.
Ma’s mother lives in Riverdale, and Liz sometimes visits her. Otherwise, Grandma would visit Liz and her family in the Bronx. She’s deeply Christian, and is also growing senile in her old age. Ma claims that Liz will lose interest in Grandma when she (Liz) gets older, but as a child, Liz loves Grandma—Grandma pays attention to her and answers her questions. When Liz tells Grandma that she wants to be a comedian when she grows up, Grandma tells her that nobody will laugh at her, and advises her to be a live-in maid instead.
Although Liz is more cautious than her sister, she’s also endlessly curious, which explains why she delights in asking her grandmother questions. The passage is especially poignant because it suggests that Liz, like most kids, is desperate for attention from adults—attention that her drug-addicted parents rarely give her. Also notice that Liz aspires to have an exciting, somewhat unusual job that requires her to think quickly, whereas Grandma wants her to take a servile, domestic, and traditionally feminine job.
Ma often tells Liz about how, when Ma was a child, Grandma would beat her for being even a few seconds late. Ma claims that she and Grandma have the same mental health problems: the difference is that Ma takes care of her mental “issues,” while Grandma didn’t address them until it was too late, and as a result she (Grandma) “wasn’t all there” anymore. Ma spent a few months in a psychiatric ward before Liz was born, because she kept hearing voices.
Although Liz first meets her grandmother as a senile but gentle old woman, Liz’s mother knows Grandma as a fierce, abusive parent. Liz’s family clearly has a history of mental illness, further suggesting that Ma’s excessive drug use might exacerbate a preexisting psychiatric condition (or also be her attempt at self-medicating for it).
Ma often takes Lisa and Liz to get free lunch at the local school. Sometimes, Lisa and Liz have to wake up Ma because she’s overslept. By the time they arrived at the cafeteria, the food is usually cold. While the cafeteria food is for kids only, Ma sometimes makes her kids sneak her food for later.
This is one of the many passages in which Ma takes a passive, childish role, while her children seem more mature and responsible—they’re feeding their mother instead of the other way around.
Ma disappears at unusual times. She often claims she is going to a local bar, but Liz doesn’t always believe her. On the night of the 4th of July while Liz is still young, Ma steps out of the house. She comes back hours later, waving a sparkler and a bag of fireworks. On their stoop outside, the family sets off every firework Ma has brought. It’s the summer of 1985, just before Liz starts school. It’s also the last time Liz can remember being happy with her whole family.
While Liz clearly has a conflicted relationship with her parents, she never denies that there were some good times; indeed, Liz seems nostalgic for many aspects of her childhood.
The night before Liz starts school, Ma takes drugs and becomes manic. She insists that she has to give Liz a haircut, even though she only has an old, rusty pair of scissors. In the end, Ma cuts Liz’s hair much too short. She tells Liz, “It’s just hair, pumpkin, it’ll grow back.”
Here again, Ma’s behavior is immature and even childish (plenty of kids give themselves bad haircuts, and their parents are usually the ones who get upset about it, not the other way around), and her actions seem destined to affect how Liz interacts with her peers.