Elizabeth Murray grows up in the Bronx in New York City in the 1980s. Her older sister’s name is Lisa Murray, and her parents are Peter Finnerty and Jean Murray (though she refers to them as “Daddy” and “M”a throughout her memoir). Daddy was a charming, intelligent student when he met Ma in the 1970s. Both came from emotionally abusive families. The two of them fell in love, but began using drugs (including heroin and cocaine) more and more heavily, until, by the end of the decade, they were full-fledged addicts. Their fortunes took a turn for the worse when Daddy was imprisoned for impersonating a doctor and selling painkillers, leaving Ma pregnant with Liz and already taking care of Lisa.
When Daddy gets out of prison, Liz is three years old. As Liz grows up, she witnesses her parents using cocaine and other drugs. She becomes accustomed to standing in line with her mother, who collects welfare checks because she’s legally blind. These checks provide the family with a stable source of income, but Ma and Daddy spend most of the money on drugs, leaving only a little for food and electricity.
Liz attends school in the Bronx, but finds it almost impossible to focus, since she barely sleeps, barely eats, and can’t concentrate on her homework with her parents arguing and getting high at all times of the day. She skips school and learns to destroy letters from the truancy officer before her parents read them. However, she also teaches herself to read by thumbing through her father’s old books, and always manages to pass her end-of-year exams and graduate to the next grade level.
While she’s still a young girl, Liz visits a friend of Ma, Ron. Ron provides Ma and the family with money, food, and drugs. He also molests Liz on multiple occasions, and at one point orders Liz and Lisa to show him their genitalia. When Liz tells Ma the truth about Ron, Ma is so upset that she has a nervous breakdown. Afterward Liz is examined by doctors, who find that Ron has abused her many times. Liz senses that she’ll never feel normal again. She never tells Ma that she kept quiet about her abuse for months because she wanted to ensure that Ron would keep taking care of her family.
Over the next few years, Ma has multiple mental breakdowns, partly because she uses drugs more than ever, and partly because her family has a history of schizophrenia and other mental disorders. In Ma’s absence, Daddy becomes a more active parent, and becomes adept at providing enough food for his children. However, it is during this period that Liz finds out that Daddy had another child, Meredith, in a previous relationship, and abandoned the child when she, Meredith, was only two years old. Liz also learns that her mother has been diagnosed with AIDS. Though Liz doesn’t fully understand what this means, she senses that her mother isn’t going to live much longer.
Liz spends more and more time with her friends. She also finds ways of earning money for herself. However, when Ma returns from the hospital, she takes Liz’s money and spends it on drugs. Ma also begins spending more time with an alcoholic security guard named Brick. Eventually, she leaves Daddy and takes Lisa to live with Brick; Liz continues living with Daddy. Around this time, however, Child Protective Services takes Liz to live in a state home, due to her “behavioral problems” and truancy. There, Liz is miserable, but she meets with a psychologist and is released to live with Lisa, Ma, and Brick.
Living with Brick is difficult for Liz, but she begins to enjoy herself after she starts middle school. There, she makes a close friend, Samantha, or Sam. She and Sam begin cutting class and exploring New York City. Liz is, as usual, careful to ensure that her parents don’t learn the truth about her truancy. Meanwhile, Ma’s health deteriorates further. Around the time that she begins high school, Liz meets a charming boy named Carlos Marcano. She, Carlos, and Sam begin spending more time together, and they hatch a plan to move far away from New York one day. Liz begins dating Carlos, and she also begins spending all her time away from Brick’s home.
Liz and Sam begin living in friends’ houses and spending virtually all of their time with Carlos. Carlos brags that he’s about to inherit lots of money from his family. He lavishes money on his friends, and buys all of Liz and Sam’s food. However, Liz notices that Carlos also flirts with lots of women. She begins to realize that he’s a drug dealer and also a cocaine user. She questions whether Carlos really loves her, as he’s claimed, but she’s frightened to leave him. Then, suddenly, Liz gets a call from Lisa and learns that Ma has died of AIDS.
Liz visits with her family, who she hasn’t seen in months. After the funeral, she resumes staying with Carlos. But she begins to worry that Carlos could hurt her, or will run out on her one day soon. She decides to crash at her friends’ houses, and begins to formulate a plan to go back to high school and graduate. Although she’s already seventeen years old, she enrolls at the Humanities Preparatory Academy, an experimental school designed for “troubled students” and dropouts. The HPA is run by a teacher named Perry Weiner, and Liz immediately likes him. She resolves to work hard and graduate from HPA.
Liz does well enough to graduate from high school in half the usual time. During this time, she depends on her friends for housing, and also relies on youth charities such as The Door, which provides her with food and clothes. She finds work as a political canvasser, and begins to develop a passion for history, theater, and English. By the time she graduates, she’s earned near-perfect grades. She’s also found strong role models in her teachers, especially Perry Weiner. Liz also begins to spend more time with her father and sister. Daddy tells her that he’s HIV positive; rather than run away from her family, as she did when her mother was diagnosed, Liz makes an effort to treat Daddy with compassion.
Liz’s guidance counselor advises her to apply to excellent colleges. Liz does so, but knows that she needs to prioritize finding scholarship money. With her counselor’s encouragement, she applies for the highly prestigious New York Times scholarship, which could provide her with enough money to pay Harvard’s tuition. To her amazement, she wins the Times scholarship, beating out many thousands of highly talented applicants. She’s also accepted to Harvard.
In the Epilogue, Liz explains that she graduates from Harvard in 2009. During her time in college, she continues to spend time with her family. During one visit to Harvard, Daddy writes Liz a letter that concludes, “Thank you for making us a family again.” At present, Sam is happily married, Lisa is a college graduate and a schoolteacher for the autistic, and Liz travels around the world to tell her incredible true story.