Throughout the book, Liz Murray has a difficult relationship with her family. Her parents ignore her for drugs, and sometimes disappear for days when they should be taking care of their daughter. In return, Liz is often put in the position where she has to take care of her parents, instead of the other way around: in particular, she comforts Ma when Daddy isn’t around (which is quite often). Liz also has a tough relationship with her older sister, Lisa Murray. In one of the few memories of Lisa that Liz shares in her memoir, Lisa treats Liz unkindly, pulling a cruel prank on her. Though this memory takes place when both girls are very young, it seems to stand in for Liz’s generally strained relationship with Lisa.
For the majority of Breaking Night, Liz struggles to replace her biological family with a kinder, more supportive “surrogate family,” made up of friends, teachers, and other people she believes she can trust. Some of these people, such as Liz’s close friend Sam, come to play an important role in her life, and for all intents and purposes become a part of her family. Liz and Sam comfort each other in times of grief, and enjoy spending time with each other, in much the way two close sisters might do. In this way, Liz comes to think of “family” elastically: she can make her own family, picking and choosing the people to whom she feels closest. Furthermore, she believes that she can abandon her biological family—quite understandably, she wants nothing to do with her bullying sister or her unstable absentee mother and father.
Liz’s attempts to find a surrogate family prove successful at times. But even these surrogate family members can be unreliable. She places her trust in Carlos Marcano, a charismatic, seemingly sensitive young man who turns out to be a manipulative, cruel drug dealer. Liz fantasizes about moving away with Carlos and, in effect, starting a family with him—but within a few years of meeting him, she comes to realize that Carlos is in many ways as neglectful and unreliable as her own biological parents. Moreover, Liz comes to realize that, by abandoning her biological family, she’s actedjust like her own mother or father, both of whom ran away from their parents. Liz sees herself as being trapped in a vicious cycle: just like Ma, she runs away from her biological parents and falls for a handsome, charismatic drug addict who turns out to be less reliable than she’d thought. Unlike Ma, however, Liz goes on to leave Carlos, recognizing that it’s better for her to surround herself with many supportive people rather than pin her hopes on one unpredictable individual.
In the end, Liz manages to succeed in life while balancing her loyalty to her biological family with her love for her teachers, friends, and other role models. She graduates from the Humanities Preparatory Academy in just two years, thanks to a network of supportive teachers and sensitive friends who, for all intents and purposes, function as mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters (and she also keeps in touch with her old, good friend, Sam). At the same time, Liz tries to make peace with her parents and sister. After her mother’s death from AIDS, Liz writes her mother a long, emotional letter in which she expresses her desire to reconcile with Ma. In high school, Liz begins living with her sister, and later she spends more time with her father.
In part, Liz reconciles with her family members because, in spite of everything they’ve done to hurt her, she still cares about them. The death of her mother—a woman for whom Liz nursed strong negative feelings for much of her life—reminds her of her deep-seated love for her parents and sister. By the same token, she realizes that it’s better to try to get along with Daddy and Lisa than it is to try to run away from them. By fleeing from her biological family, she had repressed her bitterness and rage without ever fully surmounting these feelings. But because she finally comes to (somewhat) reconcile with her family, by the time she’s accepted to Harvard, Liz seems to have built a fairly stable relationship with her parents and sister. She doesn’t forgive them for their neglect, but she’s still grateful to them for the positive things they did for her—for example, she’s grateful to Daddy for leaving books around the house and, in effect, helping her learn how to read. In short, Liz gets love, wisdom, and inspiration from her friends, without turning her back on her biological family altogether. She appears to have made a truce with her family, and with her tumultuous past, so that she can proceed with her life.
Family Quotes in Breaking Night
I force my thoughts to fade until the details of her face blur. I need to push them away if I am ever to get some sleep. I need sleep; it will be only a few more hours before I'm outside on the street again, with nowhere to go.
I raised my arms into the air, and gave a singsong, 'Al-l-l do-ne."
Taken off guard, Ma paused, leaned in and asked disbelievingly, "What did you say, pumpkin?”
“A-l-l-l done," I repeated, delighted at Ma's sudden interest.
She yelled for Daddy. "Peter, she knows! Look at her, she understands!"
Lisa and I dined on Happy Meals in front of the black-and-white TV, to the sound of spoons clanking on the nearby table, chairs being pulled in—and those elongated moments of silence when we knew what they were concentrating on. Daddy had to do it for Ma because with her bad eyesight she could never find a vein.
When she returned home half an hour later with a nickel bag, I was furious with her. I demanded that she give me my money, and I shouted mean words at her that are hard for me to think about now. Ma said nothing back. She snatched up her works—syringe and cocaine—from the kitchen table and stormed to the bathroom. I trailed behind her, shouting harsh things. I assumed that she was running away from me to get high in privacy, but I was wrong. Instead, from the bathroom doorway, I saw Ma throw something into the toilet. Then I realized she was crying, and what she had flushed down the toilet was her coke.
She'd thrown away the entire hit—despite her desperation.
She looked at me with tears in her eyes, "I'm not a monster, Lizzy," she said. "I can't stop. Forgive me, pumpkin!”
The fun part of the night would always come when Ma's past occurred to her as a positive thing, a sort of adventure. But I knew this was temporary, a side effect of her anticipation of shooting up. Later—on the other side of her high, when she was coming down and the drug had begun to lose its effect—the very same thoughts would depress her. I'd be there for the letdown, too. If I didn't listen when she needed to confide in someone, then who would?
I don't recall Daddy ever talking about Meredith at home or in front of Ma. She never came to visit. Sometimes it felt as though I made up the memory of her, but I knew I hadn't. And every now and then Lisa and I would talk about how we wanted to meet Meredith again, and get to know our big sister. But no one talked about Daddy's other life before us, or our other sister.
When Ma was plastered to the couch, flies buzzing over her head, cigarette butts floating in her nearby bottle of beer, it just didn't seem right to tell her that I’d spent my day at a picnic or at the pool, playing in the sun, eating home-cooked meals with Rick and Danny's family. The same went for Daddy and Lisa. Any joy I managed outside of our home felt, to me, like a form of betrayal.
There were countless times I still gave Ma my tips from packing bags or the dollars taped inside my birthday cards sent from Long Island. It hit me then, like a hammer to my chest, that maybe I'd driven her crazy and paid for the needle that infected her with AIDS, too.
"Idiot," I said out loud. "Moron."
I hurled a pillow across the room, smashing the pieces of my diorama. The Popsicle stick fence, still glued together, clacked onto the floor, snapping in half.
I stared at Meredith's face as a baby and compared it to Daddy's. Taking in her complete vulnerability as an infant, I wondered where she was now, and how Daddy could have left her behind, and why we never talked about her. It filled me with a deeply unsettling feeling to wonder what else he was capable of doing.
At night, under my bed, sometimes I could hear her crying softly. But whenever I asked her what was wrong, she'd brush it off, say it was just her allergies or that I was hearing things. But I knew better. Sometimes, when she snored in her sleep—a cute little whistle—I'd reach down and touch a piece of her hair, run it through my fingers, stare at how, in the darkness of our room, the moonlight turned it glossy as polished onyx. I will keep her safe, I told myself.
"Liz, shut up," she answered. "You know I love your white ass, don't even sweat it."
If he was tap-dancing his end of the conversation, so would I. Why tell him I was absent all the time from school? Why confront him? If he couldn't do anything about our problems, then what would be the point in venting at Daddy? It would only stress him more, and I didn't want to do that to him. It felt mean. So I decided to censor my life from my father, and to have him think everything was just great.
"Okay, just one more thing," I told her. "Hold on." I slid a chair over to reach the top shelf of my closet, where I'd hidden Ma's NA coin and that one photo of her, the black-and-white one from when she was a teenager, living on the streets. Opening my journal, I slipped the picture carefully inside and snapped the book shut.
"Now I can go," I said. "Let's just go."
For Perry, Prep was a labor of love; he was dedicated to seeing his second- chance students win. His belief was that if the mainstream school system had failed, then it would require something different for these students to succeed. Prep would be that difference. In this way, the students were not looked at as dysfunctional; the system was dysfunctional. The concept of "failure" incorporated within the system's very design was not in any stage of the planning of Humanities Prep. By design, Prep was made to facilitate for its students what was possible.
So I let go of my hurt. I let go years of frustration between us. Most of all, I let go of any desire to change my father and I accepted him for who he was. I took all of my anguish and released it like a fistful of helium balloons to the sky, and I chose to forgive him.
"Lizzy, I left any dreams behind a long time ago, but I know now that they are safe with you. Thank you for making us a family again."