Elizabeth “Liz” Murray, the writer, narrator, and protagonist of the memoir Breaking Night, has a hard life. She grows up in a poverty-stricken household in the Bronx in the 1980s, at a time when New York City is experiencing historic levels of violent crime. Her parents are drug addicts, and as a result they ignore her for long stretches of time and sometimes don’t even remember to buy her food. And yet, by the time she completes her high school education, Liz has made some important changes in her life. She decides that she has the ability to carve out a life for herself. Furthermore, she refuses to be constrained by her poverty, her parents, or, in general, her circumstances. Instead, she decides that her life will be determined by her own “willingness to put one foot in front of the other.” Seen in this way, Breaking Night is about the battle between Liz’s circumstances and her willpower—and in the end, her willpower seems to prove stronger and leads her to win acceptance to Harvard University.
In the first half of Liz’s memoir, she depicts herself as a product, and, in some ways, a victim, of her circumstances. Her parents, Jean Murray and Peter Finnerty, are shockingly neglectful. Because neither one of them has a reliable job, they depend on government welfare checks. Yet they’ll often spend their relief money on more drugs instead of food, clothing, or other necessities for their kids In a word, they take care of themselves instead of taking care of their family. Arguably even more disturbingly, Liz has to live with the fear that her parents might abandon her. When she’s still young, she learns from her old sister, Lisa Murray, that her father had another daughter in an earlier relationship, and abandoned her when she was just two years old. As a result, Liz grows up thinking of the world as a cruel, unpredictable place. The streets are dangerous, food is scarce, and her own parents often force her to fend for herself.
Liz turns to her friends for emotional and material support. But her friends can be volatile and untrustworthy, too. Her friend and sometimes boyfriend, Carlos Marcano, gives her both emotional support (by treating her kindly and saying that he loves her) and material support (buying her food, drinks, and shelter). But even Carlos becomes neglectful, abandoning Liz for days or weeks at a time. Liz’s experiences with Carlos bring the memoir to a turning point. Though she’s always been an unusually independent person, Liz decides that from now on, she will refuse to be dependent on others at all. Instead, she aspires to take control over her own life: finding her own work, making her own money, and providing her own emotional support.
Throughout Breaking Night, but particularly as Liz enters her late teen years, she works hard with the goal of taking care of herself. Desperate for food, she finds various ways of earning money: “panhandling” in Greenwich Village, pumping gas, and even bagging groceries. While most people of Liz’s age rely on their parents to take care of them, Liz quite often takes care of her parents. She gives them money she’s earned and, when they become emotionally unstable, she treats them kindly. Because she never really has the “luxury” of feeling insecure, Liz trains herself to act mature beyond her years. She develops the confidence she needs to survive on her own. This culminates in her decision to get her high school degree at the Humanities Preparatory Academy (HPA) in New York.
During her time at HPA, Liz works exceptionally hard, graduating in two years instead of the usual four despite having to make money, sleep at friends’ houses, and carry her textbooks with her wherever she goes. Not surprisingly, Liz dislikes being dependent on other people during her time at HPA. She’s learned to rely on herself and distrust other people’s support since, time and time again, other people have disappointed her. Liz rises to the challenge of graduating from HPA in two years, the memoir suggests, because she’s possessed of an innate willpower. Both because of the circumstances of her early life and because of her own innate abilities, she knows how to push herself to succeed. Put another way, Liz graduates from HPA and wins acceptance to Harvard partly because of a strong negative motivation—her desire to avoid becoming dependent on others—and partly because of a strong positive motivation—her willpower and ambition.
Throughout Breaking Night, Liz rightly celebrates her successes; she’s overcome the most adverse of circumstances. At the same time, it’s important to keep in mind that she doesn’t succeed all by herself. Her friends and her friends’ families give her food and shelter, and her teachers at HPA play a huge role in inspiring her to become a great student. In particular, Perry Weiner, the founder of HPA, works closely with Liz and motivates her to work hard. And of course, Liz’s enrollment to Harvard is incumbent on a scholarship from The New York Times, not just her own academic abilities. (Though one could certainly argue that it’s unfair that Liz should have to apply for scholarships just to pay Harvard’s astronomically high tuition.) One could even argue that Liz, for all her emphasis on hard work and willpower, is incredibly lucky: lucky to have been born with enough intelligence, health, and physical endurance to graduate high school while getting little to no sleep; and lucky to have been taken off the waitlist at a competitive school like Harvard, beating out thousands of other extremely qualified people.
In some ways, the structure and pace of Breaking Night serves to downplay the role of chance and mentorship in Liz’s life. A recurring criticism of Liz’s memoir is that she describes her two years at HPA—the pivotal time when she found the willpower to succeed—in just one chapter. Not only is this chapter unusually fast-paced, but it opens by announcing that Liz ended up accomplishing her goals. The result is that readers only get a limited look at how, precisely, Liz succeeded at HPA; furthermore, Liz’s successes are presented as much more of a foregone conclusion than they are in earlier chapters. By abruptly fast-forwarding in this way, Breaking Night would seem to give the impression that Liz’s success is an inevitable product of her willpower, plain and simple, when in reality it’s a product of willpower as well as innate ability, luck, and other people’s help. As The Guardian put it, the book’s “unqualified happy ending, with its American insistence on the omnipotence of positive thinking, makes one uneasy. Don't tell me Liz Murray's story – or anyone else's – is that simple.” But even if its view of a one-to-one relationship between willpower and success is somewhat simplistic, Breaking Night has inspired many of its readers with its powerful true story.
Willpower and Independence ThemeTracker
Willpower and Independence 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 told Ma all but one detail—the fact that I knew it was wrong. I knew that all I had to do to end it was to call out for her. But I didn't, because Ron made things better for Ma, for Lisa and me. I didn't want to ruin that, so I failed to call out.
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.
Though he wasn't my friend, I admired how Kevin had found a way to do things on his own, how he looked at not having money—a situation that most people would see as fixed—as something he could overcome. What else wasn't set in stone? I wondered what other opportunities were out there for me.
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.
"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."
"Who was that?" I'd do my best not to sound accusing. Always it was a cousin, a neighbor, or a friend's girlfriend.
"My friend's girl, ain't she a sweetheart," he'd explain. "I might check them for dinner, she just gave me the address." And always, the explanation was a concrete wall that I could not penetrate. The more I persisted, the more I might draw attention to myself. Better to let it slide; he cared about me, I was certain.
Turns out people could just vanish. I couldn't help but sit there and think about the woman who'd been murdered a few feet from my room. How had she gotten there, in a seedy motel room with a violent man who claimed he loved her? And was I really any different?
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.
Covertly, I zipped open my book bag—full of dingy clothes and the wad of rubber-banded hundred-dollar bills I'd saved up over the summer—and I began stuffing muffins, bagels, bananas, and oranges into my bag. I threw in a whole loaf of bread, too. Why not? These things would be mine to keep.
Figuring out high school while homeless meant handling details that never would have occurred to me until I was actually living in the situation. For one, who knew schoolbooks were so heavy? By itself, that's already something. But when I carried the heavy things around while also navigating several different living situations with no predictability whatsoever of where I could stay on a given night, while also trying to follow an assignment schedule that dictated exactly which books I would need and when, I kept slipping up.
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.
However things unfolded from here on, whatever the next chapter was, my life could never be the sum of one circumstance. It would be determined, as it had always been, by my willingness to put one foot in front of the other, moving forward, come what may.