Homeless to HarvardBy Liz Murray
16th January 2011

I was three years old when I first realized that my mother and father shared strange habits. They would retreat into the kitchen of our New York apartment and spread spoons and other objects across the table while communicating in quick, urgent commands. I was not supposed to bother them, but I watched from the hallway.
Water was needed – just a few drops from the tap – and so were shoelaces and belts. Then, at the very last minute, they would shut the door, blocking my view entirely.

One evening, when the door was closed on me again, I didn’t budge but sat and waited outside. When my mother finally emerged, I raised my arms in the air and said, in a singsong voice, ‘Al-l-l do-ne’. Taken off guard, my mother asked disbelievingly, ‘What did you say, pumpkin?’

‘Al-l-l do-ne,’ I repeated. She yelled at my father: ‘Peter, she knows!’ and Daddy laughed while Ma stroked my hair. Thrilled to have found my place in their game, I sat outside the kitchen whenever they spread the spoons from then on. Eventually, they left the door open.

I have just one black and white photograph left of my mother when she was younger. She was 17 when it was taken and beautiful with wispy curls and eyes that shone like dark marbles. But I also know that by then she had been using drugs for four years. The eldest of four children, she was raised by an alcoholic father and mentally ill mother and she had started smoking grass to escape the violence and abuse of her home life. Later, she ran away and, between sleeping rough and earning her living through prostitution, she moved on to speed and heroin.

Daddy was one of her dealers. They began hanging out together when she was 22 and he was 34. Daddy was also the child of a violent, alcoholic father but his middle-class mother had tried to secure her only child’s future by holding down two bookkeeping jobs in order to send him to private school. Midway through a psychology degree, however, he had abandoned his studies for the drug trade.

He and Ma connected immediately, but instead of going on dinner dates they would take cocaine to Central Park, where they would sprawl in the moonlight and get high anchored in each others arms.

A year or so after my parents met in 1977, my elder sister Lisa was born. By the time I followed in September 1980, Daddy was serving a three-year prison sentence for a fraud racket involving prescription painkillers. Amazingly, instead of falling apart, my mother proved to be a sober and houseproud single parent. But once Daddy returned home, dirty dishes sat untouched in the sink for days and we rarely went to the park any more.

Ma was legally blind due to a degenerative eye disease she’d had since birth. This meant she was entitled to welfare and our lives revolved around the first day of every month when her payment was due. On that day, food would be abundant. Lisa and I would dine on Happy Meals in front of the TV to the sound of spoons clanking on the kitchen table. We knew what they were doing.

Within five days, the money would be gone and for the rest of the month we lived on egg and mayonnaise sandwiches. Lisa and I hated them, but they got us through the hours when our stomachs burned with hunger.

I started school in the summer of 1985 and, from the outset, I tried to be a good student. It just didn’t work out that way. Maybe getting more sleep would have helped, but there was too much going on.

At nights, Ma would go to the local bars and beg until she had gathered the five dollars she needed for a hit. Daddy would then slip out to a dealer while Lisa screamed at both of them: ‘We didn’t eat dinner, and you’re going to get high?’ I knew what she was saying made sense. But things weren’t always so clear for me. Ma and Daddy had no intention of hurting us. They simply did not have it in them to be the parents I wanted them to be.

I remember once Ma stole five dollars sent to me from my father’s mother inside a glittery birthday card. I was furious and demanded that she gave me back my money. She responded by flushing the hit she had bought down the loo. ‘I’m not a monster, Lizzy,’ she cried. ‘I can’t stop. Forgive me, pumpkin.’ So I did.

I forgave her again when she sold the Thanksgiving turkey provided by the church so that she could buy another hit. And I forgave her when she attempted to sell Lisa’s winter coat. The drug dealer refused to take a child’s coat on principle, so Ma went back out later the same night and sold the toaster and my bike to get her cocaine instead.

At school I was clearly different. My dirty clothing hung heavily off my body and I was aware of the stench I gave off, so I knew the other pupils must have been aware of it, too.

‘Who cares what people think?’ Daddy said. But the shame gnawed at me. I pleaded with Ma and eventually she allowed me, against what she called her better judgment, to stay at home sometimes.

One morning, on one of the days I didn’t go to school, there was a knock at the door. I was the only one awake. From the hallway, I heard a woman and a man talking. They knocked again before sliding a piece of paper under the door. When they had gone, I picked it up. The letter ordered the parent(s) or guardian of Elizabeth Murray to phone a Mr Doumbia regarding her truancy from school. I ripped it into tiny pieces and shoved it in the bin.

As well as being blind, Ma turned out to have the same mental illness that her mother had had. Between 1986 and 1990, she suffered six schizophrenic bouts, each requiring her to be institutionalised for up to three months. The combination of her illness and her and Daddy’s chronic drug use pushed their relationship to breaking point. As their fights became increasingly bitter, Lisa and I locked ourselves in our rooms, her with her music, and me with my books – or rather Daddy’s ever-growing supply of unreturned library books. Slowly I read through his collection of true crime, biographies and random trivia. Eventually, I began reading fast enough to get through one of his books in a little over a week.

Just after my 11th birthday, I woke in the early hours to find Ma sitting at the end of my bed, a beer bottle in her hand. ‘I love you, pumpkin,’ she was saying as tears streamed down her face.

‘Ma, please, what’s wrong?’

‘Lizzy, I’m sick, I have Aids.’

A hot quiver shot up from my stomach. ‘Are you going to die, Ma?’

Abruptly, Ma stood up and reached for the door.

‘Forget it, Lizzy. We’ll be just fine,’ she said before walking out. I cried to her to come back. But she didn’t reappear.

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/you/article-1346184/From-homelessness-Harvard-University-How-Liz-Murray-turned-life-around.html#ixzz1BPDCOQR4