CULVER — Liz Murray grew up in a filthy hovel in the Bronx, the child of drug-addicted parents. Through her teenage years she was homeless on the streets of New York.
Murray is now 24 and a student at Columbia University, after transferring from Harvard University.
On Saturday, she spoke to hundreds of young women at Culver Academies as the keynote speaker for Culver’s Celebration of Women.
Murray’s life story was the subject of a 2003 Emmy-nominated Lifetime movie titled “Homeless to Harvard.” And being published this year are her memoirs, “Breaking Night.”
Murray described her parents as “hippies” who began using drugs in the 1970s, believing it was just a “weekend, party thing.” Instead, she said, “It landed them a full-blown drug addiction.”
Murray said there was often nothing for her and her older sister to eat in the apartment. She said that at dinner time they would often walk around the apartment building sniffing at doors, to see where the best smells were located. They would knock and eat with another family.
“Once or twice,” Murray said of her and her sister, “we split a tube of toothpaste.”
“The first of the month was a holiday, and the mailman was Santa Claus,” Murray told the students, because that was when the welfare check was delivered.
She explained the whole family would go together to cash the check, and she and her sister would get Happy Meals. Then the two girls would wait outside the building her parents would enter to buy their drugs. Maybe $20 or $30 would be spent on groceries, on the way back to the apartment.
“My parents seem like villains,” Murray acknowledged, but she emphasized she does not see them in that light. “I felt very loved by my parents.”
“Addiction is a disease,” she continued. “They tried to be other people, but the drugs took them away from who they wanted to be. They didn’t have more to give. I couldn’t get mad at them because they seemed to be suffering.”
At age 13, after living in a group home, she discovered her mom had AIDS.
Her mom died when Murray was 16. The death, Murray said, was a wake-up call.
“I saw these broken adults around me,” said Murray. “Maybe, if I didn’t take charge of my life, I would become one of them. … I had nothing and became terrified, and this fear drove me back to school.”
Murray then made a critical decision. She wanted to graduate from high school, but she had only one credit to her name, and that, she said, had been given out of sympathy.
Having interviewed at five schools and been rejected from them all, Murray stood on a street corner in New York City and argued with herself about whether she should take the money in her pocket and go have pizza with her friends, or whether she should use it to take the train to one more school.
She got on the train.
She went to one more interview at an alternative school. After telling her life story to the teacher who interviewed her, Murray was accepted into the Humanities Preparatory School.
Through independent study, Murray was able to complete her high school education in two years and graduate second in her class. Then she applied for a college scholarship sponsored by the New York Times.
For part of the scholarship application, Murray had to explain what obstacles she had overcome to get to this point in her life. She not only won the scholarship to Harvard, the Times also published her story.
Since then, she has had the movie made about her life; she has spoken to groups numbering in the thousands (once just before Mikhail Gorbachev took the stage); she won Oprah Winfrey’s first “Chutzpah” award; and she is continuing her education at Columbia University in New York City.
When Murray took questions from the students, the first one she was asked concerned her father.
Murray explained she left Harvard and began attending Columbia so that she could be closer to her father, whom she said is now HIV positive and suffers from various illnesses. Murray pays for an apartment below her own, for her father, who has been drug-free for the past five or six years, and takes care of him.
The student wanted to know how Murray could make that sacrifice after the way her parents had raised her and her sister.
“Love is the answer. That’s the sound bite,” Murray answered, but added, “I understand people have problems. I’m capable of taking care of my dad. I make a good living now. People go to anger because they feel powerless.”
The message Murray said she wanted to leave with the students was all about them.
“You have a precious window of time when you can direct your life to a place that will really lead you to your dreams,” she told them. “This time is for you. What you do or don’t do sticks to you. This time is for you,” she repeated. “Be honest with yourself.”