Her father was a drug addict. Her mother was an alcoholic, drug addict, legally blind and schizophrenic. Both of her parents died of AIDS. Liz Murray was the subject of a Lifetime channel movie, "Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story," in 2003 and wrote her best-selling memoir, "Breaking Night," in 2010. Now an inspirational speaker and founder and director of Manifest Living, she is married with two children and seeking a graduate degree in psychology at Columbia University. The 33-year-old is the guest speaker at the National Council of Jewish Women's dedication of the Children's Room for Judi Kasdan at Rodef Shalom Congregation on Tuesday. Tickets, information: 412-421-6118 or www.ncjwpgh.org.
You endured some very traumatic situations as a young girl. Did you ever experience symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder?
I've never been asked that before. You know, I happen to be a psych graduate student so I know a bit about PTSD. I would say knowing those symptoms, the majority and range of them, no. But the one symptom that comes with PTSD that people have are intrusive thoughts where you will suddenly remember something and it is not the most pleasant memory. I have had that come up in the past but not too much in the last few years.
I know they also talk about nightmares with PTSD. When you're young and you're homeless and your mother is not even HIV anymore -- she has full-blown AIDS -- you are kind of directionless. You wish you could make it better. You wish you could do something and then she passed away. I remember the few years after she passed, I would dream of her quite a bit. It was always these dreams where I wanted to save her and was unable to. I think people are, in general, more resilient than we realize. You don't know how strong you are until you have to be strong.
But not everybody is able to pull themselves out of the abyss and be successful. What do you think it was about you that turned things around?
There are two things I will say about that. First of all, how do we measure a life? I happened to do something that was visible and fits in really well with accomplishments in our country. But I think there are many other ways.
Every week, I volunteer at Covenant House in New York City. We work with homeless youth ages 18-21. They share their stories with me and I am talking about abuse, neglect, death of family members -- things that are horrendous. And I see resilience in their joy and I see resilience in their choice to trust people and to be kind.
But to answer your question more specifically, how do you get out of homelessness into Harvard? You have no idea how many people helped me. I did do the homework and fill out the applications but I did it in context. That context was this wonderful alternative high school called Humanities Preparatory Academy in Manhattan. I walked in there shortly after I buried my mother. I was 17 and living on the streets. I had the education of technically an eighth-grader, but in reality I had never had a formal education.
When I walked in, it felt like walking out of a storm onto somebody's doorstep and asking for shelter. It wasn't just all a pity party. It was: "What do you want to do with your life? Let's build that skill set. What are your dreams? Let's make your dreams come true."
Even after you got into the high school and decided to work as hard as you could, there were obstacles and your dream could have dissolved. What stopped you from settling for a simply comfortable life, not an exceptional one?
That's a wonderful question. I think when we talk about one person's life, if we listen closely we are talking about all of our lives. I did go to this great school and the people were wonderful and yeah, you could in a sense become complacent. But what's going to happen in two years, in five years? I think there were moments -- apart from the support like the nonprofit that was feeding me hot meals every day and I had great teachers -- but there were these nights where hey, it's just me. You need to be able to tap into something within yourself.
I remember -- it was such a private thing but I've shared it with the world -- I remember having this image of a woman running a race track. I only ever saw her back, never her face. The reason I mention it is because it helped me change my relationship with obstacles. I would sleep in the hallway or on the floor of my friend's house and I would think, "Oh gosh, I don't want to go to school today. I don't want to. I don't want to." And then I would think of this runner. When I picture her, she would run over hurdles. She was this fantastic thing.
I look at my life two ways -- one empowering, one disempowering. I could think, "Oh my God, I'm homeless. Oh my God, I just buried my mom. Oh my God, my dad's alienated from me in a shelter." I could keep looking at it like how could I succeed because of these things. Instead, I thought: Let's make it a check list. What if I got my education even though I lost my mother, even though my dad is in a shelter and looking at these things as hurdles to go over. I could inspire myself.
I can't tell you exactly where that came from. If I had to guess, I would say it had a little bit to do with the love in my life. I loved my parents tremendously. They were addicted to drugs and they messed up our lives, but I think having those loving relationships helps you believe in yourself.
Most of us have expectations layered on us from our parents, friends and society at an early age. You didn't have that. Do you think it helped in some way?
Yes, yes, yes. I meet all these people who were really kind of like groomed by their parents. I think there is something to be said for what you can do when you don't know what you aren't supposed to be able to do. I went to The New York Times for a scholarship interview when I was homeless. I didn't know what The New York Times was and [laughing] I had never read The New York Times in my life. The other people there getting interviewed were terrified. They were so scared. When I went in there, I just talked to the people. I had no idea and I got the scholarship.
If I had understood I was going to THE NEW YORK TIMES, I would have probably had a panic attack. It may have been a different outcome. Anything that is going to psych you out from doing it is just holding you back from that possibility.
I understand you are working with spirituality and psychology. Were you always spiritual? Where did the foundation for that derive?
As I kid, I saw the contradictions in the folks who were religious. I remember my grandmother would bring me to church. People would say one thing at church and do another.
And you recognized that?
Oh yeah. I knew as a kid. I think kids are brilliant. All I knew was it didn't feel right to me. It wasn't until I was older that I was able to understand that my sense of spirituality wasn't married to that environment. Like I would lay in these staircases at night when I had no where to live and I had every reason in the world to be depressed. This is right after I buried my mom. I would feel her there with me. I knew she wasn't there, but she was there. I could feel her love surrounding me.
In my book, I share the serenity prayer quite a bit. ... What I learned is I couldn't bring my mom back. I couldn't heal my father. So I focused on what I could and at that time it was my grades and learning to be a kind and giving person, someone who would volunteer in the community and care about others. I focused there and whatever happened after that was up to something bigger than me. Some people call it God. It was my willingness to surrender. I did my part, my side of the street is clean and I put my best foot forward. Hopefully, it will all come together. But having respect for something bigger guided me. That is my spirituality.
How did being married and a mother change you?
My husband, James, has been my best friend and having children -- you are going to get me almost crying about it. We do this thing in this country -- maybe it is around the world -- where we talk about my kid, my kid. After you have a child, you realize it is sort of arbitrary who you are a parent to. You sort of look at other kids and feel responsible for them, too. I wish we could collectively say, "These are all our children." I feel responsible to make the world better for all our children. I guess if there is a big spiritual experience in my life, it is me becoming a mother.
Patricia Sheridan: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2613. Follow her on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/pasheridan.