“Free Spirit” an interview with Joshua Safran


Joshua Safran

Joshua Safran was “raised by lesbian witches in the Haight-Ashbury commune.” By the age of ten, he had hitchhiked thousands of miles with his “Wiccan Welfare” mother, Claudia and alcoholic, abusive stepfather, Leopoldo, where they lived in communes, vans, buses, an ice cream truck and a lean-to stump in the forest. They sought an “elusive utopia” in travels that revealed “the darker side of the Age of Aquarius.” Safran was a warlock in training before discovering and returning to his Jewish heritage.

Joshua Safran is a writer, attorney, performer, public speaker, and nationally recognized champion for women’s rights. His seven-year legal odyssey to free Deborah Peagler, an innocent woman from prison was the subject of the award-winning film, “Crime After Crime,” which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and on the Oprah Winfrey Network. He has received numerous awards for his zealous advocacy on behalf of women, survivors of domestic violence, and the wrongfully imprisoned.

Judaic Studies at Portland State University is hosting a book talk, Wednesday, March 5th at 7pm as part of the 2014 Sara Glasgow Cogan Memorial Lecture. The event is FREE and open to the public.

I had the pleasure of speaking with him about his new memoir Free Spirit: Growing Up On the Road and Off the Grid.

Free-Spirit-by-Joshua-SafranIn FreeSpirit, you give an adult perspective to events and interactions from your childhood or as you described the exercise as “re-inhabiting my childhood mind at the time.” In one passage you say of your mother and boyfriend Bob “they were acting like children, which was weird because I felt like an adult.” How did you decide on the voice to use?
It was about the fourth attempt that I made. The first attempt was more adult me looking back, “this one day, I remember” and it sounded like old man nostalgia writing, and I decided that’s not what I’m trying to go for.

What’s most powerful in my mind, and I’ve seen this in a couple of books, where it’s a child speaking and they don’t have the vocabulary necessarily to describe, so I tried that and then it was too cutesy/baby-ish/silly. The whole book basically became a mystery turned into code, and my tone was so weird, I was afraid that people would never get what it was.

So it was the third attempt where I decided, “OK, I’m going to use adult omniscient,” but limited to what I knew and the information that was available to me at the time. That was the sort of middle ground and that was the voice that I stuck on. As part of that, I wasn’t going to judge circumstance because when I went back, I interviewed my mother for a year and looked over this material.

I’m a father of children now, and so much of my reaction now is, “that’s crazy, how could I have . . .” I mean, I don’t let my girls go out with a helmet on a scooter, and here I was shooting a gun at the time. So I did my absolute best to limit my judgement and my emotional reaction to what I was feeling at the time to the extent that I could remember it or piece it together based on what was happening.

In that passage you mention, I have distinct memories, a lot of that time I really remember well, like total recall in the van. My mother wasn’t always that way, it was just something about her and Bob being together, they were frolicking like kids. In many ways I felt you hit on it, that passage is one of the most important in the book for me. Especially when I was struggling with titles.

One of the titles I came up with was Everland which is the opposite of Neverland. In Neverland, Peter Pan and his friends don’t want to grow up. The adults are somber and stoic and the kids were wild, who would want to grow up?! My whole life and the lives of other kids I met along the way, we were the opposite—our parents never wanted to grow up. The women, our mothers, none of us had fathers. We imagined, “some day we’ll get a job,” we were trying to pretend like we were adults—smoking cigarettes, in whatever we were doing.

I read a phrase at the end of Chapter 6 which seemed to contain the book title, “there can perhaps be no purer freedom than that of a boy loosely supervised by a free-spirited mother in the midst of the wilderness.” Tell me about that idea.
This was a title that when they heard it, the publisher latched onto in the end. And I thought, “I’m not so sure about that title,” but they insisted, “that’s it.” My mother was definitely a free spirit and all that that encompassed, and I wasn’t really comfortable with the title until we came up with the cover. For me, Free Spirit is both a free-spirited person but also a non-conformist. I’ve always felt in my own way, that I was rebelling or radical against the counter-culture, so that juxtaposition works. “Free Spirit” said flatly or ironically.

Joshua Safran as a young boy

You were heavily indoctrinated into feminist culture and what it means to be a woman. In your book, there’s a cast of clowns, deadbeats, shysters, and monsters in your life as a result of your mother’s relationships. I compare the spectrum ends of the thoughtful, intellectual, peaceful Uncle Tony and the brooding, macho, violent Leopoldo. To that end, who and where in your life can you point to positive male role models? Who taught you how to be a man?
For lack of a less cheesy response, I think to some degree I have Leopoldo and Antonio, who in having now written the book, it’s strange that they’re the two Hispanic men that played roles in my life. Then again, it’s not as strange because that was my mother’s only taste in men. It wasn’t random, she selected both of those men, she joined the commune because he was there. But I feel like the two of them struggled inside of me, sometimes, I still feel them struggling inside of me.  In looking at this during the course of the book, I think that Uncle Tony was my only positive male role model.

I was also blessed in that the commune that we ended up at in Skagit County when I was 12 there was a man named Aviathar who was a refugee from a cult called the Love Family. He became something of a patriarch himself, but a benevolent patriarch. I saw him just recently, he stayed with us, and I developed a very good relationship with him.

But I struggled for my teenage years with violence. I was arrested a couple times, not against people, but property damage. I would set logging trucks on fire, kind of an Earth First! thing. I loved to target new subdivision developments, set things on fire and destroy them. I had a very macho outlook that if someone was disrespecting me, I was always there to step to, and I think that in my mind, Uncle Tony was the path.

There’s a strange conversation that he has with me in the book at the Canadian border where he talks about Bugs Bunny being his childhood hero.1 It was one of the things that stuck with me. But I also feel at times a sense of betrayal looking back at him, because he backed down, he walked away. I thought, “well that’s not totally what it means to be a man.”

It was wanting to take the best of both them—and at times you need to kick ass. I was walking through Central Park on this book tour in October with my friend on Shabbat, and there was this woman crying, sitting on a bench and a man standing over her screaming at her and threatening her. Those are the few moments where I still have the fight or flight experience, where others may not. And I’m just standing there like, “what do I DO, what am I supposed to do in this circumstance?” I don’t know this woman, it’s her life, this is Central Park, this is America, and whatever—but at the same time I can’t let this stand.

My friend, who is a New Yorker didn’t even notice, he wasn’t aware. In the end, we had this little sidebar and we agreed that we would just stand there. So the two of us just stood there, ten feet away staring at this guy and the woman was staring at us. And finally the guy saw us and he turned to her and yelled, “see, you’re going to get me arrested.” He made it her fault! Because we were there, he stormed off.

I’ve been doing a lot of fundraisers with domestic violence organizations and one of the questions I was asked was, “you’re a lawyer, you’re in the Bay Area, you should get involved not just in prisoner, post-conviction stuff, but in advocacy for women” One of the big needs they always have is in getting a lawyer to file restraining orders. And I think, “there’s no way that I could go into a courtroom and have some yahoo over there threatening me and I would be able to conduct myself.”

I struggle with the question that most people seem to have, “why are you not more fucked up?” [laughs] Part of it is that I think I was lucky that my mom didn’t hook up with (Leopoldo) until I was nine. By the time I saw his true self, I already decided, “not all men are that way.” Even the worst of her boyfriends weren’t that way, there were other weird things, but I knew, “this is not normal.”

It did begin to normalize, and there was that section in a chapter that I felt was important to put in about where we bonded, or I had a bit of Stockholm syndrome, so I was fortunate that we got out.

[At this part of the interview, after being loudly accosted by 80s pop music, I’m suddenly distracted by “Head Over Heels” by Tears for Fears playing overhead, and Joshua Safran notes that the music is “era-appropriate” to our conversation. I pick up the line “It’s hard to be a man when there’s a gun in your hand.”]

Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez, The Chronicle

Speaking of the 80s, your book is rife with cultural references, political, musical, giving a sense of time & place, some of which you weren’t familiar with because of your lack of exposure so you couldn’t talk to people about “sports, Jesus, or television.” How has that changed for you now that social media is so omnipresent in our culture & how did that abstention from the noise of pop culture as a child influence the way you raise your daughters?
Great question. I was really fortunate that I went to Oberlin College in Ohio where everyone pretended that they weren’t aware of pop culture even though they were, and I actually wasn’t. But for years, even today in the working world I just have a huge dark spot over any reference to television. For whatever reason there always seems to be a reference to Happy Days, a quote by Richie Cunningham or something. There’s always some TV show that things relate to. Even rap lyrics and other things from the nineties and aughts that refer back to TV shows, I don’t get the reference. Or I see Austin Powers movies that are spoofing things and I don’t understand the joke.

So I think that there was definitely that alien feeling I’ve always had. And with my girls, I’m trying to strike a balance. They don’t have a TV, but I do let them watch Netflix, so they’re only mildly culturally retarded [laughs], but they have their own interests, for awhile they were into Lady Gaga; they have two of her songs and that’s fine, I’m not trying to suppress that.

Do they have a computer?
We do have a computer in the house, but a really, really low connection speed. Our wi-fi is terrible, so it kind of works well—they have to choose carefully how much surfing they’re going to do. Ironically, I have three girls and of course, I couldn’t have had anything but with my feminist upbringing. It is important to me in the end to identify sexist tropes and senses. With my oldest daughter for example, she’s going to be an artist and she’s going to paint and I balance it with “well, you might not make any money doing that and you shouldn’t count on the fact that you’re going to meet a guy who will support you and if you DO meet a guy who will support you, he might think you owe him something and there’s going to be this balance in your relationship . . .” you know, over-analyzing it for her.

My mother and my biological father, without compromise pursued their artistic passion. My father remains a musician but he has no furniture in his little spartan place and hay bales covered in sheets. My mother is sort of eking by. It didn’t work out for either of them.

It’s a practicality thing for you?
There’s something sad and not glorious to me about that sacrifice for art, because neither of them made it to the Grammy’s or the Guggenheim, they’re struggling. My mother’s art got its first exposure really, in this book, and my father’s music, no one will ever listen to it—he’s such a purist he can’t even be bothered to make a CD Of his music.

But you’re a writer.
I am, I am. But not as a day job [laughs]. Although now, I’m trying to have it all. Up to this point I was never willing to quit to write this book, it was not going to happen. It was mostly my wife’s ability to accommodate for me to slack for awhile. As you know from writing, you can’t just sort of turn it on and turn it off. It’s not like, “well, I’ve got 15 minutes now between whatever so I’ll just sit down and write some more.” You’ve got be in the space and have the muse, follow that in whatever you’re being called to do.

Claudia — 1968

Most children growing up recall the states or homes they lived in. I am thinking about my own family who moved around a lot being stationed in different military housing. I understand you interviewed your mother once a week while writing the book, tell me about the process and the emotions around recollecting and detailing all the random places you lived.
In general, the first half of the book, pre-Leopoldo, was actually a fun experience. We moved so many times from place to place that some of those places didn’t get in the book. There’s a 2-year gap in the road where I just had to euphemize, “we hitchhiked.”

We couldn’t necessarily piece together the order of things and a lot of it was very confusing. The way my memory works is that memory, for me, siloed by location. I would think, “we did this in Pokey Creek, Idaho” and my mother would say, “no, we went there once, then we were away for three months and went back.” But in my mind it was one experience.

My mother has a journal of every day of her life going back to the 60s she’s successfully lugged in milk crates through all these adventures, or stored for years and gone back, but they’re dream journals. They don’t document what’s happening in her life, but she wakes up every morning and writes down the crazy, “the panther is lunging through my mind again,” but through that we were able to piece together details like “through the plastic tarp, I saw.” It was kind of strange detective work to figure it out.

Interviewing a parent like that, is fascinating because I would have memories like, “you were really stressed and upset because I spilled juice at those people’s house”. And as I’m talking about it I realize, “well of course it wasn’t me spilling the juice, it was that the husband was drunk and we were afraid and had to move quickly.” You understand the context better. For years, I’d always thought, “I shouldn’t be so clumsy with juice,” and of course, that’s not what the problem was.

My mother kept protest fliers and she believed in the mystical powers of a lot of things. So we’d go to a lot of health food stores which in those days, were like the internet, you’d see what’s up on the boards. She’d rip one off and say “oh, i can feel this is a good one,” and put it in her little bag, so we’d find those things.

crime-after-crimeFormal schooling prepared you to be a lawyer, what kind of work did you during law school?
During law school I actually did not get involved with domestic violence work although I was invited by to do so by a professor who I’m very close with named Nancy Lemon who was director of the domestic violence practicum. But at the time when she invited me, I wasn’t ready to get into it, and I think part of that, without consciously thinking about it, was it was precisely the work that I still don’t want to do, which is escorting women to court.

What I did end up doing is, I got involved with this group called Food Not Bombs—a sort of anarchist, feed the homeless/protest hierarchy. I became their adjunct general counsel law student and wrote this big paper about them. So that was my social justice outlet.

Another thing I did when I was in law school was make a movie with Yoav Potash, the guy who who made “Crime After Crime,” called “Minute Matrimony.” It was a short fictional film about a drive-thru wedding parlor that was supposed to be about the disposable nature of weddings. It’s like a McDonald’s. There’s a black Jewish wedding in it where the dialogue goes, “I can’t add black to a Jewish wedding,” “We’ll pay extra!” “Add black!” A Hava Nagila singing gospel choir comes out. The movie ends with two Indian programmers both men, driving, thinking they’re going to Kentucky Fried Chicken and it’s a wedding parlor, and then “Add gay!”

And that movie was what led to “Crime After Crime,” strangely enough which also ended up having a black Jewish choir component. But when I graduated Yoav was like “that was so fun, what’s our next project together?” And I said, “I can’t do a project, I’m doing really serious stuff.” “Well, let’s do a documentary,”  he said. So I pitched the idea of doing “Crime After Crime.”

Joshua Safran

I wanted to ask you your thoughts about the mainstreaming of Yiddish and the popularization of Yiddish words that carry different cultural and psychological ideas that English words might not express. To you, what are some of the most potent, meaningful, or funny Yiddish or Hebrew words and what about some in English?
Great question! I love the whole dynamic of the schlemiel and the schlimazel. The schlemiel is the one who is always spilling his soup and the schlimazel is always the one who gets the soup spilled on him. And in my life, I have definitely been the schlimazel. I’m always just surrounded by schlemiels who can’t keep their shit together, dumping their soup all over the place. I’m always the responsible one, I’m there holding the head of the person vomiting. I felt that in many ways with my mother, “let’s go off and do THIS crazy thing,” and I’m sort of like, “can we not that’s going to be bad.” That was the dynamic. The way that those words interplay.

What’s great is the word schlimazel is Hebrew “shalom mazal,” someone that does not have mazal, doesn’t have luck or fortune at their side. A mazal is literally a constellation, so it’s not in the constellation for them.

And then mazal tov?
Is good fortune. Good auspicion.

Hooray for etymology!
Right, exactly, so that’s a great duo! And the word that my mother used which really summed up in my mind, the Unitarian Left, not the political left, but the sort of group living group housing is a schnorr. A schnorr is basically a freeloader. Bob, (in the novel) is a perfect schnorr. A freeloader who has a lot of attitude and entitlement. I think that’s a really important concept.

Even when I went to Oberlin I was involved in student cooperatives, and at a certain point, I acknowledged the schnorr problem. We’re all working, but that guy’s not working, but because we’re groovy, love, we’re never going to kick this guy out or fine him or sue him. That guy gets to just eat the food. [In a valley hippie drawl] “Well you guys don’t know, I’ve been riding my bike all week so like, my carbon footprint is less that yours.” I’m sure there’s many communal houses in Portland that tanked because of too many schnorrs.

I love the interplay in English of culture, the counterculture and the counter-counterculture, that sort of cyclical reactionary thing. The zeal that me and my buddies had being counter-counterculturals, and the fact that we had no real patriotism or sense of America or for that matter, really approved of anything that the Armed Forces were doing, but we loved waving the American flag around at some of these gatherings to push buttons.

I really loved your piece in the San Francisco book review, “The Courage to Write.” Especially where you mention your own crate of journals, the “repositories for your creative writing and poetry.” I really resonated with the passage: “My correspondence with myself was often my only form of friendship, my only mechanism for processing the chaos and violence around me, and, most fundamentally, the only proof that I ever existed. I wrote to live.”

With this book, speaking engagements, and now the possibility of a forthcoming film,  how do you balance your writing life with your advocacy work and law practice?

It’s very very difficult, particularly because the advocacy work in and of itself is already a secondary job. My day job is at the Port of Oakland, so it’s very tough. And quite frankly I’m looking for a way to lose the day job altogether without betraying my children. I do have the sense that I don’t want them remembering “our father sacrificed our certainty and stability to pursue his self-indulgent dream.” That would be the worse way that this would go for me. I’m tired of everyone pursuing their happiness to the detriment of others. So, I’m trying to balance it.

Do you think you’ll write another book, perhaps some poetry or fiction? Do you have another story in you?
I’m in a little bit of a situation now where I’m actually supposed to have my next book proposal done and in, which I haven’t had time to do. The other thing that I am sensitive to is the very therapeutic aspect of writing, but to me, it’s always important to tell a story. There were a couple scenes in that book I didn’t want to write, quite frankly. At a certain point, I was juggling the decision to write the sex scene with my stepfather bringing me in. I actually wrote it because I needed to get through it. As I looked at it, my Stockholm Syndrome and my cleaving of my stepfather as a crazy older brother—it all ends because of that, so without that narrative piece there’s a strange gap. It was a necessary component of the story and my wife was supportive about that too. I tried to keep sight of all that; to fundamentally tell a powerful, educational story, but ultimately entertaining, in the sense that story needs to take you on a journey.

The proposal is done in my head, so it’s really this next phase that I was talking about, the teenage years from 12-17. The other part which I’ve only just discovered in writing this book, is that most of the damage to me, from my stepfather, expressed itself after he was gone. As I’m reading in the literature, this is apparently, normal. In my teenage years, there’s this welling of machismo and violence and destructive delinquent behavior. There’s the strange development of my Jewish Identity in the foothills of the Cascades, a relationship in Portland that presents itself as a karmic fix, and eventually, getting a scholarship and committing to going to college and not doing manual labor for the rest of my life.

Hopefully it’s a lot lighter and funnier and than this book [chuckles]. There’s going to some fresh flashbacks and the like, but it’s more about processing a legacy of violence that the violence itself. It’s a very Kurt Cobain grunge-filled world that we were in, that was the milieu. We thought that if “Nirvana made it, man, we’re all going to make it.”

1. “Bugs Bunny was my hero. He still is. You could stick a shotgun in his face. You could throw him in boiling water. You could try and kill him any number of ways. But he never lost his cool. he never let them see him angry. If you go around, Josh, giving into your anger and  being violent, you’re going to scare people. And eventually, you’re going to hurt someone, and then they’ll lock  you up, or worse. Just because you’re being bullied doesn’t mean you get to pass it on.” p.195

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