Free Spirit: Growing Up On the Road and Off the Gridby Joshua Safran
An Unforgettable Journey Through an Unconventional Childhood
When Joshua Safran was four years old, his mother--determined to protect him from the threats of nuclear war and Ronald Reagan--took to the open road with her young son, leaving the San Francisco countercultural scene behind. Together they embarked on a journey to find a utopia they/strong>… See more details below
An Unforgettable Journey Through an Unconventional Childhood
When Joshua Safran was four years old, his mother--determined to protect him from the threats of nuclear war and Ronald Reagan--took to the open road with her young son, leaving the San Francisco countercultural scene behind. Together they embarked on a journey to find a utopia they could call home. InFree Spirit, Safran tells the harrowing, yet wryly funny story of his childhood chasing this perfect life off the grid--and how they survived the imperfect one they found instead.
Encountering a cast of strange and humorous characters along the way, Joshua spends his early years living in a series of makeshift homes, including shacks, teepees, buses, and a lean-to on a stump. His colorful youth darkens, however, when his mother marries an alcoholic and abusive guerrilla/poet.
Throughout it all, Joshua yearns for a "normal" life, but when he finally reenters society through school, he finds "America" a difficult and confusing place. Years spent living in the wilderness and discussing Marxism have not prepared him for the Darwinian world of teenagers, and he finds himself bullied and beaten by classmates who don't share his mother's belief about reveling in one's differences.
Eventually, Joshua finds the strength to fight back against his tormentors, both in school and at home, and helps his mother find peace. But Free Spirit is more than just a coming-of-age story. It is also a journey of the spirit, as he reconnects with his Jewish roots; a tale of overcoming adversity; and a captivating read about a childhood unlike any other.
Elle Magazine, "Readers' Pick""
[A] beautiful, powerful memoir. This assured debut is reminiscent of David Sedaris's and Augusten Burroughs's best work: introspective, hilarious, and heartbreaking."
Publishers Weekly, starred review
With engaging story after story and a healthy dose of narrative tension throughout, Safran all but turns the pages for you."
San Francisco Chronicle"
An enthusiastic, bounding picaresque...Safran is funny, engaging and a great storyteller."
Jewish Daily Forward"
Poetic, and compelling...In this important book, Safran offers up the wounds of a flower child, and every frayed petal is astonishingly beautiful."
A remarkable account of survival despite the odds."
Joshua Safran's Free Spirit provides a mesmerizing coming-of-age story for one of the next generation's most inspired spiritual progressives."Rabbi Michael Lerner, Editor, Tikkun, and Chair, The Network of Spiritual Progressives"
Free Spirit is a stranger-than-fiction look at an absolutely fascinating childhood."Sam Apple, author of Schlepping Through the Alps"
Haunting and beautifully written, Free Spirit draws you into the gritty, white-knuckle ride that was Joshua Safran's childhood. Spellbinding. A must-read."Liz Murray, author of the New York Times bestseller Breaking Night"
Rich in detail, humor, and compassion, Free Spirit is an eloquent coming-of-age story about a mother's well-intentioned, but flawed, search for utopia and the impact her chaotic journey had on her son. Thankfully, Joshua Safran emerges from his impoverished, rootless childhood resilient, resourceful, and wise. A transformative book."Mira Bartók, author of National Book Critics Circle Award winner The Memory Palace"
Some writers search everywhere for a great story, and others have a great story happen to them. Joshua Safran's tale of his upbringing among radicals, revolutionaries, and renegades is equal parts hilarious and touching. Strap yourself into the green bus for a whirlwind tour of the American underground through the eyes of an impressionable young storyteller-to-be."Thomas Mullen, author of The Last Town on Earth
Safran recounts growing up on the fringes of society, raised by a mother who dropped out of college in the early 1960s to become a hippie. The author is now a successful lawyer whose defense of a battered woman wrongly incarcerated for 20 years is the subject of the 2011 documentary Crime After Crime. Safran describes his mother's embrace of the counterculture with wry humor and a vivid eye for detail. When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, she was pregnant and unmarried. Determined to raise her child and hoping for assistance, she joined a radical lesbian commune in San Francisco. When the child turned out to be a boy, they rejected him, and she turned instead to a collective "of gay male babysitters who would watch the children of activist feminist mothers so they could take part in political protests." While receiving regular welfare checks, Safran's mother unsuccessfully pursued an artistic career, all while indoctrinating her son on the evils of capitalist imperialism and nuclear war. Abandoning art, she tried subsistence agriculture in Northern California. There, the author had to contend with living in sheds and shacks without indoor plumbing, frequent hunger and often being left to fend for himself. When he was 9, his mother began a four-year relationship with an alcoholic who pretended to be an exiled revolutionary. Although her lover had violent rages and was brutally abusive to both of them, she married him. Despite being intimidated by bullying from his stepfather and fellow students, Safran finally mustered the courage to confront them. With help from teachers and encouragement from a longtime family friend, he excelled in school and eventually came to reject his mother's ideological preconceptions. A remarkable account of survival despite the odds.
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Read an Excerpt
Growing Up On the Road and Off the Grid
By Joshua Safran
HyperionCopyright © 2013 Joshua Safran
All rights reserved.
At your birth ..." my mother would sing to me, "the room was lit only by candles."
It was always: at your birth. It was never: when you were born, because everyone went around getting born. That was routine, just the normal prerequisite for admission into our world. But at your birth meant that the beginning of my life was an event. Something unique. Something unlike anything the world had ever seen before.
We lived in San Francisco when I was three and four years old, and every day ended with my mother leaning over me, gesticulating slowly with gentle sweeps of her hands and soothing me to sleep with a wondrous tale. She chanted with reverence and awe, speaking to me of my own birth as Paul must have conjured up the Nativity for his rapt listeners.
"At your birth, the room was lit only by candles. We were in the commune on Ashbury Street. The room was soft and warm." Her hands descended, fingers extending, to illustrate warmth. "You were born into a pool of warm water. From the waters within me you flowed into the waters without. The witches"—there was always a coven of witches in my birth story—"they saw that you were wearing a caul, the bag of waters, as a hat. And they knew right away that you were strong with magic. And they did your chart right there." It was always important that they did my astrological chart exactly at that moment, so they could capture the precise positioning of the celestial deities. "And they said that your sun sign was Sagittarius. And then they saw that your moon sign was Sagittarius. And then they saw ... they saw that your rising sign was Sagittarius! Triple Sagittarius!" I had no idea what this meant, but three of something was clearly better than one. My mother gave a long pause, allowing the witches time to decipher the mystery of the constellations. "And then they made a prophecy that you would grow up to be a warlock! A holy man surrounded by followers."
The story always went more or less like this. Usually Uncle Tony, our housemate from the commune, made an appearance. Sometimes I was serenaded into the world by a shakuhachi flute player sitting cross-legged in the corner. Other times a birth coach and a midwife featured prominently. One version of my birth story included a dramatic flourish where one of the witches held me up for all to see. My fervent, forceful cries punctuated the silent room. That was when my mother knew that I would be called Joshua. Like my namesake, she told me, I would use the power of my voice to break down the walls.
My mother enjoyed reciting the story as much as I loved hearing it. She carried it with her wherever we went, telling it to me in the line at the Welfare office or while waiting to hitch a ride by the side of the road. But mostly she told it to me at bedtime. I heard the story so many times that I began "remembering" my own birth, as if I had been one of the spectators, wedged in somewhere between the coven of witches and the flute player. Under drowsy eyelids, I imagined myself emerging golden and glowing into the candlelit chamber of expectant priestesses.
And then, one Sunday in Golden Gate Park, Uncle Tony ruined my tale of sacred beginnings. We were feeding the buffalo, which Tony told me were really American bison, and Tony mused: "I'm glad you were born a boy."
"Why?" I asked, shoveling more alfalfa through the chain-link fence.
"You were supposed to be a girl."
"Yeah, the witches did their magic and they went around telling everyone you were going to be a little witchling. When you were born, one of the witches held you up and said: 'Oh, it's a ... well, she's a boy.'
"All the witches started yelling: 'What!? How can you tell?'
"And the head witch said: 'She's got a penis.'
"And they said: 'Are you sure? Check again.'"
When I got home, the canon crumbled. My mother admitted that I was supposed to be a girl. She told me that if I had followed the plan, she would have named me Rivka Paloma Tabei. Rivka for my great-great-grandmother, a folk healer in the Old Country. Paloma, the Spanish word for dove, the bird of peace. And Tabei for the first woman who climbed Mount Everest. When I defied expectations and emerged in the form of a man-child, she pulled biblical names like Benjamin and Joshua out of the air. In the end she went with Joshua because I was loud.
I went to bed that night without wanting to hear my birth story, pouting into the darkness at the unfairness of it all. I had no namesake, no middle name, no illustrious backstories. I should have been born a girl. But then a hopeful thought came to me. Even though I was a boy, maybe I could still grow up to be a woman.
My dreams of being a woman were partly the product of my feminist schooling. My mother's circle of lesbian witches believed that wymyn were created in the image of the Goddess, while the human male was cast down the evolutionary ladder to a lowly rung somewhere between apes and amorphous, predatory lumps of meat. But my womanly aspirations were also influenced by the faces I saw around me. So many women crowded my view that I hardly even knew what a man looked like. And the one man whose face should have been most familiar lived only in my imagination. My father was just another character in my mother's stories, a minor part of my creation myth.
My mother, Claudia, met my father, Claude, in a San Francisco poetry workshop in 1974. They shared the same name, like some strange spell that was destined to bring them together, but were otherwise total opposites. Claudia walked through the door hoarse from heckling the North Beach poets for being a bunch of sexists. She looked like a thin, Semitic Janis Joplin. Torn purple bell-bottoms, sandals from the free box, a shirt she had made out of a bedspread. Across the room was Claude, radiating the blond-haired, blue-eyed dynamism of a surfer just toweled off from a day spent riding the waves.
As soon as they met, the two of them began matching each other poem for poem. The themes, feelings, and images from their poems meshed perfectly as they volleyed back and forth in a poetical duet. Night after night, the Claude and Claudia show became a fixture of the poetry workshop. During that time, my mother wrote of my father:
Claude is a very beautiful man/angel
brought up on California
sunshine acid - turned on
his entire family and continues
his search as i less and
less drug but high always
One full-moon night as the poetry workshop let out, Claude said: "Let's walk together for a little while." Immersed in moon-goddess light, they walked over the hill, talking Pablo Neruda and Victor Jara. My mother gesticulated animatedly as she spoke of the coming Revolution; my father, seven years her junior, spoke in deep poetic abstractions about changing the world through his music and the meditative highs he reached on his surfboard.
Their meandering path brought them to Claudia's apartment in the Noe Valley. Inside they sat on the mattress on the floor, smoking a little of the herb. And then, in what might have been one of the least romantic conversations of all time, she told him she had come to the point in her life where she was ready to have a child. He thought about this and, between puffs of the joint, said: "I know I'm not ready to be a father. I don't know if I ever will be." And, with that, they lay together and had sex for the first and last time and unwittingly (or perhaps half-wittingly) conceived me.
After that one night together, Claude grew aloof and distanced himself from my mother, even as she began to feel me growing inside of her. She stopped attending the poetry workshop and began looking for a safe commune where she could raise a child. Some months later, the two of them ran into each other on the street.
They stopped to talk, and Claude said: "I understand something interesting is happening with your body. Is that true?"
"Yes," said Claudia. "I'm going to have a baby."
"Do you know who the father is?"
"Does he know who the father is?"
"He can figure it out if he wants to," Claudia replied.
Claude nodded and from this my mother knew that he knew. He wished her good luck, and they went their separate ways.
It wasn't that Claudia didn't want Claude involved as a father, she later explained to me. To the contrary, she dreamed about it. She thought if she visualized it intensely enough, maybe it would become reality. But she wasn't going to ask him. She was too much of a feminist for that. She wanted him to want it. But if he didn't, she would raise the baby all by herself.
Over the years, my father aspired to be a lot of things: a poet, a musician, a guru. But he never wanted to be my father. Luckily someone else did. A dark, giant stranger who went by Tony because Antonio had too many vowels for the Anglo ear.
My mother met Tony in 1975, before I was born. He was chairing the interview panel for the commune on Ashbury Street. My mother was nervous on the day of the interview because openings in a good commune were rare, and the admissions process could be fiercely competitive. She relaxed a little as she shared sourdough bread and kale with commune members around the long communal table in the kitchen. My mother was pleased to see that the interview panel included a black man and his Chinese wife. The place had the right diversity and a real earthy vibe. Leading the panel was a tall bearded Latino or Native American man named Tony. He stood against one wall, arms crossed, rocking back and forth a little, asking questions. He looked like he could have been the head of a revolutionary cadre. A freedom fighter from Central America, maybe.
But what he wanted to know was strictly Capitalist. How would she afford the rent?
"Well, I've always lived my life in such a way that if you are in the right place at the right time, with the right attitude, you can find anything you want—even money."
Tony frowned at this. "What about a job?"
"Yes, jobs are good too. I've been nude modeling for art schools. And I do my own artwork. Sometimes modeling and painting at the same time!"
Tony was still skeptical. "That doesn't sound like making a living." They were all staring at her.
"Well, you should know, I will be eligible for Welfare soon."
A child!? She wouldn't have garnered more surprise if she had said she was a CIA agent.
"You're pregnant!?" Tony took a step back and dropped his gaze to the floor.
Someone else said: "Are we ready to live with a baby?"
Tony nodded. "We all need to talk." And the whole group of them adjourned into the next room to deliberate. When they came back in, my mother was prepared for more questions. But Tony was smiling. "We decided," he said. "You're in."
My mother's room at the commune was next to Tony's. She discovered not the guerrilla leader she had imagined, but a soft, dreamy intellectual. A student of philosophy and history. He was the only one in the commune with a real job, though she was shocked to find out he was a janitor. "A janitor, Tony!? You went to college, for chrissake."
His round face trembled. "I had to drop out. I had a nervous breakdown. I couldn't finish."
Tony had no memories of his real family. He had been kidnapped from his Mexican- American parents at a young age by an abusive and hateful Cuban woman who told him she was his "grandmother." She claimed to be pure-blooded Spanish, and Tony was raised with the shame that he was nothing but a "dirty half-breed." Tony's childhood was a catalog of abuse and neglect visited upon him by his grandmother, her predatory boyfriends, and frightening Catholic schools.
In this total darkness, Tony sought redemption in his schoolwork and tested his way into the selective Lowell High School. There the light began to shine in. He started high school as the brown, dumpy, depressed "grandson" of an erratic, abusive Cuban maid. But he left feeling like a refined intellectual, his spirit on fire with philosophy and Hindu theology. Stepping out of high school full of academic promise, he went on scholarship to San Francisco State University, where he promised himself that his studies would replace his past. He grew his hair out to become someone new and tried to toss himself into the ferment of the '60s, to embrace freedom. But his traumatic childhood haunted him relentlessly. He was barely able to keep a lid on the nightmares, the flashbacks, and the phobias that crippled him. He had panic attacks in enclosed spaces and disabling fears of heights, flying, driving, and public speaking.
Before he could graduate, he was drawn back to his grandmother's side as she lay dying in the hospital.
"Antonio, this is your fault," she hissed. "You abandoned me. After all I did for you. I saved you from growing up like a dirty Mexican."
"I'm sorry," Tony said, feeling a void of darkness rushing in at him.
"You left me alone," she whispered. "It's all your fault." Her wrinkled face froze into a scowl and then turned to wax. She was dead.
Tony was choking up as he confessed all of this to my mother, and then he told her about his nervous breakdown and his suicide attempts. "Now I'm a janitor," he concluded. "And I'm all alone."
My mother leaned in and hugged Tony over her expanding belly. They were both lonely. Both wanted to be held. After a long hug, Tony pulled back, his eyes alive again.
"What did you eat today?" he asked, brightening.
"I had some broccoli and tofu."
"That's not enough!"
"I'm not hungry, Tony."
"No, I told you before, it's not for you. It's for the baby! We have to feed the little guy."
Tony returned shortly, bearing a plate loaded down with a massive cheese omelet. He began feeding my mother forkfuls of his latest culinary creation. "We're going to have the strongest, healthiest baby. Eat!"
My mother put his hand to her belly. "Feel, Tony, feel! The baby's kicking!"
Tony felt me moving inside of her. "¡Ay, mi angelita!" Oh, my little angel! Tony swore he couldn't remember any Spanish but reverted to it whenever he became emotional. "Angelita, he likes my omelets!"
When I was born, Tony threw himself into the role of father with abandon. After cleaning the State Building all evening, Tony would come home to the sound of my colicky cry, and dutifully scoop me up from my foam pad on the floor. He would bounce, burp, and change me, and then sing me to sleep with a mixture of Spanish lullabies and the Rolling Stones. Night after night Tony paced back and forth with me until the first rays of sunlight filtered in through the leaves of the commune's raised marijuana garden.
Once I could sleep through the night, my mother decided it was time to leave the commune—and Tony. With all the cooking and the child care, he was starting to act like a father and a husband. My mother wrote in her diary:
Afraid that I am becoming his wife ... to allow him to care for me ... what do I owe him? Others are there for the drama, he's there for the grind—the dirty diapers and the night feedings. Have I sold myself to him for payment of debt?
The bottom line for my mother was: Tony was not the hero of the Revolution he appeared to be at first glance. He lacked the requisite toughness, guts. He was too prone to fall back into a pattern of self-destruction. He just wasn't her type.
My mother broke the news to Tony one night after I'd fallen asleep.
"Why?" he pleaded.
"Tony, my room is too small. Josh is starting to crawl. Steve, from the basement, almost stepped on him the other day. Marian's got hepatitis. Did you see the open sores on her face? And how am I supposed to bathe him in the sink with George's coffee grinds clogging it up? I have to find a place Josh can move around safely."
"Can I come with you?" Tony asked the question she was dreading.
"No, Tony. You're acting like we're a married couple, and we're not. You've got this shabby outer world, this job. That's hard for me to relate to. And I know that you've got this magnificent inner world where you're having ecstatic visions of the Virgin de Guadalupe and experiencing parallel universes, and I enjoy sharing that aspect with you. But you're asking me to help you deal with your emotional problems and the ghost of your grandmother, and I can't spend all day long reading your energy." My mother took a swig of rosehips tea. "I want to have a real boyfriend, Tony. Someone committed to the Struggle. When we go out, I see guys who look interesting in cafés and restaurants, but they all assume we're together. I've got to get away, Tony. Besides, think about it. The longer we wait, the harder it will be on Josh to leave you."
Excerpted from Free Spirit by Joshua Safran. Copyright © 2013 Joshua Safran. Excerpted by permission of Hyperion.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Joshua Safran is an attorney, writer, speaker, and occasional rabbi, and was featured in the award-winning documentary Crime After Crime, which premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and had its television debut as part of the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN)'s Documentary Film Club. He is a nationally recognized champion for women's rights and a zealous advocate for survivors of domestic violence and the wrongfully imprisoned. For his work he has received national media coverage and numerous awards. He lives in Oakland, California.
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Compelling story of an alternative lifestyle through the eyes of a child living it. Very well written, I stayed up well past my usual bedtime to finish it.
I heard about this book from a radio interview with the author and it sounded interesting. I am on vacation and dowloaded it, I could not put the book down. Its a great read. The author takes you on an intimate journey through his childhood. Its a very sad story but you cheer for Josh the whole time.