A few months back, I sat down with a copy of Joshua Safran’s Free Spirit: Growing Up On the Road and Off the Grid. I thought I had some idea of what to expect—after all, I have read more than one memoir of mid-20th century counterculture and thought I was safely in for another.
And then the first scene blew me away. First, the perspective here is different. We’re not reading a book written by an adult reflecting on experiences during which he/she retained some measure of agency. This is a memoir from a child’s perspective—a child who, while loved, was limited in the ways children are, and then some. Within the first few sentences, Safran draws a picture of intense abuse that pulls no punches.
Free Spirit is a heck of a book—well-written, paced to perfection, and honest in its portrayal of the author’s life growing up. After finishing the book, and perusing Joshua Safran’s Web site, I shot off some questions to Mr. Safran about some areas of the book that had me thinking even after I closed the pages (figuratively … I read it on my Kindle).
Q (Infamous Scribbler): Throughout the book, I was fascinated by your relationship with your mother. In the notes afterward, you describe finally sitting down and talking with her about the events of your childhood. I received the impression in the book that you were being very careful not to assess blame, or to have the reader blame her for the events. Was this deliberate? How has the publication of this book, and your work, affected your relationship with her?
A (Joshua Safran): Yes, I wrote Free Spirit in a very deliberate voice, doing my best not to let my adult- and father-self pass judgment on my mother, allowing my child-self to honestly appraise her as I did at the time. Interviewing my mother for about a year and questioning her on the details of my childhood brought us closer. I also felt very grateful that she supported my writing Free Spirit. That said, I think it was hard for her to sit down and read the book in one sitting, seeing her every parenting decision splashed across the pages of the book. She and I have continued to talk through those years.
Q: In Chapter 14, you describe a scene where you are in the woods and a tree is falling towards you. It is a low point, and you are wondering why even bother moving out of the way, when you have what I read as an epiphany of sorts – a vision of the child you might have one day, and a feeling that you needed to make his/her life worth living. Have you revisited this vision after that time? Has it changed at all?
A: I had a number of similar experiences as a kid in life-or-death moments, but this is one of them that stand out to me. I have revisited that vision many times. At the time, I was convinced it was a prophecy and that I was envisioning or meeting my future son. Overtime, I’ve come to think of it more metaphorically since I’m blessed with three daughters but no son. The moment remains profound because I mark that as the moment I chose to stop allowing life to happen to me in favor of forging my own destiny.
Q: Did you talk about your childhood with your children before you wrote the book? How did you frame it for them?
A: I did talk with my girls about my childhood before I wrote Free Spirit. One of the silver linings of having a boyhood like mine is an inexhaustible trove of bedtime stories about when I was a kid. I, of course, have given them the PG-rated version of events but they have always enjoyed the drama and humor of the stories as well as drawn some extra comfort in the luxury of their nice warm beds.
Q: Towards the end of the book, you mention that you had tried to write fiction, and that most of those attempts ended up in the drawer. Now that you have written Free Spirit, are you interested in returning to fiction? Why or why not?
A: I’m working on a book proposal for a sequel to Free Spirit about my teenage years after we’ve escaped from my violent alcoholic stepfather and found refuge on an off-the-grid commune near the Canadian border. The irony of that time is that although we are away from my stepfather, those years are lived under his ominous shadow and in reaction to his awful legacy. It was a time of surviving the elements and struggling with juvenile delinquency, sexual intimacy, and spiritual rebirth. That said, I am interested in returning to fiction now that I feel I know how to put a book together and remain brimming with images and ideas for fictional stories.
Q: In the book, you are very honest about the times you find yourself imitating the behavior of your mother’s abusive spouse. However, unlike some victims, you are able to recognize this and break free of it. What do you credit with helping you take a different direction?
A: For me, I think I’m blessed that the timing was just right. Had my mother taken up with Comandante Leopoldo earlier, I wouldn’t have known that there was any other way to be a man. Had we been with him longer, I would have been under his influence too long to change. I’m very fortunate to have had my “Uncle” Tony provide me one powerful example of what a real man could be.
Q: You are a lawyer and an advocate for domestic violence survivors. As such, do you see our social and criminal justice systems moving forward? Or are we as a society destined to read more accounts such as these from young survivors?
A: I think things are slowly, incrementally getting better. Twenty years ago the DV movement was still in its infancy and the War on Drugs was ramping up. I think we have come a long way as a society in those two decades. Today consciousness has expanded and family violence is no longer taboo the way it once was. In a funny twist, the loss of expectation of privacy brought on by social media has exposed so-called “private” problems like DV to the light of day and people are more willing to talk about these issues. With the legalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado we are seeing a drop in unethical prosecutions and unjust prosecutions. To be sure, learned violence continues to hammer down from generation to generation, but hopefully less and less children will perpetrate the cycle of crazy with each passing year.
Many thanks to Joshua for taking the time to talk about Free Spirit. If you are interested in more information, including a schedule of upcoming appearances, visit his Web site at: http://www.jsafran.com.