Sunday, July 6, 2014

Free Spirit: Growing Up on the Road and Off the Grid

Free Spirit : growing up on the road and off the gridFree Spirit: Growing Up on the Road and Off the Grid, by Joshua Safran

When I first chose this book, I thought Joshua Safran was one of the Safran Foer brothers. I'd read Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, and later on read Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. From what I can tell, there is no relation whatsoever, but "Safran" must be a relatively common Jewish name (as is "Joshua"). I'm so glad I found this book anyway!

Joshua Safran, an award-winning attorney who has committed his career to combatting domestic violence, tells the story of his childhood. This book was born when he represented a battered woman who had been serving life in prison for killing her batterer. This case resonated with him, as he realized he had a story to tell about his own experiences.

Safran's mom with her
feminist artist friends in San Francisco
Safran's mother ("Claudia") was a counterculture feminist artist/activist, and when he was four years old, they left Haight Ashbury in San Francisco and hit the road. He was raised in an extremely open, permissive home and "homeschooled." He heard his mother having sex with her lovers. He felt inadequate because he didn't have a vagina. They hitchhiked all around the west coast (mostly in Washington state), constantly seeking a true intentional community--utopia. Safran's village of parents were not necessarily related to him--he had a few positive role models along the way, but none of them were ideal. Many of his childhood experiences made me squirm with discomfort...being bullied after he puts himself in a regular school, being completely separated from his mother and nearly sliding down a mountainside or drowned at a hippie festival, or careening up a mountain with a drunk driver (his stepdad).

Safran as a child
But as much as his mother was proudly independent and strident in many ways, she ended up with loser after loser. (His father wasn't actively in the picture.) The last one--who she married--was physically abusive. Safran observed the abuse and felt humiliated for not supporting his mother and stopping her attacker. This book, more than any other I've read, describes well what it's like to be in a home full of domestic violence.

Joshua Safran constantly yearned for a "normal life," but wasn't able to find this until he'd graduated from college, married someone who also was raised in a hippie home, reconnected with Judaism, and creates his own family.

Now he's a practicing Orthodox Jew, husband and father, and attorney. He's written the story of his childhood with his mom's permission. It's a story of redemption and discovery in spite of a very difficult beginning.

This book brought me to tears at the end...especially this paragraph:
"People sometimes ask me: If you could do your childhood all over again, would you grow up in the cushy suburbs you always dreamed of? And I always give a complicated answer. As a father, I have done everything in my power to give my children the stable, secure, and comfortable childhood I never had. But I also recognize that while my early life was difficult, I received an unconventional and powerful education that taught me self-reliance, righteousness, and empathy like no other. In the end, I would rather slog back down those trails at my mother's side again. There are many ways to judge a mother, but I think the best way is to look at the man her son grew up to be." 
As a mother of three sons who sometimes doubts her own parenting strategies and patience (who doesn't?), this is reassuring and touching. And the way Safran has dedicated his work to helping women who are unable to help themselves is the most inspiring of all.

If you're interested in knowing more about Joshua Safran's story, take a look at this video presentation of him talking at Google:

I'm a hippie at heart, but this book shows the dark side of living off the grid and on the edge of mainstream culture...especially for children. Safran is already working on a sequel and his mother, Claudia Miriam Reed, is writing her own book. You can view her spoken word poetry about domestic violence here.

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