Review by Jan Becker
Free Spirit: Growing up on the Road and Off the Grid by Joshua Safran, 2013, Hyperion, Hardcover, 272 pp, $24.95
Joshua Safran’s memoir, Free Spirit: Growing up on the Road and off the Grid begins with a wild ride up the side of Cultus Mountain in Skagit County, Washington. Safran’s stepfather, Leopoldo, a Salvadoran guerilla fighter who is drunk, angry, and erratic, is at the wheel screaming about CIA surveillance. Safran’s mother, Claudia has finally been shaken out of a meditation focused on channeling blue universal energy to surround and protect them from harm. Within the first page, Safran has established that as terrifying as this ride might seem to the reader, for him, “Fear was commonplace, part of the will you kidnap me or won’t you calculation inherent in every hitched ride.”
The journey on which Safran takes the reader is filled with terrifying situations and bizarre characters. His idealistic but clueless mother leaves the relative calm of post-hippie-heyday San Francisco with her four-year-old son and embarks on a quest to find a utopian community outside the influence of mainstream Reagan-era America. Instead of utopia, Safran finds himself living in teepees, a rusty old ice cream truck, a lean-to built on a stump, and a series of shacks, often without electricity or running water. At one point in the memoir, Claudia and the author take to the road with the Rainbow Family, a loosely connected band of hippies who hold gatherings in national forests. When Claudia settles down and marries Leopoldo, the home Safran finds is not idyllic, but dark and filled with abuse at the hands of his stepfather and school-aged bullies, who torment him for being different.
Safran’s memoir is painful and poignant as one would expect of a story filled with abject poverty and domestic violence, but the darkness is balanced with moments of hilarity. Much of the humor comes from the juxtaposition of counter-culture ideology and Safran’s struggle to thrive in an America that is alien to him. The book is peppered with references to larger events in the country and their impact on Safran. For example, the trajectory of his life is set in motion by the Fall of Saigon, and his mother’s disillusionment with a country that has not, as she expected it would, reformed at the close of the Vietnam conflict. When Claudia becomes involved with anti-nuclear protests after a power plant on the other side of the country melts down, Safran writes, “Three Mile Island ruined my preschool graduation.”
Free Spirit is remarkable primarily because of the candor with which Safran tells his story. He doesn’t portray himself as a hero. He struggles throughout the book with how powerless he is to protect not only his mother, but also himself from abuse. When Leopoldo attacks Claudia for imagined infidelities, Safran does not initially try to rescue her. Instead, he hides in his sleeping berth in the loft of the cabin they live in, and listens as his mother is beaten. When he finally convinces his mother to enroll him in public school, Safran is beaten and ostracized by a female bully at the bus stop. Safran’s willingness to express helplessness and vulnerability strengthens the impact of the narrative and gives the reader a deeper understanding of the dysfunctional dynamics of domestic abuse.
The final chapter of the book works as an epilogue. There, the reader sees an adult Safran, more capable of advocating for domestic abuse victims in his work as an attorney.
One concern many memoirists grapple with is the limitation of memory, especially during the first five or so years of life. We don’t carry as clear a recollection of early childhood as we do of later stages of development. Some memoirists choose to recreate dialogue and scene, and allow their imaginations to fill in the blank spaces our minds cannot recall. Safran’s account of his early childhood is vivid and detailed, and obviously recreated, but I was able to accept it as true, because he explains in the epilogue and acknowledgements that he researched those years with the help of his mother and other adults who did possess a clearer recollection of events.
Free Spirit is not an easy book to read because it is so vividly rendered and painful, but it is well-written, often poetic, and compelling, and offers the reader important insight into a segment of counter-culture that is under-represented in modern American memoir. In this important book, Safran offers up the wounds of a flower child, and every frayed petal is astonishingly beautiful.