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Witches, Warlocks and Ice Cream Trucks: An Interview with Joshua Safran
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Sarah Toce
2013-12-03

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Not many people could say they were born in a coven, raised in an ice cream truck, and were considered warlocks from a young age, but one man can. His name is Joshua Safran, and he's written to tell the tales of yesteryear … the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Windy City Times: Why was it time to write your revealing book, Free Spirit: Growing Up On the Road and Off the Grid?

Joshua Safran: Most of my friends have been nagging me for years to write about my childhood. "Who else lived in an ice cream truck!?" But they were only thinking of the first half of my story —born into a coven, hitchhiking across the American West with my mother, living in vans, buses, and, yes, an ice cream truck. What prevented me from writing this book, though, was the second half.

When I was nine, my mother met and married a guerilla fighter/shaman/poet/healer who was - more than anything else - a violent alcoholic. Surviving and overcoming him was not something I ever wanted to think about again, much less talk about. Yet, in 2011, the film Crime After Crime broke my silence for me and both survivors and former perpetrators began to reach out to me. As a man and an Orthodox Jew, people saw me as a fascinating and unexpected champion for breaking the cycle of violence. When I saw that speaking out would do the world more good than silence, I decided the time was right to tell the whole story.

WCT: You say that you were "raised by lesbian witches in the Haight-Ashbury commune." What in the world must that have been like for you?

Joshua Safran: I have largely positive memories of the coven— In the early years it was like having 13 mothers all at once, even if they were often paying more attention to the Goddess than me. As I got a little older, I was shocked to learn that, as a boy, I would never grow up to be a woman. The anti-man vibe was pretty strong, though, and eventually my mother decided we needed a new community — one that would accept little warlocks, too. Later in life I became nostalgic for the "women's women" because of the exceptionally poor choices my mother made once she started dating men. I still feel very much at home among gay women—but as a big, bearded yarmulke-wearing man, my sense of homecoming is not always understood.

WCT: What was your experience attending school for the first time at the age of 11 after living the hippie lifestyle with your mom, Claudia?

Joshua Safran: It was rough. Years of discussing Karl Marx with my mother in the wilderness did not prepare me for the Darwinian realities of Middle School in a rural dairy farming community in Washington State. I came stumbling out of the forest in patched thrift store clothing, covered in pine needles and tree sap, ready to discuss feminism and queer rights. I didn't know I had to raise my hand in class and, since I had only been taught what my mother knew, I couldn't do math or read or write in cursive. All of this was a recipe for an endless series of beatings on the school yard and general bewilderment in the teacher's lounge.

WCT: Were there any positive outcomes of being "unschooled" that you think modern society should embrace?

Joshua Safran: It took me a couple decades to appreciate the benefits of living beyond the perimeter of society, but there are some. I grew up blissfully ignorant of popular culture which I think is largely a good thing. I was raised almost exclusively in the company of adults and was largely treated like an adult. That made things awkward when I tried to integrate into America at the middle school level, but it left me remarkably well prepared for the adult world. I also wasn't saddled with busy work or nightly homework which allowed me to read a lot of original texts and pursue study on various topics much more deeply than I would have in school.

WCT: Was it difficult at all to get this book accepted by a publisher given the nature of the subjects involved?

Joshua Safran: I'm happy to report that the publisher was interested in Free Spirit precisely for the reasons that it was a difficult book to write. That said, once they saw some of the gritty details, they balked and pushed back on my desire to be so candid and "graphic." Luckily I'm a lawyer by training so I pushed back and we reached an acceptable resolution. I do think, though, that this story is far more intimately revealing and emotionally raw than they were expecting.

WCT: Being that you are a women's rights champion and social justice activist, how did your childhood experiences impact your desire for positive change?

Joshua Safran: For years I've said that I advocate on behalf of domestic violence victims and survivors to right the wrongs that were visited on my mother and me. And that's true, but in writing Free Spirit, I came to realize that I also had a more specific motivation. The hardest part of writing the book was forcing myself to remember the darkest days with my violent alcoholic stepfather and re-inhabiting my childhood mind at the time. When I finally went back into my memories, I was overcome with feelings of shame at my cowardice in the face of my stepfather's abuse of my mother. Why hadn't I stood up to him? Why hadn't I protected her? As an adult, looking back, I know now that it was unreasonable to expect a child to confront and subdue an enraged former guerilla fighter, but the self-judgment remains. At a very deep level, I think that my advocacy work is an attempt to prove to my 10-year-old self that I finally have the strength and courage to protect my mother.

WCT: You have a wife and three daughters. What advice ( or words of wisdom ) do you give them about the injustices you have seen and witnessed?

Joshua Safran: My wife is wiser than I so there's not a lot I can tell her, but I have shared what I've learned about picking battles. We are all confronted by so much injustice, but we'll never move forward if we stop to fight for the right at every moment. The key is identifying what really matters in the grand scheme of things and what you can let go. I've probably been over preparing my daughters for the dark corners that they may run into out in the big world. They are now tired of me saying that love shouldn't hurt and that violence never ever has a place in a family. The best thing I can do, I think, is to constantly subtly remind them that they are amazing and strong and wonderful and that they don't need the approval of anyone else ( particularly a boy ) to feel good about themselves.

WCT: What advice might you give to others in a situation resembling yours growing up?

Joshua Safran: When a victim is in it, she feels like she is all alone. She feels that the control and violence is totally unique and secret and intimately personal. It's not. Regardless of race, class, country of origin, sexual orientation, and religion, batterers generally employ the same techniques and follow nearly identical patterns of charm, coercion, intimidation, and violence to dominate their victims. Once they realize they are stuck in the cycle, a lot of victims feel like they should just ride it out since it will get better. Their batterers, they feel, are in the healing process or seeking help. Don't wait, it won't get better. Once a victim begins to summon the courage to try to leave, they realize that their batterer has left them socially and financially isolated. They get the impression there's nowhere to go. This perception is exactly what the batterer has constructed to maintain control. Victims need to let go of their fears and immediately contact their local domestic violence shelters and agencies to seek help. There will be difficulties and lean times, perhaps, but that freedom is priceless.

WCT: As you mentioned earlier, you were featured in the award-winning documentary Crime After Crime, which premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Oprah Winfrey's OWN Network even picked it up as part of their Documentary Film Club. Please tell us about your work to vindicate the locked up innocent.

Joshua Safran: I've spent over eight years advocating for justice and freedom for wrongfully incarcerated survivors of domestic violence. Beginning in the 1990s many states began recognizing a "Battered Woman's Defense to crimes" against their batterers. Unfortunately, no state but California has allowed women serving time ( often life ) in prison who were convicted before the Battered Woman's Defense laws were enacted to reopen their cases. I have specifically been working in California and other states to advocate for this forgotten generation of women who are still unjustly locked away in prison.

WCT: What is the main take away from this book you want your readers to embrace?

Joshua Safran: I can't choose just one. The first theme is empathy. I was a dirty urchin sleeping on a tree stump who came to school in patchwork clothing covered in tree sap. And the reception I got was unpleasant. When we look at people who are less fortunate from us, we tend to judge them pretty harshly. We don't know what they've been through and often an encouraging word or even a smile will go a long way. Another thought on identity. So often, particularly on the left, we tend to judge people by their political convictions, not the content of their character. This is a huge mistake. A revolutionary hero who beats his wife is a bad man. No exceptions. And on children. America, in its youth-obsessed culture, is spawning generations of adults who feel they should never have to grow up. Self-involvement is a choice people can make, but it's the wrong one when they have children. Life as you know it must change when you have children. You are no longer the primary actor on the stage; your children must come first.

WCT: Any last words?

Joshua Safran: Redemption is always possible.


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