My Recipe For: Survivor Stories (An Interview with Joshua Safran, Women’s Rights Activist)

Joshua Safran is a man with many hats — writer, attorney, performer, public speaker, women’s rights activist, and domestic abuse survivor. October, as you may know, is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. In honor of this, I’m not only featuring Mr. Safran’s new autobiography, Free Spirit: Growing Up On the Road and Off the Grid, but I scored an interview with this incredible (and incredibly interesting) man! If you like his answers, wait until you read the book!


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

Joshua’s life seems unbelievable at first. His mother’s lifelong search for the great Utopia, a community where the land provides and peace and harmony abound, has left the mother and son pair on a journey through a string of living situations on the outskirts of society, many of which are little more than glorified shacks. The cast of characters Joshua meets include off-duty rodeo clown-stock brokers, covens of witches, and other harmless misfits of society. The journey comes to a screeching halt when Claudia, Joshua’s mom, falls for a violent, alcoholic Salvadoran guerilla/poet who abuses both Claudia and Joshua. This coming-of-age tale is so fantastic and unbelievable that it must be believed.

You’ll like this if: you enjoy stories of survival, quirky humor in the face of adversity, and coming-of-age tales.

Quote: “Straight Society clearly didn’t have a place for me, and now I was convinced that the counter-culture didn’t either. I was trapped on an island between the two worlds, able to navigate in both, but without a home in either.”


Rebecca K: Throughout Free Spirit there are moments of what could have been frustrating or very scary moments that are laced with humor. For example, when you pretended to have given yourself a black eye for the sake of your performance of the Yuletide Yahoo or your persistent imaginary third eye. Do you find that humor was part of your coping strategy?  

Joshua Safran: Absolutely. Life was too serious not to be funny. Hitchhiking across the American West with my mother, I learned early on that there’s nothing scarier than a drunk man. And I also learned that no one is more easily entertained than a drunk man – some crazy sing-song gibberish and funny dancing on my part could transform a 300-pound rage into a harmless pile of laughter.  Coming in off the road, dirty and smelly, we were invariably met by small town folks with cold stares and crossed arms. But a quick, confident smile and a few jokes quickly transformed us from potentially dangerous vagrants into “Hey, the circus is in town!”

RK: With a seemingly endless routine of father-ish figures in and out of your life and a lack of any sort of stability at such a young age, how did you think you were able to maintain such  a sense of aplomb about you? It seems like most children would become introverted or lonely, but you seemed to have been able to maintain your own voice.

JS: Part of it, I think, was genetic. I was a born extrovert. As soon as I could talk I was making the rounds at the solstice gathering or the health food store, introducing myself and talking about US foreign policy in Central America. Part of it was learned. While my mother treated me like an adult, she also always spoke to me with wonder in her voice about how I could do anything I wanted, be anyone I wanted to be. And I believed her, so that gave me a lot of self-confidence.  I also had the odd advantage of being born into instability. A rotating coven of witches, a succession of increasingly strange men, moving from commune to van to bus – this was the only reality I knew. So, waking up each morning, ready for the next adventure was just the way life was and there was no reason to complain about it. It wasn’t until later, when I saw how other kids lived, that I began to question why we had to wander beyond the perimeters of society.

RK: On that note, if you could go back and change things, would you choose to live a “normal” life with electricity, hot showers, and a traditional elementary education?

JS: It’s a tough call. I have devoted much of my adult life to ensuring that my three daughters don’t experience any of the deprivations I did. And, looking back at my childhood, I wouldn’t want to relive making my bed on the forest floor or hitchhiking through the snow, much less contend with Comandante Leopoldo again. That said, I believe that many of the best qualities that define me as an adult were shaped by my childhood experiences – self-reliance, empathy, and a strong instinct for righteousness. I have friends who grew up in suburban nuclear families with all the sugar and hot water they could desire who are today miserable and struggling with addiction. There are many ways to evaluate a childhood, but I think that perhaps the best way is to look at the adult who grew out of it.

RK: For the reader, the most frustrating part of the Leopoldo Era is the fact that your mother, as self-preserving and confident as she seemed up until that point, let herself fall under Leopoldo’s spell. Why do you think it was so hard for her to leave him? 

JS: In the beginning, she was captivated by his charisma and physical magnetism. He was Che Guevara incarnate, the romantic rebel/poet/shaman of her dreams. Once he revealed his darker side, she felt duty-bound to “heal” him. She loved him and couldn’t abandon him. On some level, she felt she was partially responsible for the suffering he’d experienced. He had been victimized by American-backed death squads in El Salvador, and she was an American. His PTSD was her fault. And by the time these justifications had worn off, my mother was sold on the idea that if she left him he’d be deported back to El Salvador and shot in the back of the head as he stepped onto the tarmac at Cuscatlán Airport. And, ultimately, she found herself socially and financially isolated by Leopoldo and convinced that he would track us down and kill us if we left. While the details of my mother’s relationship with Leopoldo were dramatic and outlandish, the co-dependent power dynamic between them and the cycle of abuse are actually very typical of abusive relationships across racial and socio-economic lines.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline creates access by providing 24-hour support through advocacy, safety planning, resources and hope to everyone affected by domestic violence. If you or someone you know is suffering from domestic violence, please visit

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