East Bay attorneys memoir depicts a most unorthodox childhood

Joshua Safran always knew he had a book in him. But he also knew that while it might be kind of fun to share humorous tales of his unique childhood — his wife, Leah, claims he’s like a robot, you can turn him on and he spits out a topical, funny story from his early years — he would also have to tell the more difficult part. About the violence and abuse he witnessed against his mother by her husband, and the powerlessness he felt to protect her.

And to write about those years would mean he would have to think about memories he had long ago repressed and had never disclosed, even with those closest to him. And then talk about them, again and again.

But write about it he did in his memoir “Free Spirit: Growing Up on the Road and Off the Grid,” due for release Tuesday, Sept. 10.

Joshua Safran

The 37-year-old Oakland land-use attorney gained notoriety for his years-long pro-bono efforts to free Deborah Peagler from prison. She was serving a 25-year-to-life sentence for arranging the murder of her abusive husband when Safran took up her cause — a case that was the subject of the award-winning 2011 documentary “Crime After Crime,” by local filmmaker Yoav Potash (a close friend of Safran’s). Peagler was freed from prison in 2009 after serving 27 years; she died of cancer in 2010.

It was while working on her case that Safran first revealed that he was the son of a domestic violence victim. He did so with his client, unintentionally, when they were discussing how after an attack by her abuser she used a piece of frozen steak to reduce swelling on her face. Peagler recognized in Safran’s response someone who knew exactly what she was talking about.

“I owe it to the world to tell my story, and you won’t?” Safran remembered Peagler challenging him. “She then threw a race card at us [he and his fellow attorney Nadia Costa] and said, ‘People think this a problem that only affects black women in South Central L.A.’ ”

Slowly, he began to speak about it, and realized that it wasn’t the career suicide move he anticipated it might be, though certain colleagues did look at him differently.

And then, when touring with the film, the feedback Safran received from speaking out made him realize that his was a valuable voice — Jewish and male — to add to the discussions about domestic violence.

“It dawned on me that even though this episode that was the worst part of my life that I want nothing to do with, it’s part of God’s plan for me,” he said. “This is how I’m able to be the most useful, so I’m fully on board with this plan.”

To some, Safran’s mother might appear to be a hippie, and while she certainly was a woman of her era — smoking a lot of pot, having numerous lovers, both men and women (Safran was the product of a romantic fling and barely has a relationship with his father) — she didn’t see herself that way. She was born into a Jewish Communist family, and while she later rejected her parents, she took some of their values to heart. She thought of herself as a revolutionary and wanted not only to overthrow the U.S. government but to opt out of “the system” by living communally, off the grid.

The first half of the book describes Safran’s life as a self-described “urchin raised on a tree stump” who is living in poverty, doesn’t go to school, spends most of his childhood without electricity or running water and has an extraordinary amount of independence.

But everything changes when his mother meets and marries Leopoldo, a  Salvadorean man who may or may not have been a political refugee and abuses his mother. She tolerates it for several years. Finally, when he punches 12-year-old Joshua in the face, she summons the courage to leave him.

Safran writes that had the man tried to come back, there’s no doubt in his mind he would have killed him. He also writes that by securing Peagler’s release, he was able to prove to his 10-year-old self that at last, he had the courage to protect someone from abuse.

The memoir concludes with a very condensed version of how Safran goes to college and law school, marries, has three daughters and comes to Orthodox Judaism — rebelling against the way he was raised, of course. “You realize that you’re subscribing to a rule-based, patriarchal religion?” his mother asked him at the time.

“I hadn’t thought about it that way before but it made perfect sense,” he writes. “For a kid who grew up without rules and without a father, could there be anything better?”

For readers who want to know more about Safran’s teen years into adulthood, a follow-up is dependent on sales. Given the glowing review in Publisher’s Weekly, which called it “introspective, hilarious and heartbreaking,” and national appearances booked throughout the winter, it seems likely.


“Free Spirit: Growing Up on the Road and Off the Grid” by Joshua Safran (269 pages, Hyperion, $24.99)

Safran will speak at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 10 at Diesel Books, 5433 College Ave., Oakland, and 7 p.m. Sept. 17 at JCC of the East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. He has additional speaking engagements in the coming months; check for a full schedule.



Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."