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Genesis of a Memoir: How I Came to Write My Story

In the fall of 1986, I was ten years old, and I found myself sleeping on the muddy ground of a temperate rainforest on an island in Washington State. The muddy bed was supposed to be temporary. My alcoholic Salvadoran stepfather was building a wooden pyramid for us to live in, one that would channel the occult magic of ancient Egypt. My mother was convinced he was the messianic revolutionary hero she had foretold in clairvoyant visions. Before the pyramid could reach its glorious completion, however, my stepfather threatened to kill the neighbors in a drunken rage. We had to break camp hurriedly, before the cops arrived, struggling down the trail with our most prized possessions. The first thing I evacuated out of the mud was my crate of journals, the repositories for my creative writing and poetry. My correspondence with myself was often my only form of friendship, my only mechanism for processing the chaos and violence around me, and, most fundamentally, the only proof that I ever existed. I wrote to live...

In the fall of 1986, I was ten years old, and I found myself sleeping on the muddy ground of a temperate rainforest on an island in Washington State. The muddy bed was supposed to be temporary. My alcoholic Salvadoran stepfather was building a wooden pyramid for us to live in, one that would channel the occult magic of ancient Egypt. My mother was convinced he was the messianic revolutionary hero she had foretold in clairvoyant visions.

Before the pyramid could reach its glorious completion, however, my stepfather threatened to kill the neighbors in a drunken rage. We had to break camp hurriedly, before the cops arrived, struggling down the trail with our most prized possessions. The first thing I evacuated out of the mud was my crate of journals, the repositories for my creative writing and poetry. My correspondence with myself was often my only form of friendship, my only mechanism for processing the chaos and violence around me, and, most fundamentally, the only proof that I ever existed. I wrote to live.

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Column by Joshua Safran, an author and attorney and was featured in the
award-winning documentary Crime After Crime (Sundance, OWN). His first
book, FREE SPIRIT: GROWING UP ON THE ROAD AND OFF THE GRID
was published by Hyperion/Hachette on September 10, 2013. In its starred
review of Free Spirit, Publishers Weekly concluded that "Safran, an attorney,
has written a beautiful, powerful memoir that shows how a son and his
mother both grew up and survived amid chaos. Even better, he recalls
events without condemnation or condescension. This assured debut
is reminiscent of David Sedaris's and Augusten Burroughs's best
work: introspective, hilarious, and heartbreaking."

It was only natural, of course, that I would write a book about my remarkably unconventional childhood. Yet I hesitated–for years. I grew up, became a successful lawyer, and relentlessly pursued the American Dream. And I always wrote: scholarly articles, humor, fiction. But my story lay dormant.

The courage to write Free Spirit: Growing Up On the Road and Off the Grid was born in a maximum security prison for women. I was in the prison to meet with my pro bono client, Deborah, a woman serving a life sentence for the murder of the man who had tortured and battered her for years. When I took the case, I naively thought that obtaining Deborah's release would be easy. Under a new law, essentially all she had to do was tell her story of abuse. But, not surprisingly, Deborah didn't feel comfortable talking about all of the most horrible things that had ever happened to her. Not in a public document, not in front of a judge. Not even with me. "I can't help you if you won't help yourself," I advised her early on, feeling very wise and lawyerly. But she didn't trust me – I was, after all, a man. And she wasn't going to talk to another man about what he had done to her.

A year went by, and Deborah was still only talking about the buildup to the beatings and the aftermath – everything but the details of the abuse itself. “It was crazy,” Deborah said, shaking her head. “The next day I’d be walking around the house like this.” She held an imaginary raw steak up to the side of her head to bring down the swelling. This image was instantly recognizable to me, and it sent me plunging into my own deeply buried past.

“My mother used to do the same thing,” I remembered out loud. “Steak on the eye, steak on the cheek. Her whole face was a wreck.”

Deborah dropped her reenactment in midsentence and narrowed her eyes at me. "Was it your father?"

"Stepfather."

I had crossed the line between professional and personal, but this inadvertent breach in the attorney-client relationship achieved something my lawyering never could. We spent the next two hours swapping stories back and forth, talking like a couple of veterans showing each other their scars around the kitchen table. When I left the prison, my yellow legal pad was full of the testimony I needed to prove her case.

Shortly thereafter, the San Francisco Chronicle called, wanting to run a profile about Deborah's legal team. I'd been pitching story after story to the media to help in Deborah's case, but this was one interview I didn't want to do. How could I resurrect my memories of violence and powerlessness, spill them into the paper of record, and watch them pollute the hushed white-carpeted halls of my corporate law firm? It was unthinkable.

"Why don't you want to do the article?" Deborah was puzzled.

"The problem is," I said, looking down at my hands, "if we open it up to be about the lawyers, we could lose control over the story.

"Are you afraid to talk about what happened to you and your mom?

"Well," I mumbled, "it wouldn't be very professional."

"Are you kidding me!?" She was angry. "After all the things you told me? How I had nothing to be ashamed of, how it wasn't my fault, how the world needed to learn from my story so that the cycles of violence would stop? How are you any different?"

I had to concede that I wasn't any different and, as I walked out of the prison, an opening chapter began composing itself in my head.

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