"Well, I was born into a coven of witches in a commune in the Haight Ashbury in 1975," Joshua Safran said, utterly nonchalantly, when asked to say a little something about his background. This is all of thirty seconds into our interview and you can practically hear his straight-facedness through the phone.
This exchange alone tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Safran as a storyteller, actually — namely, that he has quite the story to tell, but also that he has a rare gift for narration, for unvarnishedness, for what Publishers Weekly described in its starred review of his memoir, Free Sprit, as the ability to "[recall] events without condemnation or condescension." "That was really important to me," he said. "I wanted to tell this story in a way that was nonjudgmental."
Which was smart, and which sets the book apart: Even Safran will admit that memoirs — especially ones about unconventional childhoods, childhoods like his — are a dime a dozen, but Free Spirit feels truly, mercifully different. In Safran's hands, even the book's most bizarre and wryly funny anecdotes ("walking on coals on the side of Mount Shasta," attending a Burning Man-esque Rainbow Gathering as a six-year-old, various other oddities of a childhood spent off the grid, hitchhiking across the West with his revolution-seeking, counterculture-worshipping mother, sleeping in vans and buses and tents and, once, an ice cream truck) are never rendered glibly or cheaply. And likewise, Free Spirit's very-real darkness (Safran's mother's marriage to an abusive, alcoholic Central American guerilla; the pain — physical and emotional — engendered by going to formal school for the first time at the age of eleven) are never maudlin or mawkish. The experiences do exactly what they should do, which is speak for themselves.
According to Safran, his publisher has taken to describing the book as "the dark side of the Age of Aquarius" — which is sort of perfect in its book-jacket pithiness, but which doesn't fully get at what makes Free Spirit — and its author — so compelling: It's not just about the darkness but also the light. It's about good intentions; about experiences that make us who we are; about, literally, the search for utopia. It certainly helps that Safran made it out okay — he's now an accomplished Oakland attorney, advocate for survivors of domestic violence, and father of three; he also remains close to his mother — but Free Spirit is, ultimately, an optimistic book. "It's just a totally absurd world," he said. "I'm either blessed or cursed." Measured unvarnishdness aside, it's clear which of these two options Safran thinks he is.
Safran will appear at Diesel (4533 College Ave., Oakland) on Tuesday, September 10 (7 p.m., free; DieselBookstore.com); and at the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay (1414 Walnut St., Berkeley) on Tuesday, September 17 (7 p.m., $8, $10; JCCEastBay.org).