I was born into a coven of witches in a commune in the Haight-Ashbury in 1975. My mother, Claudia, and her lesbian witch sisters saw themselves as reclaiming culture and religion from the domineering hands of men. They were changing history to herstory and worshiping the Goddess and a whole pantheon of female spirits with the help of psychedelic mushrooms and LSD.
We eventually left the coven behind and took to the road in search of a rural utopia. By the time I was 10 we had hitchhiked for thousands of miles and befriended hundreds of remarkably strange people. Claudia and I had danced around bonfires and lived in vans, buses, and an ice cream truck. We still hadn't found utopia, but Claudia believed she had finally found a partner in a man named Leopoldo. He was a former guerrilla fighter and brought with him demons from the Salvadoran civil war and a serious drinking problem. My mother was convinced he was a messianic revolutionary hero she had foretold in clairvoyant visions. I was pretty sure he was going to kill us.
Claudia–a self-described militant feminist–never chose to become a victim of domestic violence, she just ended up that way, Leopoldo leading her by the hand into greater darkness with every step. When she first met him, Leopoldo was Rambo and the Dalai Lama all in one–a soft-spoken leader of men, a shaman, a poet, and a healer. He was 10 years my mother's junior, and he often told her that all his suffering at the hands of the American-backed death squads was worth it because, somehow, it had led him to her. "You are all that matter," he sang to her. He taught her to cook and to dance, and he cried when he told her what they had done to him in the torture chambers.
He struggled with PTSD, flashbacks and nightmares. When he began lashing out at Claudia, he did so unwittingly, like a wounded animal. Rages, slaps, and a black eye or two–it was all part of the healing process. We were Americans, after all, and Leopoldo was the victim of American foreign policy, so it was something like our fault that he had been brutalized in the first place. At times, Leopoldo's psychological suffering was so bad he had to resort to drink to mask the pain. This led to increasingly psychotic drunk driving episodes, often with me in the car, and fights with the cops. During those violent episodes, I was ashamed that I could not defend my mother.
After one of his arrests, Leopoldo emerged from jail ashen and trembling. They were going to deport him, he told us, and that would be a death sentence. Of all the revolutionary commanders on the death squad hit list, his name was at the top. The moment his foot hit the tarmac back at Cuscatlán airport in San Salvador, he would be drilled through the back of the head by a government bullet. My mother felt she had no choice but to save the life of the man she loved. They were married a few weeks later in an ancient Egyptian occult ceremony of Leopoldo's design. Claudia had never worn makeup before–she thought it was sexist–but she wore it on her wedding day to conceal the bruise on her cheekbone and the black eye.
As the cycles of violence escalated, we found ourselves further and further isolated from society, socially and economically under his control. By the time I was 12, I had began confronting Leopoldo, preparing to kill him, or be killed. Something about seeing him punch me in the face woke Claudia from a long fugue state. It was all right for him to beat the hell out of her, but not me. Not her boy. We hid out for a summer in a stranger's basement and then moved farther north onto a commune by the Canadian border where I began training for a day of confrontation that never came. I eventually made my way to observant Judaism, college, and law school, burying the past behind me as I went, but still carrying a grudge.
It wasn't until years later when I took on the case of Deborah Peagler, a battered woman sentenced to life in prison for killing her abuser, that I began to heal. I was able to prove to my 10 year-old self that I had the strength and courage to protect someone like my mother. As I gazed through the prison bars, I was finally thankful that I was the visiting attorney. I just as easily could have been the convicted killer.
Joshua Safran is an author, attorney and nationally recognized advocate for survivors of domestic violence. His seven-year legal odyssey to free a battered woman from prison was featured in the award-winning film Crime After Crime, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Safran’s memoir, Free Spirit: Growing Up on the Road and Off the Grid (Hyperion/Hachette), chronicles his remarkable childhood on the dark side of the Age of Aquarius.