Live Freed or Die
An Interview With Dolly Freed, Author of "Possum Living"
Dolly Freed is my hero. In 1978, at the age of 18, she wrote this smart, funny, and frank manifesto called Possum Living: How to Live Well Without a Job and With (Almost) No Money. In it, she explains how she and her dad (whom she refers to throughout the book as “the Old Fool”) lived on about $700 a year and had a jolly old time not having to answer to the Man. And it’s not like they were hippies or hillbillies either—as Dolly writes in her intro:
“Why is it that people assume one must be a hippie, or live in some dreary wilderness, or be a folksy, hard-working, back-to-nature soybean-and-yogurt freak in order to largely bypass the money economy? My father and I have a house on a half-acre lot 40 miles north of Philadelphia, PA (hardly a pioneer homestead), maintain a middle-class facade, and live well without a job or regular income—and without working hard, either.”
Doesn’t she sound cute? She then goes on to give step-by-step instructions on how to do everything from raising rabbits and chickens in your cellar to making your own moonshine to dealing with housing, transportation, health, the law... just about everything. It’s very thorough and detailed, yet very readable since she writes it all in such a sassy way (OK, I may have skipped the chapters on pickling and property-tax assessments). Throughout the book, she paints a portrait of herself and her dad as these lovable oddball characters—even when she’s giving detailed instructions on how to use rat traps to catch pigeons (for eating). She is incredibly opinionated and most of her advice is right-on. Her cure for depression? “Run till your eyeballs pop out.” Her cure for gas? Moonshine. Her cure for menstrual problems? Also moonshine! Sound advice.
The one chapter that gave me pause is the one on dealing with the law, in which Dolly suggests visiting your adversary’s house late at night, “to let him know he has an enemy who has no intention of playing the game by his rules.” She then goes on to subtly suggest you throw a brick through his window or kill his dog—but only if the dog is mean (“It’s no sin to kill a vicious creature”). Understandably, Dolly has written a retraction of that chapter in her new reprint (released this month by Tin House Books), but it still makes for a juicy read.
Dolly Freed (which, by the way, is a pseudonym, if you didn’t realize) is a fascinating lady, and you should read this book and also watch the short documentary about her that was made after Possum Living was first published (it’s on YouTube). If it doesn’t make you want to quit the rat race at least a little bit, then you must be one big, fat rat. Who likes to race. Or something like that. You know what I mean.
Oh yeah, and when Dolly got sick of possum living, she put herself through school and became a NASA aerospace engineer. No big deal.
Vice: First, I just wanted to tell you that I love the book.
Dolly: Oh! Thank you.
As a girl who grew up in the city, I’m jealous of you because I have no idea how to live by my own wits at all. It kind of freaks me out. So I really admire you and I’m curious about a lot of things. Like, what inspired you to write Possum Living in the first place?
Well, there were a couple of reasons. One is that I had dropped out of school when I was 12. So I always had this nervous feeling that I had to keep pushing my intellectual abilities. Also, the winters were really boring. We didn’t have a car. We didn’t have a phone. There wasn’t a lot to do when it was too cold to go outside, so it was a good wintertime project.
If you don’t mind my asking, how is it that an accomplished author and NASA aerospace engineer such as yourself dropped out of school in seventh grade?
I’m an outdoor person. In fact, as I’m talking to you, I’m walking around in my backyard. When I’m inside, I feel closed in, not as alert, and sometimes frustrated. As soon as I go outside, I relax. Also, I was definitely different from the other kids. We didn’t have a television growing up. I ate armadillos and stuff like that. I was very sensitive, and I got teased a lot. I’m kind of an intense person, so I was really wound up about school. It was a really not-right environment for me to be sitting at a little desk, cooped up all day long, with lots of annoying people.
And your parents were cool with you not going to school?
Well, the very last straw was that they had some kind of survey to fill out about your parents’ income and education. My dad refused to fill it out. The homeroom teacher gave me a very hard time about it. He was making my life miserable. I was coming home crying every day after school. So my dad called up the teacher and said, “Look, you have to stop this.” The teacher said, “Well, I have to have this form.” My dad said, “Well, I’m not going to fill it out.” The teacher said, “Why not? I filled it out.” My dad said, “Just because you’re an idiot doesn’t mean that I have to be one.” So that didn’t make the situation better.
At the time my parents had a candle business. My mom was there most of the day. She is a lot more conventional than my dad, so what happened is my dad asked me if I wanted to leave school, and of course there was nothing I wanted to do more. So he went to the principal and said that we were moving to California and that he would send for our records when we moved. We went around and said good-bye to all the teachers. Then I just stayed home. I stayed inside during the day and only went out when the kids were out, and my mom never even caught on for weeks.
Oh, wow. That’s pretty sneaky.
Of course, I wasn’t going to tell her because there was no way I was going back to school. So I just stayed inside and read and read and read. Eventually, a neighbor caught on and told my mom. But by then, it was sort of too late.
It seems like your dad was quite the firecracker. I wonder—the tone that comes through in the book is so incredibly confident for an 18-year-old girl—do you think you got that from him?
Yeah, I do. My dad was probably the smartest person I’ve ever known. He always had an independent streak and he saw society almost as a facade. After he married my mom, he had a nine-to-five job and he hated it for the same reasons I hated school: being in a building all the time, doing the same thing all the time. So when my mom opened the candle shop, he quit to help her. Then they got divorced. My mom left with my brother, and I stayed with my dad. We lived in a run-down house that we bought in foreclosure. We had been gardening and raising chicken and rabbits for a long time already, so it was just a case of “Well, we could just keep doing this!”
It sounds like you were a very mature teenager. Most teenagers want to run around with their friends and smoke cigarettes or something. Did you have that sort of desire?
Because I was given a mature position so early, I ended up rebelling kind of late—I would say in my 20s. And my rebellion was becoming more normal. In other words, I went to college, I got a job, I got a car. It’s hard to rebel when you’ve got your own still! You’ve got to go the other way to rebel.
So was it in your 20s that you stopped possum living?
Yeah, what happened is that after the book sold, the first thing we did was go out and buy a phone because we had to be able to talk with the publisher and the publicist. That was a big upgrade for us. Then I wanted to get a car. But once you’ve got a car, you’ve got to pay for it. So I got a job as a minor feature reporter for the local paper. See, one thing about possum living is that it’s really not that hard, and once you’ve mastered it, it’s not as if you can become more “possum-er.” So I think I was ready to take on new challenges, to see what else I could do, and to take part in a bigger world.
What was the reaction to the book like?
Very positive. The only thing people were upset about was the part about eating dogs. It’s not like I was advocating going out and eating dogs every day, but suppose you had a nasty, vicious dog and you had to kill it, you might as well go ahead and eat it. I believe that was the only thing I got hate mail about. And somehow some kids in our town figured out who we were and drove by our house shouting, “Dog eater! Dog eater!”
Aw, that’s terrible. But I have to say, it’s definitely something that kind of jumps out at you when you read the book. You discuss eating cats, too.
Well, yeah, but the only cat I remember eating was roadkill cat. I’ll tell you what—when you skin a cat, it stinks. I have never skinned an animal that had a more offensive body odor than cats.
Oh my gosh.
I have pet cats! I love pet cats! Don’t get me wrong. It was already dead in the wintertime. There wasn’t anything that was going to do good for that cat.
I suppose not.
You have to understand, we lived on a hill. It had a slow road going across and then it was semi country. So truckers came roaring through this neighborhood at 80 miles an hour. There was lots of roadkill! In the wintertime, in Pennsylvania, it’s so cold that roadkill is like taking something and sticking it in the freezer. We certainly ate our share of roadkill if it wasn’t smashed too much.
Well, you are definitely not squeamish! You have a whole chapter about how to kill and eat all kinds of animals, ranging from rabbits and ducks to groundhogs, ponies, and mountain lions. Did you really eat a mountain lion?
No, the mountain lion was a joke. But if you eat meat, and if killing it yourself is the only way you’re going to eat meat, you get over that squeamish business pretty fast. I am very fond of animals, actually. I have lots of pets. If our rabbits got sick or injured, it would upset me terribly. I didn’t want them to suffer. When we killed them, we did it very, very quickly—much nicer than any meat you could ever buy. I don’t even eat beef because I can’t stand how cows are raised and killed. So we would be very humane toward the animals we raised. Then, really, the point is that once they’re dead, they’re dead. Yeah, it’s kind of a messy process to clean them, but so is changing a baby’s diaper. After a certain point, it’s just one of the things you do in life, and you just get on with it.
I think it’s admirable. I’d never be able to do that.
I think my kids would have a very tough time with it, too. We did have chickens here for a while until the neighbors’ dog killed them. But we were just eating the eggs. They would have had a very hard time killing the chickens. Of course, chickens are so incredibly stupid that any attachment you’re having to them is anthropomorphic.
But chickens are fun. You can put them on your head and walk around with them like little chicken hats, and they’re just so comfy. And they come when you call them. I think that if I had to do it all over again, I would probably eat less meat. But I know those rabbits we raised had the best little rabbit lives they could have.
Do you think possum living is still possible today?
Oh, yes! In fact, when my husband retires, I think we’re going to go back. I don’t think we’re going to go full possum. I don’t want to fool with the rabbits. But yeah, I’m looking forward to it.
Your husband still works for NASA, but you don’t anymore?
I changed careers because after going through a lot as a NASA engineer, I realized I was sitting at a little desk in a little cubicle in a dark building all day long and that wasn’t what I wanted.
How did you decide to become an aerospace engineer? It just seems like the polar opposite of possum living.
Well, first of all, I read too much science fiction.
That’s the truth. Second of all, I was really good at math. So, you read up, you’re good at math—the one thing that everyone says is “Be an engineer.” I wanted to do something I felt was really important and would affect all mankind. Remember, I told you I was kind of an intense person. I had a huge amount of idealism.
Did you work on spaceships?
I worked on the shuttle.
I had two major projects there. One of them was something called “Spacehab” that was to make extra living space in the shuttle. Then what happened was the Challenger blew up. I was on part of the team that was helping to figure out what went wrong and how we would fix it. We all got flown out to Florida, and we got to see the debris. That was really tough. Then we came back and we started working on ideas. One of my projects was to see if we could come up with a way of replacing the O-rings that had caused the Challenger to explode. You’re probably too young to remember there was a big commission afterward to find out what had happened. What was going on was that a lot of people were covering their rear ends.
Yeah, I didn’t know that. I just remember watching it on TV in my grade school’s auditorium.
Well, the question was, did the cold weather (because it was a very, unusually cold day) affect the performance of the O-rings? Everyone was saying, “No, no, no!” because they were covering their rear ends. Richard Feynman, who was the Nobel Prize winner in physics, was on this commission. He took an O-ring and he stuck it in a glass of ice water, took it out, and snapped it. Then nobody could deny it. But all up the line, the management had just ignored the evidence. The reason is because Ronald Reagan was supposed to be doing his State of the Union speech that night. He wanted to be able to say, “We have civilians in space!” There was a lot of pressure to launch it. So they said, “We’re going to go ahead and launch it even though the weather’s too cold.” So, they went ahead and launched it, and it blew up. I felt like we had blown those people up—like we at NASA had failed those people. That completely took the wind out of my sails.
That’s why you left?
Yeah. That was a major part of why I left.
I don’t blame you.
Yeah, I couldn’t work in a big bureaucracy. I could not work at a place that would let that kind of thing happen.
So you switched careers?
Yeah. Of course, it was not as easy. There was all of this angst, like, “What am I going to do with my life?” It was not easy becoming a space engineer. I had worked really hard. I had school loans. My husband and I were living in a dinky little apartment so we could pay off all our loans and save up our money because we were both little thrifty bees. He said, “Look, just do what makes you happy.”
Meanwhile, I was volunteering on weekends at the local nature center. One way to tell what your career should be is if you like to volunteer at it. So I got a part-time job at the nature center and I loved it. I like to look under leaves, under rocks, in water, and in the trees and watch birds, insects, and butterflies. It’s like meditation to me. Then they needed teachers. At first, I thought I was going to hate it, but then I started teaching children’s classes, and I absolutely loved it. It turns out I was really, really good at it. There are many things that I’m very, very bad at. I can’t do art. I can’t do music. But I can take a bunch of kids outside and get them really enthusiastic and knowledgeable about nature. I mean, it’s practically what I was born to do.
Aw, that’s really inspiring. I envy that. All the advice you give in the afterword of the book about how to be happy with your life—it made me start to think about what the hell I’m doing.
Oh, good. I was a little worried about that because when I wrote the original, I was pretty cocky.
That’s what makes it so great, though. There are plenty of other books out there about how to be frugal, but this one was so fun to read. I finished the whole thing in one sitting because you wrote it in such a friendly and quirky tone. I think that’s what makes it stand out. And the cockiness—I don’t know how you got to be an 18-year-old with that much confidence! Girls are so self-conscious at that age. You refer to yourself as a “knockout.”
Well, I was.
I’m sure you were! Did your friends and boyfriends think your lifestyle was weird?
Well, yeah, they did. But they liked it! It was a break from the confines of normal civilization. You come visit me, we don’t watch TV together, but we go swimming in the creek. I might take you fishing. We’ll play poker and throw peanut shells on the floor, stay up late…
When you go back and read the book now, is there anything you wrote that makes you laugh or cringe?
Well, one is the chapter about law. I was like, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe I ever wrote that.”
Yeah, I was going to ask about that. You advocate taking the law into your own hands in some pretty risky ways. Did you ever end up getting into any trouble?
Well, I never did. It was more my dad who was doing that kind of stuff. I might sometimes accompany him, but I would say that what I’ve learned—and I wrote this in the afterword—is that trying to threaten people to get what you want is not really a good idea. It might work in the short term, but in the long run, it’s not going to help and it makes you a nasty person. So when they approached me about the reprint, I said we had to have a retraction for that. Anyway, I never got in any trouble, but after I left home, my dad did get in trouble with the law.
Right, you wrote that he burned some houses down to stop developers from building on preserved land?
Yeah, he did. Fortunately, there was nobody in them. They were still being built. But aside from being a really nasty thing to do, it wasn’t even effective.
They just rebuilt the houses.
So they caught him for that?
No, they never caught him. Not for that. He got caught for threatening somebody and was sent to jail. This was long after I left home. I don’t want to live my life that way. That was part of my rebellion: leaving home and becoming law-abiding! Well, mostly law-abiding.
Funny. Once you left home, was there anything that you indulged in that you had never had before but always wanted?
Oh, sushi! When they sent me on my book tour, I had sushi for the first time in New York. That was a big bonus. Then I went to some clubs. There was one that had a circus theme going. It was a drag club. It blew my mind! We didn’t have anything like that in our little town. I liked to dance, so it was fun. I think nowadays I would be a little more cautious, but back then I would approach people I didn’t know, and they would give me a tour of Central Park or take me to a club.
Didn’t you go on some talk shows as well?
Oh, yeah. They were hilarious. I did a lot of local TV stations. I did radio. I did Merv Griffin. There was also a documentary done about possum living. If you think I’m cocky, you should see me on TV.
Have your kids read the book?
My son never finished reading it. He’s borderline ADD. My daughter read the book and was like, “How come I don’t get to run a still?”
I think you get some of that cockiness rubbed off of you as you get older. Most of what I wrote still applies. I’ve incorporated most of it into my life on a regular, ongoing basis. I’m not raising rabbits in the cellar now, but I care about how animals are raised and eaten, and I’ve always had a garden, and I’ve always cared about how I live my life. But I know that I’m a little more cautious than I used to be. I’m hoping that doesn’t sound like a bit of a letdown, because as you get older, you see more things happen. It is not a good idea to terrorize people. Bad! Bad!
Haha, yeah, I get that. But aside from the terrorizing-people part, and maybe the eating-cats part, your book is very inspiring to me. If I quit my job, it’s your fault.
My fault! I don’t know if they let you have rabbits in the cellar in New York—
Well, there’s Central Park—
There you go! Lots of pigeons.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF DOLLY FREED