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It Runs in the Family

ON BEING RAISED BY RADICALS AND GROWING INTO REBELLIOUS MOTHERHOOD


FRIDA BERRIGAN

"A moving chronicle of the things that make for love and peace, elegantly written by a woman who knows more than most about both. How to balance family, children, intimate partnership with urgent rescue of the gravely endangered planet? With wit, stark honesty, and deep compassion, Frida Berrigan suggests a simple answer, drawing on the bliss and grit of her own life as a mother — and as an activist. ...This book matters enormously."
                              —James Carroll, author of Christ Actually: The Son of God in the Secular Age

"I love Frida Berrigan's voice--profound yet warm, gentle and fierce, deeply intelligent, authentic and charming. I wish this lovely, wise, and totally original book had been around when I was raising my child."
                             —Anne Lamott, author of Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers and
                                                                     Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair

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About the Book

Parenting is hard. So is being a peacemaker in a violent world. It Runs in the Family is a book about how parents can create lasting and meaningful bulwarks between their kids and the violence endemic in our culture. It posits discipline without spanks or slaps or threats of violence, while considering how to raise thoughtful, compassionate, fearless young people committed to social and political change — without scaring, hectoring or scarring them with all the wrongs in the world.

Frida Berrigan is a mother and stepmother, wife and daughter. Her parents, Phil Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister, were a former priest and nun who became nationwide icons for their prophetic witness against war and nuclear weapons, which sometimes resulted in long jail sentences. Berrigan grew up in the community they helped found, Jonah House in Baltimore, and becoming a parent herself has forced her to come to terms with her own upbringing in new ways.

Expanding on the stories in her popular column for the website Waging Nonviolence, Berrigan has crafted a welcome antidote to the various parenting fads currently on offer from French moms and tiger moms and mean moms. She offers a unique perspective on parenting that derives from hard work, deep reflection, and lots of trial and error.

Publication January 22, 2015 • 206 pages, including 7 black & white photographs
Paperback ISBN 978-1-939293-65-7 • E-book 978-1-939293-66-4

About the Author

Photograph © Sean D. Elliot

Frida Berrigan serves on the board of The War Resisters League, a 90-year-old pacifist organization, and helped to found Witness Against Torture, a nonviolent direct action group focused on shutting down Guantánamo and ending torture. She long served as a researcher at the New America Foundation’s Arms and Security Initiative in New York City, writing and speaking on the topic of militarism. She lived at the New York Catholic Worker before moving to New London, CT with her husband Patrick Sheehan-Gaumer. Patrick is a social worker, second-generation peace activist and father to their 7-year-old daughter Rosena Jane. Their son Seamus Philip was born in July 2012 and Frida became a stay-at-home mom. Their daughter Madeline Vida was born in February 2014. While the baby naps or plays, she writes the “Little Insurrections” blog for Waging Nonviolence, tends a few plots at the community garden and helps keep a busy household on its toes.

Read an Excerpt

From IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY

Can you be fully committed to changing the world and change diapers at the same time? Can you be a nonviolent revolutionary and a present, loving role model for your children? Can you hold the macro—justice and peace and the big issues of the day—in one hand and the micro—boppies, wipes, third-grade science projects, and playground politics—in the other? My parents did not think so, and did not plan on having children.

Father Philip Berrigan, a Josephite priest, and Sister Elizabeth McAlister of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, both peace and civil rights activists, met at a funeral in 1966. Each of them was fully committed to revolution inside the church and throughout society. They fell in love, married, and were excommunicated. They faced long jail sentences and long court proceedings, and endured the harsh burn of the media spotlight. They formed Jonah House, a new community to support and nurture lives of resistance and prayer and to replace the religious orders that failed to evolve with them. They did not see kids as part of that picture, but then I came along. My brother Jerry followed a year later, and seven years after that our sister Kate was born. So much for natural family planning.

It was not what my parents expected or planned, but it was all we knew. And it was pretty strange and kind of messy. There were ten adults and half that many kids, all living together in a tall skinny row house with a tiny yard in the middle of Baltimore. Our food was bought in bulk or salvaged from dumpsters and always shared with hundreds of hungry neighbors. The mice, cockroaches, and moths loved our abundant, haphazardly stored provisions. The calendar was chock-full of meetings, demonstrations, and arrests. In the bitter cold, driving rain, stultifying heat (and, occasionally, on a gorgeous, balmy spring day) we picketed the White House, vigiled the Pentagon, harangued the Department of Energy (which oversees U.S. nuclear weapons), and protested the Capitol. We spent a lot of time in court houses too.

My mom and dad estimated that they spent eleven years of their twenty-nine-year marriage separated by prison. We celebrated birthdays, graduations, and other milestones in prison visiting rooms. A lot of our family communication happened through letters. But over the years, we built and maintained deep, loving relationships, even when separated by bars and chain-link fences, and across distances great and small.

In June of 2011, I married Patrick Sheehan-Gaumer. We have three kids and now that I have a family of my own, I really appreciate my parents. They set the bar so high. They were able to be peace activists, conscientious human beings, inspiring leaders, nonviolent revolutionaries…and good parents. They raised three complicated, thoughtful, driven people who are striving to lead meaningful, loving, integrated lives.

I cannot replicate the circumstances of my upbringing—nor would I want to. But I have so much to learn from my parents about how to listen to the still small voice of conscience within amid the cacophony of children.

 

. . . . I did not know my father as a priest. The old black-and-white photos of the handsome, well-dressed cleric do not fit neatly next to the grizzled housepainter and working man I knew as my father. But I did understand my dad as a person struggling to be faithful, as one whose deliberations were studded with Biblical insights.

My dad’s advice in every situation was drawn from his faith, which was a lived, applied, and practical discipline. His faith was never taken for granted. It was a tool he used, again and again, to carve hope out of despair, light out of darkness, community out of alienation.

In October of 1968 (six-and-a-half years before I was born), my dad was on trial—along with eight others—for burning and pouring blood on the paperwork of war, the draft files that sent young men off to Vietnam. They were called the Catonsville Nine. He would be sentenced to three-and-a-half years in jail.

This is what he told the judge:

From those in power we have met little understanding, much silence; much scorn and punishment. We have been accused of arrogance. But what of the fantastic arrogance of our leaders? What of their crimes against the people, the poor and powerless? Still no court will try them, no jail will receive them. They live in righteousness. They will die in honor. For them we have one message, for those in whose manicured hands the power of the land lies, we say to them: Lead us. Lead us in justice and there will be no need to break the law. Let the president do what his predecessors failed to do. Let him obey the rich less and the people more. Let him think less of the privileged and more of the poor. Less of America and more of the world. Let lawmakers, judges, and lawyers think less of the law, and more of justice; less of legal ritual, more of human rights. To our bishops and superiors we say: Learn something about the gospel and something about illegitimate power. When you do, you will liquidate your investments, take a house in the slums, or even join us in jail….

Again and again, throughout his life, in courts all over the country, my father stood resolute and righteous before power. He would accept the consequences of his actions without flinching. My brother and sister and I watched him walk into prison fearless and full of joy more times than we can count.

He was a fearless activist, but he was also a father who made fearsome oatmeal—flavorless hot muck designed to “stick to your ribs.” When it came to this particular abuse of power, my siblings and I played the impassioned activists and he was the heartless and impassive judge.

But, rather than be late for school, we ate the oatmeal and pulled our stocking hats low over our ears as instructed before leaving the house. He would watch us for two blocks to make sure the hats stayed on. Try telling the man who does not blink at a five-year prison sentence that only geeks wear winter hats.

My mom is fearless too. For instance, she’s always touching things in museums, in defiance of the signs prohibiting this. Otherwise enjoyable afternoons at the National Gallery or the American Visionary Art Museum have been marred by me hissing at my mom and pointing out the “Do Not Touch” signs.

Unfortunately, the same person who cuts through a military fence emblazoned with “No Trespassing” signs and festooned with barbed wire in order to disarm nuclear weapons delivery systems, forcing a confrontation with young military personnel authorized to use deadly force, is unlikely to be intimidated by “Do Not Touch” signs at museums watched by security guards in ill-fitting uniforms.

When my brother and I were little, we got our bikes stolen a lot. We were easy marks: white, pudgy, and well-meaning, living in a tall crowded row house full of other well-meaning people.

“Hey shorty, lemme hold that bike.” We would “share,” then the bike would be gone. We were always afraid to go home without our bikes because it meant getting into the car with mom and searching the neighborhood. We begged her to just buy us new bikes, but it never worked.

No matter how big and intimidating the boys who “held” our bikes were to us, they seemed small as they handed our bikes back to our mom after mutely enduring her condemnation. They might have mumbled or glared as she stowed the rusty old bikes in the back of the car, but they did it quietly and behind her back.

It was not just neighborhood kids who faced our mom’s fearsomeness. Once, demonstrating against war and nuclear proliferation at the White House, mom held onto the end of her banner with her teeth as the police twisted her arm behind her back and cuffed her.

She is tough, but as kids we also watched her joke with the Pentagon workers and the police. Handing out leaflets, she would address anyone in uniform as “General” or “Admiral.” Even the toughest patriot had to smile at this energetic sprite’s cheerful irreverence. It did not mean they took the dense, anti-militarist tract she was handing out, but sometimes just getting them to smile was more important.

I leaned on that fierceness even as an adult. When I sunk a thousand dollars into a lemon of a car a few years after college graduation, she took me to the mechanic and convinced him to give me my money back and keep the car. I was floored that he actually agreed to it, and I was shaken by her power. I had been ready to walk away from the money the same way I had wanted to walk away from my bike all those times.

She’s just one of those people who makes things happen. Using plans that she copied out of a library book, she built loft beds in our rooms and a play loft above a sandbox in our miniature backyard when we were little. The sandbox quickly became the neighborhood cats’ favorite spot to poop, but the playscape was awesome and helped to anchor us and our neighborhood friends at home at a time when lots of kids were just wandering the streets.

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