'One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star'- Nietzsche
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Monthly Archives: September 2015

On Being Raised by Radicals and Growing into Rebellious Motherhood

by Frida Berrigan

OR Books (2014)

193 pages

Available in paperback and online

Our Father, Who Art in Prison 

By John Kendall Hawkins

Partly a memoir on being raised in a communal environment, partly a desideratum on child-rearing in an era of conspicuous consumption and endless war, Frida Berrigan’s It Runs In The Family is marvelous little book that is full of guileless reminiscing and plain-spoken observations about the challenges of raising children to be conscientious and “morally cheerful” in the world, while still nurturing their creativity and the need to discover the world for themselves.

Frida is the oldest daughter of former priest Phillip Berrigan and former nun Elizabeth McAlister, who met at a funeral in 1966, fell in love, got married, and proceed to be excommunicated by the Catholic church.  The pair were virtual legends in the late 60s for their many determined anti-war activities, which included throwing blood at the Pentagon in protest of the carnage in Viet Nam, an act with powerful sacramental symbolism attached to it that stirred the entire Catholic community. Phillip’s most famous protest came in 1968 when he and eight others, including his brother Daniel, another ex-priest, trespassed on a selective service facility in Pennsylvania and poured blood on and burned draft records, in an act that literally saved lives.  They became renowned as the Catonsville Nine.

So committed to resistance to the war were the Berrigan brothers and Frida’s mother, that they were spending a great deal of time serving prison sentences.  And this is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of It Runs In The Family  — how the Berrigans managed to continue raising their children (Frida and her brother) while continuing to protest and be imprisoned.  What they did was start up Jonah House, a kind of shifting commune devoted to non-violence and peace where other protesters with children converged and they took turns looking after each other’s children while resisters were in jail. Jonah House is still vibrant today.

In a marvelous quotation from her parents’ book, The Time’s Discipline, Frida lays down, without comment, a sense of her parents’ priorities, with respect to her coming into the world: “Throughout Lent of that year, [we] mounted a series of direct actions connecting the war in Indochina with North America’s support of tyrants abroad and with the war against the poor at home. [Chilean president Salvador] Allende had been assassinated with CIA and NSA support. This we exposed in the only demonstration held at NSA headquarters. Holy Week brought the first action in which actors faced serious consequences (longer jail terms) at the Vietnamese Overseas Procurement Office. Holy Week also brought the birth of Frida Berrigan, our first daughter.”

In what is surely unique in the annals of growing up, Frida describes the prison absences thusly: “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.” Eventually, Phillip and Elizabeth managed to stagger their jailings so that one of them was always caretaking at home.

Frida doesn’t pretend that this situation always pleased her; indeed, she relates that sometimes she hated the absence of her parents, although, she says, being around other morally likeminded adults in their absence, who also went to jail, made her appreciate her parents’ integrity and commitment to just causes. Even now, as a mother herself, she says of her parents, “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.”

A central concern of the book, with respect to child-rearing, is summed up in a series of questions Frida poses to herself: “What do we teach children by our words and actions, and what do we want children to learn? How can I be a parent who is learning alongside my marvelous child rather than imposing my vision of the world on her little shoulders? How can I be a parent who makes the world safe, beautiful, and governed by some logic, while still being honest about its morass of problems and our responsibility for all of it?” These are all core questions that any parents of conscience struggle with.

Frida helped found Witness Against Torture, and activist campaign to shut down the activities of the US military prison at Guantanamo, Cuba, where horrific tales of torture and other extreme abuses have now been documented and publicly revealed.  In 2005, Frida led 25 protesters to the gates of Guantanamo, and hoped to gain entry, only to be rebuffed.  

She took a special interest in the plight of 14 prisoners who were young teens when they were handed over by bounty hunters to US forces and imprisoned indefinitely, without charges, in Guantanamo. The treatment of one, in particular, moves her: “Mohamed el Gharani was fourteen when he was arrested in an October 2001 raid on a religious school in Pakistan. Transferred to Guantánamo a few months later, he was subjected to routine abuse. According to his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, the Chad-born teenager had been singled out for mistreatment because he vocally objected to being called “nigger.” This should be a Code Red for America.

I feel a strong personal resonance in response to this narrative. Long before American secular Jews kidnapped me in childhood and turned me into a punchy little humanist, my young yearning soul belonged to the Jesuits of Boston and the brothers of LaSallette.  The Catholic clergy were a force to be reckoned with in the Sixties, leading protests against the general carnage in Viet Nam, leading non-violent marches for social justice, and keeping the Church in crisis for nearly a decade with their flock rousing. Priests were being excommunicated left and right, only inflating their value to communities grateful for leaders willing to risk everything to sustain fragile human values.

One of the strongest memories of my childhood is an image of a virile and disconsolate LaSallette brother Chick, weeping on a bench in the summer camp kitchen after being told that a regular at the drop-in center he’d started had overdosed on heroin.  And if all that her book represented was a reminiscence of those glory days of Catholic activism, and walking the gospel of Jesus, rather than merely talking the Talk, it would still be a worthwhile read for its refreshing splashes of honesty, plain-speak, historical insight, and genuine sense of jubilation.  

What Berrigan demonstrates is that you needn’t be part of a Marxist intellectual hierarchy, steeped in dialectics, in order to commit to action that will help change the world for the better; that most things that need changing require simple and direct actions, not nuances of ideology. And that you can raise your children to be “morally cheerful” (glad to help) and to “play a part in resolving, rather than exacerbating, the problems of the world.”  A lovely book, with a genuine smile.