Frida Berrigan sat straight up at the long dinner table. She was 12. Her younger brother Jerry and little sister Kate alternately jabbered and listened respectfully. It was a large table because her home was a community founded by her parents, Jonah House, in a tough neighborhood in Baltimore. Frida was the oldest child, clearly wise beyond her years as she sat eating, daughter of the most famous nonviolent resistance couple in US history except Martin and Coretta King. Before dinner the network news came on in the living room. Frida’s father, Phil Berrigan, waved us all into the small room, and sat down right next to the TV and turned it on precisely as the news started. All was quiet and the broadcast drudged through some latest foreign policy disaster. At the end of the national news, Phil, still sitting next to the TV, reached out and snapped it off, turning to me and meeting my eyes with his famous piercing look, “Shameless, Tom. They’re shameless.” And that was that. Kids knew better than to ask; no more TV until tomorrow evening news.
Now Frida has become a mother herself and written a sweet book (It Runs in the Family: On being raised by radicals and growing into rebellious motherhood) about her childhood, her mother and father, their community, the many purposeful lessons as seen by a child of that marriage and that community, and of her own journey into motherhood.
Like her mother, Frida chose a movement man, Patrick Sheehan-Gaumer as her husband, but unlike her parents, both she and Patrick are noteworthy second-generation peace figures. Patrick’s mom is in the leadership of the War Resisters League and WRL International. His father, Rick, is a very liberated man who stands down from leadership and offers amazing movement and organizational support. So Frida and Patrick have parents who are authentic, inspiring leaders and Frida writes of their own struggle to identify and situate themselves in the world of peace and justice and a strong family life.
Berrigan is a much more readable writer than either of her two illustrious (but heart-attack serious) parents. Phil passed on 10 years ago and was a straightforward writer, quoted by Frida to give a flavor of his approach to blending community with family with activism. Liz McAlister, matriarch of Jonah House and the Atlantic Life Community, is a careful writer, someone who, like Phil, was always persuading and justifying and dismantling the malefactions of militarism. Frida writes with far more bonhomie and lovely transparency. I recommend all readings by all three.
I was laughing by page four and crying by page 16. I’m a slow reader but this one was all read up quickly. I’m making it a supplementary text in my Participating in Democracy class. Frida gives her readers a grounding in a livingscape of resistance, a map of possibilities for parenting for peace and justice without making a single claim that she is something special.
But she is. This is a tender but frank recollection of a childhood in tumultous times in the house that was Ground Zero of nonviolent resistance to the war in Vietnam, to nuclear weapons, and Frida carried it on to found a movement against torture and to try to shut down the prisons at Guantanamo. She reveals a great deal. I loved her parents for decades and came to love and admire Frida as she carved out her own identity as a brilliant young arms analyst for a think tank, and then a Catholic Worker. Now she’s home with babies herself. She brings a different balance to it all than her pioneering mother, and explains her learnings exquisitely in this little book.
Tom H. Hastings is a mentee of Frida Berrigan’s parents, offering two acts of nonviolent Plowshares resistance in the movement her folks founded. He is a professor in the Conflict Resolution department at Portland State University and directs PeaceVoice.