Review: It Runs in the Family

By Alice Bach

It Runs in the Family: On Being Raised by Radicals and Growing into Rebellious Motherhood by Frida Berrigan, O/R Press, 2015.

23154612A book cover with the words Berrigan and radical on it would certainly attract a Sixties loyalist like me.  As soon as I started to read news reports about the first Plowshares action on September 9, 1980, at the General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, I was hooked. After intensive spiritual preparation, nonviolence training, and community formation, eight activists armed only with hammers and vials of their own blood broke into the plant where the nose cones for the Mark 12A nuclear warheads were manufactured and enacted the biblical prophesy of Isaiah 2:4 to “beat your swords into plowshares.” For the next twenty years I was an admirer and sometimes protester. I’ve never had the courage to risk a long prison sentence though.

The US Plowshares movement coalesced around three charismatic leaders, Phil Berrigan a Josephite priest who died in 2002, his brother, the Jesuit priest and poet Dan Berrigan, who at the age of 93 is no longer active in the Movement, and Liz McAlister, a former Sacred Heart of Mary nun who continues to protest the US worship of the “gods of metal.” The Berrigan brothers’ and McAlister’s faithful leadership was guided by the principles formulated over their years at Jonah House, the Baltimore resistance community Liz and Phil founded in 1973. Jonah House,  a world-renowned Gospel-based community of peace activists devoted to ending the use of death-dealing weapons, still exists today.

The US Plowshares groups break into military bases and weapons production sites to call for disarmament and the abolition of war.  Activists have faced significant repression and lengthy prison sentences. Phil Berrigan spent about 11 years in prison for various actions. But their commitment to the work has never been diluted. While many of the Sixties peace groups disbanded after the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, the Plowshares activists persist, quietly, dedicated to reminding citizens and politicians that nuclear weapons continue to pose a devastating threat to all humanity.

On Thanksgiving 1983, at the Rome Air Force Base, the group known as the Griffiss Plowshares hammered on “a god of metal,” the B-52 bomber. Liz left Phil and their three children in Baltimore, and, along with three women and three men, committed a dramatic act for the children of the world. As punishment for this act, she spent three years at Aldersen Federal Prison.  Today, McAlister and other Plowshares people are committed to ending the use of the newest god of metal, the drone.  Many people scorn these actions. “Do they really think they can destroy them all t ?” they ask.

But physically destroying all the weapons of war has never been the focus of this group’s nonviolent direct action.  Rather, their purpose is a combination of the service to the Gospel and to suffering people, an assertion of each community member’s faith and the desire to act out that faith by resisting warfare, and other state-sponsored forms of killing: capital punishment, lack of medical care, proper housing and nutrition for the poor, and the prisons, which Phil Berrigan described as places designed to silence dissent.  “We torture men and women in order to make them kinder and more productive,” he told his audiences. “We execute human beings to teach our children respect for human life.”

As in all things the old order changes, yielding place to new.  In the last thirty years, the gods of metal have continued to proliferate with the invention of new and more efficient killing machines. At the same time, a second generation of committed radicals, following a Gospel-inspired nonviolent way of life, has come together, in a loosely coordinated network of intentional communities, many of them members of Catholic Worker houses. Continuing a general pattern of prayer, reflection, and nonviolent direct disarmament actions connected to the Plowshares teachings, the new activists focus on the same goal, to end warfare before the nuclear winter descends upon the earth, and to make the world a place for all children to thrive.

As US militarism changed focus after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, some of the new radicals have also shifted their attention, standing witness for the prisoners at Guantanamo, who are not able to speak for themselves, possibly influenced by Liz McAlister’s weekly witness against capital punishment in front of the Baltimore Courthouse.

Liz McAlister holds onto a banner with her teeth while being arrested at the White House in 1979. (Elmer Maas Plowshares Collection)

Liz McAlister holds onto a banner with her teeth while being arrested at the White House in 1979. (Elmer Maas Plowshares Collection)

Once again a Berrigan is in the thick of the nonviolent direct action. Phil and Liz’s eldest child Frida is a founding member of Witness Against Torture, a nonviolent direct action group focused on shutting down Guantanamo and ending torture.  She has walked the ground at Guantanamo with a group of committed activists trying to bring a glimmer of hope to the men who are still there, stripped of their humanity.  Frida stands for these men every year in the cold of the winter and the heat of the summer in front of the White House, to remind those with eyes to see and ears to hear that more than one hundred men are still caged in our names.  As her parents stood at Air Force bases and munitions’ manufacturing plants, Frida Berrigan witnesses, speaks and writes about these helpless prisoners, most of them not charged with a crime, another violent action committed by the US government.  Clearly the radicalism is as steadfast in the second generation as it was when the community of Jonah House was founded. As they say, “You can make it legal, but you can never make it right!”

Frida Berrigan and her siblings were raised at Jonah House in one of the poorest neighborhood of Baltimore. She went to protests with her parents and her younger siblings, Jerry and Kate, from the time she was old enough to hold a hand-lettered sign or her restless sister Kate. The Berrigan children lived a unique life in a peace and resistance community in which one of their parents was often away in prison, in which clothes were second hand, and dumpster diving was a game.

Frida Berrigan speaking at an anti-torture demonstration outside the White House in January 2010. (Facebook / Pax Christi)

Frida Berrigan speaking at an anti-torture demonstration outside the White House in January 2010. (Facebook / Pax Christi)

Since her childhood at Jonah House, Frida Berrigan has been at countless demonstrations, has often risked arrest, and tooled herself for the Lamb’s War. After graduation from Hampshire College, she served as a researcher at the New American Foundation’s Arms and Security Initiative in New York City, writing and speaking about militarism.  A member of the Board of the War Resister’s League, she clearly gets it done.

But mothering? A book on child rearing braided together with Berrigan and radical? Of course Frida Berrigan has the credentials: she is a Berrigan radical and the mother of two children, stepmother of one. But why would resistance devotees be interested in reading a how-to about mothering?  Theories of toilet training, tantrums, toys that teach? What an odd combination, I thought, eager to read the part about living radically, but doubtful that mothering could be radical. Surely the preachy goblins of motherhood, “teach kids ambition, push  them to succeed in preschool” are not tantalizing the radical left?

Berrigan handles both parts of her book like a true journalist. She interviewed her mother Liz McAlister at length about childbirth, her own at Jonah House, and her mother-in-law, Joanne Sheehan, about the home birth of her son Patrick, Frida’s husband.  Gathering information and filtering it to form a narrative that would become her own, Berrigan writes about her decision to follow the examples of both these women and have a home birth.  This decision is the solid link between the world of nonviolent direct action and possibly the most direct action of all, bringing a life into the world as gently as possible.   

“As I thought about labor and birth, I also thought a lot about nonviolence—about how nonviolence demands that we are responsible and educated, and apply our beliefs to daily activity.  Nonviolence at a demonstration can look really different from nonviolence in our personal relationships or even how we treat ourselves, but it is all part of the same package.  Patrick and I envisioned a nonviolent birth experience, similar to our parents, a home birth that would be empowering, on our own terms, natural, and cheap!”

In a recent interview with Truthout, Frida explained her view of nonviolent direct mothering.  “I am trying to mother without fear and with hope. I am trying to mother without a lot of money or possessions or acquisitiveness. I am trying to mother with a lot of time for my kids, for friendships and for work for peace and justice – and that seems pretty rebellious in this society.”

Frida Berrigan is keeping up her own family’s tradition of being a beacon of contradiction. Other families’ ways of valuing time may not look like hers. But in our culture of 24/7 online shopping, constant social media, and streaming movies it is ironic that living a simple life is enough to make one seem like a radical. In all that she does at home and for creating a nonviolent world, Berrigan’s choices are intentional. She left a job at a think tank to live at the Catholic Worker, a community that scoffs at the false prospect of having everything. She made the choice to value time over money, relationships over recompense. When she moved from New York City to New London, Connecticut, she continued to choose the Jonah House way:  a life of divine obedience over the capitalist journey.. “It is a humbling, human, hard choice,” she writes. Instead of shopping for new clothes, she makes new friends. She has time to help out at her local food co-op and work in the community garden and write a book. With less worldly success, she can achieve what is more important to her. Giving love and creating peace for her family and for her community is her enactment of Dorothy Day’s patient reminder to Catholic Workers.  “Our goal is not to be successful.  Our goal is to be faithful.“

In this book, Frida argues that most parents try to keep their children safe by shielding them from the harshness of the world, cocooning them in the home, when kids really need street smarts. Berrigan advocates real world lessons in sharing and caring and helping and accepting help. Berrigan and her husband feel the call of both purpose and place. “We can raise our kids to be kind and fair and to stand up for one another if they see us doing that too.”  Their home is a place of nonviolence, a place of peace and laughter for them, their children, and friends. The furniture is more simple than chic; the toys are crayons and paper, not digital playrooms.

On a personal note, when Frida came to Cleveland to give a book talk, she brought along her young son Seamus and baby daughter Madeline, the living proof of nonviolent direct mothering. Meeting these two children was an awakening experience for me.  What Berrigan writes about actually exists! Seamus is less than three years old, yet he remembers the names of people he meets. He addresses cats by their names as he strokes their fur.  He notices everything in a room and asks sensible questions about what he sees.  An animated Frida chats with people after her talk, while Madeline sleeps comfortably in her infant sling and Seamus plays with other children.  Her children are at the center of her life, but they are not the domineering and domineered children whose mothers brag of their latest accomplishment, the proof of their parents’ success.  Madeline’s sling is practical:  it leaves Frida’s hands free to touch the hands of people asking questions about her talk. Madeline is not a necklace of achievement slung around her mother’s neck.

Frida Berrigan, Patrick Sheehan-Gaumer, and their children.

Frida Berrigan, Patrick Sheehan-Gaumer, and their children.

Frida and Patrick, a second-generation peace activist himself and a social worker, have found a way to live radically. Highly educated people, they have turned away from the society of acquisition.  They are not fixed upon an upward climbing graph that indicates more, much more, most.  Instead they exult in the time that they have to tend children and calm our violent world.  They have unbound themselves from the culture of ambition that entangles most of us.  At this point, I should issue a warning:  If your goals are deeply entrenched in the ambition culture and you might restate the principles of It Runs in the Family to read “Ambition drives people forward. Too many relationships and too much community hold people back. They will never succeed,” this is probably not the book for you.  But if you are willing to fight the fear of not rising to the top of the working world, you might want to investigate how some people have found a different kind of success.

I shall give Frida Berrigan the final words.  As a skilled writer, she paints a luminous picture of the joy she has found in motherhood, while linking that joy with the understanding of her responsibility in the world that she learned from the Jonah House in which she grew up.  “After having Seamus, I relished, reveled in, and rollicked with having created a demanding, wholly cuddly, and delightful reason to say “no” to just about everything outside of my front door.”   

As a writer she is successful.  As a mother and activist, she is faithful.


Alice Bach is a biblical scholar and political activist, who writes about the use of the Bible upon contemporary politics in the United States and upon the ongoing Occupation of Palestine.  She is Archbishop Hallinan Professor of Catholic Studies Emerita at Case Western Reserve University.

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