Can You Be a Political Radical and Change Diapers at the Same Time?

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from the introduction of “It Runs in the Family” by Frida Berrigan (O/R Books, 2014).


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, allliving 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 courthouses, 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. My husband grew up in the peace movement too. His parents, Rick Gaumer and Joanne Sheehan, are longtime activists. From an early age, Patrick and his sister Annie accompanied them to local anti-nuclear demonstrations, interminable War Resisters League meetings, and peace conferences and gatherings around the world. His parents were instrumental in forming low-income housing land trusts, intentional communities, and cooperatives for everything from babysitting to grocery shopping. Patrick grew up watching the grown-ups around him working together, building alternatives and addressing social ills.

My history and Patrick’s history were woven together long before either of us was even born. His dad hitchhiked to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to support my parents in 1972 when they (along with five others) were indicted and accused – with lots of politically charged hype and scaremongering – of planning to kidnap Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and blow up heating ducts in Washington, DC. There was no such plan. There had been a few discussions and a little research, but it did not take long for them to reject the idea as infeasible and inconsistent with nonviolence. The defendants were victims of J. Edgar Hoover’s paranoid overreach – which had FBI agents listening in on every late-night bull session and reading every love letter looking for evidence of criminal conspiracies. After long deliberation, the jury came back deadlocked and the charges were dropped.

Patrick’s mother, Joanne, was a member of the defense committees for a number of draft board raids. She and Rick were both arrested in front of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral with my uncle, Dan Berrigan, and others in 1975. And many members of Jonah House participated in nonviolence trainings that Joanne led and facilitated. It was fate. Patrick and I_were destined to lock eyes at a War Resisters League meeting while we were both dating other people, start running races together, fall in love, and get married in a peace movement wedding so joyful, cool, and iconoclastic that it was covered by the “Vows” column of the Sunday New York Times Styles Section – dubbed the “women’s sports page” by Sex in the City’s Carrie Bradshaw.

These days, my family seems pretty normal on the surface. We own our home and just the five of us live there: me, Patrick, and our three kids. Rosena is seven; she is Patrick’s daughter and splits her time between New London and her mom’s house. Our son Seamus is two, and we have a six-month-old baby, Madeline. We are a “countercultural” family. We live simply, we get by on Patrick’s salary, and are low-risk war tax resisters – meaning that we intentionally keep our salary too low for federal taxes. We don’t go off to demonstrations all the time, but I am active with the War Resisters League, an almost one-hundred-year-old, secular, pacifist movement based in New York that believes that war is a crime against humanity; and Witness Against Torture, an organization I helped found whose mission is to shut down Guantanamo; and we strive to be good neighbors, active members of our community, and the best parents possible.

In the pages that follow, I recount memories of my radical and countercultural upbringing at Jonah House, that strange and wonderful laboratory that made me into the woman, activist, wife, and mother I am today. I share snapshots and lessons gleaned from the day-to-day life of the Sheeberrigaumerans – the extra-long nickname Patrick and I gave our family. Here is a collection of essays on childbirth, parenting, family, and adapting to change. They speak to how life may get smaller and more domestic as children enter the picture, but hopefully no less insurrectionary and radical.

Like what you’ve read so far? Visit the OR Books site to order the complete text online.

Reprinted from “It Runs in the Family” by Frida Berrigan by permission of OR Books. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.

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