Between the Lines: Growing Up Radical

Feb 3, 2015

Frida Berrigan and kids
Credit Frida Berrigan

Frida Berrigan is the daughter of political activists Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister, a former priest and nun known for their protests against war and nuclear weapons. Those protests often cost them time behind bars, leaving little Frida and her brother, Kalamazoo College alumnus Jerry, in the care of the Jonah House community in Baltimore, Maryland.

Now a wife and mother, Berrigan has taken to the picket line herself. She’s written about her unusual growing-up years in It Runs in the Family: On Being Raised by Radicals and Growing into Rebellious Motherhood.

Many children grow up to reject what their parents stand for. But Berrigan says she took the lessons of her parents to heart as she found her own voice. But she says it wasn’t easy to be a child of parents serving jail terms, although she and her brother never lacked for caring adults to look after them. Still, Berrigan grew up and followed the path they set, in part because now she has children of her own who look to her for moral direction. Berrigan walks the picket lines protesting war, the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo, Cuba, or any act of violence.

Credit OR Books

Berrigan describes visits with her parents in prison for special occasions:

“My mom and dad estimated that they spent 11 years of their 29-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."

Berrigan is married to Patrick Sheehan-Gaumer, himself a child of activists. She thinks about their responsibility to pass along that commitment to their own children. It Runs in the Family is also a dissertation on parenting that fosters a deep commitment to work for social and political change. Berrigan says that only mean protesting acts of violence but also living in a minimalist manner, less focused on stuff and more on human value. She has no qualms about picking up a dropped banana to eat or diving into a dumpster to salvage discarded food. She dresses her children in recycled clothing and keeps technology to a minimum in their home, living her values on and off the picket line.

A columnist for Waging Nonviolence, Berrigan is active with the War Resisters League in New York, and Witness Against Torture, an organization working to shut down Guantanamo.

Berrigan will read from her book during an appearance at Bookbug in Kalamazoo on February 5.