Frida Berrigan: Give Your Children a Conscience Instead of Material Possessions

Frida Berrigan. (Photo: OR Books)Frida Berrigan. (Photo: OR Books)The daughter of two antiwar activists, Frida Berrigan was raised in a faith-based community with a mission of social justice advocacy. In her book, It Runs in the Family, Berrigan writes about being raised by radicals and gives advice on how to integrate child rearing into fighting for change. Order the book now by clicking here and donating to Truthout.

She spoke with Truthout.

Mark Karlin: In your introduction, you mention that your legendary parents, Father Philip Berrigan and Sister Elizabeth McAlister, did not think that their commitment to nonviolent resistance would allow for raising children. However, they had three children, including you. Was it just that nature ensued, or did they come to feel that children should be part of a radical movement toward a peaceful, communal society?

Frida Berrigan: We kids – my brother Jerry, my sister Kate and I – just happened, but then it is my sense that having kids deepened and grounded my parents’ activism and resistance in the reality of our lives and futures. Being parents made them more radical and militant because the future became less abstract. The future was now populated with three particular people they deeply loved and wanted to see survive and thrive in a nuclear free world.

How did your parents grapple with spending nearly a third of their marriage apart because of being jailed for their protests? How did that affect child-rearing?

It involved a lot of trust – of one another, of us and of their community, who helped to care for and raise us. It involved a lot of paper – daily letters to one another and to us. It involved a lot of time in the car traveling to whatever prison or jail one of them was in. For two years, we visited our mom in Alderson, West Virginia, once a month and it seemed like those visits always coincided with school field trips to amusement parks (which we missed, of course).

Talk a little more about Jonah House in Baltimore where you spent many of your early years. What is it? How did it have an impact on you?

Jonah House could be its own book. It was a magical and messy place to grow up, always changing, always filling with people for meetings and prayer and mobilizations and emptying out in the aftermath of actions. The people who came to live with us were so intense and forthright and committed. I say in the book that the community is the reason that we kids never rebelled against our upbringing in a major way. We got to be in relationships with so many amazing people and their commitment reinforced our appreciation of what our parents were about.

You write that you “have so much to learn from [your] parents about how to listen to the still small voice of conscience within amid the cacophony of children.” Most societies draw a line around childhood that circumscribes it by innocence. What is it in human nature that associates being a child with being protected, with being nonviolent and with being indulged, but assumes that is natural for adults to engage in wars, killing and cruelty in the name of the state.

That is a great question and one I wish a lot more people were asking. But, I don’t think it is natural that adults engage in war. In fact, studies of WWI demonstrated that it was the odd soldier who actually fired their weapons at other human beings. Since then, the fighting of wars has been all about trying to remove the human element – the conscience, the question – from the equation by putting layers of technology and thousands of miles between the killer and the killed.

The title of your book describes your evolution into “rebellious motherhood.” Can you explain more what you mean by that term?

In essence, 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.

One of your later chapters, “It Doesn’t Have To Be a Material World,” describes the preoccupation in the US with lavishing “love” on children with material gifts. You describe that your youth was “rich in love, rich in relationships, rich in history and culture.” How do we overcome a society so driven by expressing emotions through material goods?

One step at a time. I think it begins with saying “no” to our kids, to ourselves, to our partners. I think a lot of people are afraid to say no, ever. Our consumerist culture tells us that we are not enough for our kids, and we have to figure out ways to not listen to that and that can be as easy as turning off the TV and getting outside. There was a great report in The Atlantic not too long ago that found that experiences bring more joy and happiness than possessions. I think if people tried it, they’d see how great (and easy) it can be.

On page 159 of your book, you raise the difficult issue of building an awareness of nonviolence that can break the cycle of violence in communities. What are some of the actions parents can take to help achieve a nonviolent environment for their children?

It seems like parents try and keep their kids safe by shielding them from the world, cocooning them in the home, but what kids really need is some street smarts. They need the experience of exploring and relating and connecting. They need real world lessons in sharing and caring and helping and accepting help. They need to feel like they have a purpose and a 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.

What do you mean when you say you understand your mother-in-law’s expression that it is often easier to speak truth to power than to speak truth to family and community?

In the book, I share about moving from New York City to the small urban community of New London, Connecticut. I lost the anonymity of the big city and discovered that being a radical and an activist in a small community means that you are never “off,” that you need to be able to represent and articulate your views all the time, because people notice if you are on the street corner with a sign, or standing up for something at the city council meeting or asserting your views in the letters to the editor. You have to be really consistent, and you are held accountable if you aren’t. For me, it was definitely easier to be one of the thousands in the big city than one of the dozens here, but it is also a really great experience, because it feels more like the actions of a few can have a big impact here.

You and your husband, Patrick, have a blended family of three children. What do your children provide the two of you with?

They give us a really tangible stake in the future. It is no longer this abstraction to look ahead 40 or 50 or 70 years. I know and love people who will be alive then – and I care deeply about what they will experience at that time.

You write: “Babies do not fit neatly into our lives; they turn our lives upside down and insist that we do everything differently.” How have you and Patrick changed?

Since having kids? Yes. We have to take everything so much more seriously – and we have three wonderful excuses – our children – to laugh and exalt.