It Runs in the Family: On Being Raised by Radicals and Growing into Rebellious Motherhood (2015)


My siblings and I divided the adults who shared the responsibility for taking care of us at Jonah House into two groups: the good lunchers and the bad lunchers. Some of them made awesome school lunches—sticking in cookies or juice boxes, using brand-new paper bags and Ziploc baggies. They tended to be the ones who would also plan fun excursions for us on the weekends. They took us swimming and sledding and on nature hikes and to Wendy’s for Frosties, or else played Crazy Eights and introduced us to the music of Frank Zappa and Led Zeppelin.

Others made terrible lunches—juice in an old glass bottle, dry cheese sandwiches made with the heel of the bread and put in an old baggie along with mushy fruit that got all over everything. Their approach to childcare was equally lackadaisical. They were moody and unapproachable. They took us to the local playground (a place that we were actually allowed to go alone) and ignored our overtures to play basketball.

But both kinds of adults helped us figure out our relationship to our community, to one another, and to our parents. We learned about people from watching and interacting with all of these adults, learning about the pain that they carried and the convictions that they held.

One woman taught me to sew and helped me make clothes for a porcelain doll that she gave me. When I broke it, she helped me superglue it back together. The doll belonged to her when she was young and she trusted and loved me enough to put those precious memories in my oafish little hands. There was also a young couple who lived at Jonah House who took care of us while everyone else was away on a retreat one weekend. It was only for a few days, but it seemed like a lifetime of joy and delight. They introduced us to breakfast for dinner (pancakes after dark!) and eating dessert first. We were silly all through dinner. They were so much fun—such a change from our normal dinner routine: big pots of uninspiring food, serious conversations that we were expected not to interrupt, good manners, and cleaning our plates (without eating too fast).

Once, when my brother Jerry and I were very young, Mom and Dad were both in prison at the same time. Mom had been arrested at the Pentagon. She had been given—unexpectedly and absurdly—a six-month sentence, which was later shortened to three months. At the same time, Dad had gone to Georgia to bring a message to Jimmy Carter, who was campaigning for the presidency at the time, to ask him to run on a platform of nuclear disarmament. Dad and the rest of the delegation were arrested.

This was not an easy time. Mom and Dad had not planned on being in jail at the same time. I turned three and my brother turned two while they were away. We all struggled with being apart.

Jerry and I were taken care of by two community members—Ladon Sheets and Joan Burd. They were not strangers; both had been core members of the community for years, but they went from being occasional babysitters and playmates to being our primary caregivers without a lot of notice or preparation.

Ladon was a military veteran, a former IBM executive who had spent time at Koinonia Partners, a Christian community founded by Clarence and Florence Jordan in Georgia. In The Time’s Discipline, the biography written jointly by my parents, Ladon is described as bringing “a clear Biblical conscience and orientation” to the community, while Joan “came from a family farm and twelve years of religious life.”

Joan was playful but also well-organized and consistent. Ladon was very serious, but we were able to get him to play with us. He lived in a closet-sized room on the top floor and would play Angry Rhinoceros with us (basically a combo of tag and wrestling).

We were too young to have very distinct memories of that time, but I do remember that it was tough for us and our parents. Jerry had nightmares and often woke up crying. He also fell against the coffee table and broke his two front teeth while they were away. In The Time’s Discipline, Mom wrote: “It isn’t hard to be in jail; it is a different way of being. But being away from one’s little ones, unable to respond to Jerry’s crying at night, is terrible.”

In one letter to my mom, Ladon wrote: “We are discovering a whole new relationship with the children.” Mom rejoiced at this, but also worried about being replaced. Mom wrote from jail:

Frida seems to understand a great deal, she has seen others in the community go to jail, has known why they were there, has welcomed them home. But, when I told Frida, before the trial, that I might have to go to jail, she responded, “No! NO!” as if her denial could be more stubborn than reality itself. Her denial continued for days, to be replaced by anger. But I can talk to Frida and she can understand. Jerry—will he even remember a mother whom he hasn’t seen for ninety days? He does not lack for understanding. But he is under two. Communication with him is very physical. Since I cannot see him, hug, hold, or kiss him, how can I reassure him that I love him, that I have not abandoned him?

We were not abandoned. They did come back. But it was hard. We cried for our parents, at the disruption in our routine, at the clumsy ministrations of these friends. But they did their best. We got letters from Mom and Dad every single day, and Joan or Ladon or another friend would read them to us and write out our reply. They sent our parents daily updates on how we were doing, my brother’s progress in potty training, and what we were eating for dinner.

We were reunited as a family by Easter of 1977. We had not forgotten our parents nor transferred our love for them to Ladon and Joan. They had not become strangers and we did not harbor deep resentment or fear abandonment. Mom reflected on that period recently by saying: “You were an exceptional three-year-old and my sense is that you shouldered responsibility for Jerry—becoming comforter and big sister…more than might have been desirable. But hey, I think it contributed to the woman you are today—not too shabby.”

After that, our parents tried to orchestrate their arrests so that one of them would always be with us. As far as I can remember, they were successful in this and we were never separated from both of them again.

We did spend long stretches of time—years in some cases—without one of our parents. Lots of classic family moments were marked by the absence of one of them. Mom did get out of jail in time to give me a home perm for my eighth grade graduation (an oddly fancy and momentous affair). But Dad was in jail for Kate’s high school graduation, Jerry’s college graduation, and my college graduation. He died before Kate graduated from college. I now have a sense of how difficult it was for Mom and Dad to be away from us, but I wasn’t really aware of their struggles as a little kid (which is probably a good thing) because our community worked hard to take care of us.

We remained completely connected to our parents while they were in jail. We kept all of their letters in a book made out of wallpaper scraps, and I was told later that any time someone came to visit, I would sit them down on the couch and make them read my parents’ letters to me. I have one distinct picture in my head of being in the living room when the postman delivered the mail. Whoever answered the door quickly sorted through the mail and found a letter to me from my dad. I sat down on the sticky black vinyl couch and that person read me his words. As I listened, I kept looking underneath the paper, looking for my dad behind the words. His presence was so strong in the letter that I did not understand that he was not really there.

Jonah House was chaotic, intense, crowded, ever-changing, and never spotlessly clean. The dishes, sheets, clothes—even the pots and lids—never matched. But our homework got done, our lunches were packed, our teeth and hair were brushed (sort of), our curiosity was sated, our need to run and play was fulfilled, our minds were crammed with facts and figures and images, our faith was built on the streets and in the study of history and the gospels. We were raised by a village. Sometimes we loved it; sometimes we hated it. But it was always home.

People often wonder why the Berrigan kids never rebelled: never became Tea Party Republicans or Wall Street day traders. In our culture, youth rebellion is a cliché, but rebellion against rebel parents is a goldmine. But we did not rebel at all. And I credit these friends, our community, for that. We saw from the beginning that it wasn’t just our parents. They weren’t alone in their convictions. They attracted other people: sane, healthy, functional, loving, complicated people who gave up a lot (in many cases) to come live with us in radical, catholic squalor.

And we were in relationships with so many of these adults—men and women who shared their perspectives, ideas, stories, and lives with us. We saw them in dialogue and disagreement with our parents, grappling with resistance, with faith, with life in community. We saw our parents be wrong sometimes too, which I think was really important for our development, and which later helped us embrace our upbringing.


There was a whisper behind us: “Those Berrigan kids don’t know the rosary.” Surprised, bemused, maybe a little scandalized—the noises rippled softly through the funeral home’s largest visitation room. I was in college. My mom’s younger brother had died of lung cancer and we were there to pay our respects to Uncle Bill, a handsome, voluble construction worker and father of three daughters.

We were raised by a priest and a nun, people who literally spoke Latin and who had lived and breathed the essence of Catholicism with a capital “C” for decades. But we were raised in an early-church-sort-of-Christianity that didn’t have a lot of patience for pomp and circumstance.

There was no rosary involved. Our Eucharist of watered-down wine and old bread was shared around a circle in the living room, consecrated by whoever was “up” that week—by agnostics, atheists, Jews, and even some Catholics whose last confession was a long time ago. I recall that our father gritted his teeth when one woman shared the Eucharist with her dog, and would get mad at us for picking our feet or playing with our fingernails as the host was coming around the circle. But, if we did not show the proper reverence, it was because we were never exposed to the ritual in church.

Bible study was in the front room on Wednesday nights, with friends consulting the experts—theologians and scholars like Leonardo Boff, Ched Myers, Walter Wink, and William Stringfellow. In time, thinkers like Joan Chittister, Mary Daly, Dorothee Soelle, and Miriam Therese Winter were also incorporated.

We used a worn Bible stuffed in the glove box or the lunch cooler, and pulled it out at the beginning of every car trip and before each meal, even on job sites when painting houses. We were people who took the Gospel mandate of “Love thy neighbor” and “Blessed are the peacemakers” and “Turn swords into plowshares” seriously enough to plan actions, organize retreats, hold banners, get arrested, and go to prison.

In short, our church looked like belief and life integrated, and yet in constant tension. We did not learn the rosary. On the rare occasion when we went to church, we mumbled along with the prayers and tried to stand and sit when everyone else did.

We were all baptized by our Uncle Dan in our Uncle Jerry and Aunt Carol’s backyard. We were confirmed much later on. My sister and I prepared for confirmation with a nun in Baltimore, a stalwart woman who practically ran her parish, since a revolving cast of priests showed up just to say Sunday mass. We could easily distract her from our catechism by asking her pointed questions about the role of men and women in the church. Kate was in high school and I was just out of college when Bishop P. Francis Murphy confirmed us. I wanted to be able to call myself Catholic, to be a member of the tribe in good standing.

Despite this, I never attended church regularly until the fall of 2001 in New York City, when I just wanted to be in a room full of people feeling and breathing together. I started attending noon mass at Saint Francis Xavier a few times a week, when I would tell my boss I was going to the gym during my lunch break. I loved the little chapel tucked behind the altar, the anonymous fellowship of the twenty-or-so regulars, and the strange combination of rote recitation and deep solace.

More than a decade later, when I moved into Maryhouse Catholic Worker in New York, I loved vespers. We gathered every night at seven, read the psalms aloud together, and then brought into the circle all those who needed prayer. I found so much meaning in this half hour or so of daily prayer and communion. I looked forward to it. Vespers is old-school Catholicism—the kind of thing my mom did with her very proper Catholic family as a child. But in the well-worn dining room of a busy soup kitchen, homeless shelter, and revolutionary Christian laboratory, the words, gestures, and fellowship were a healing balm after a long day of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Here is where saying the rosary finally made sense to me.

Now my husband and I belong to All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation in New London, and Seamus and Madeline are being brought up within this incredible community. We bounce out of bed on Sunday mornings, ready to go to church. We often volunteer as greeters—handing out programs, making sure everyone gets settled comfortably, and collecting the offering.

Patrick is an atheist. He doesn’t believe there is a higher power who watches over us or cares about us. He says that he doesn’t need to believe in God to be a good person; he doesn’t need an ancient book to tell him what is moral. Patrick believes that we can find all the guidance and moral leadership we need in always asking the question “How can I help?” The ritual of the Catholic Mass is off-putting to him. It would be hard to get him to go to Mass with me, but we both find comfort, fellowship, and food for thought within All Souls’s vibrant, progressive, and genuinely welcoming congregation. There is room there for what we each believe. I do miss communion and the long stretches of contemplation that are part of the Catholic Mass. I am not alone. All Souls’s congregation is full of people who were raised Catholic, but are lapsed for lots of reasons. I’m not lapsed: I am a Catholic in waiting—waiting for my Church to remember the Gospels, to be a justice- and peace-seeking community, to be fully inclusive of women, and to be welcoming to people who are not heteronormative. Pope Francis is a step in the right direction, but there is a long way to go.

Until then, I will say the rosary, make time for prayer, and attend All Souls. And we will raise our kids to be knowledgeable and respectful of all religious traditions and practices, and help answer their questions as they find their own paths of meaning.