Before I had kids, I was really judgmental about parents. I remember visiting my sister and watching as she served a flavorful dinner to the adults, and a separate dinner of chicken nuggets and mac and cheese to her young kids. “I’ll never do that,” I thought.
When my wife was pregnant, we would lie awake and talk about the kind of parents we wanted to be. No TV, no video games, no toy weapons, music and art projects all the time, only wooden toys. Then we had kids and one by one, we broke our rules. All of them. By the time our first son was 5, he was a TV-watching, chicken-nugget-eating nerf-gun slinger. A few years after you have kids, you realize that parenting is really hard. You do the best you can, you make it up as you go along, and you hope your kids don’t turn out to be psychopaths—there’s my parenting-advice book.
Frida Berrigan comes to her parenting book, “It Runs in the Family,” from a different perspective. Her parents were Philip Berrigan, a radical pacifist and onetime priest, famous as a member of the Baltimore Four, who poured blood on draft records, and as a leader of the Catonsville Nine, who set fire to more draft records, all in protest of the Vietnam War, and Elizabeth McAlister, a former nun and lifelong activist who served years in prison. The family lived in Jonah House, originally on Park Avenue in West Baltimore (now on Moreland Avenue), a radical Catholic worker house that served as a headquarters for its members’ radical activities.
The younger Berrigan has largely followed in her parents’ footsteps—with fewer arrests—founding Witness Against Torture, a nonprofit group dedicated to closing down Guantanamo, and serving on the board of the War Resisters League. In 2011, she married fellow radical pacifist Patrick Sheehan-Gaumer and they live in Connecticut, raising their 2-year-old and 13-month-old kids, and they share custody of Patrick’s 7-year-old daughter from a previous marriage.
Berrigan’s book is a mixture of memories from growing up in Jonah House, stories about her experiences adapting to motherhood, and polemics about topics ranging from consumer culture to processed foods.
The stories of Berrigan’s childhood are far and away the most compelling sections. In them, she describes a household in which her parents sometimes disappeared for months or years at a time to serve jail sentences (“In the months leading up to my birth,” she writes of her parents, “they both avoided getting arrested”), where strangers—usually good-natured, but often strange—rotated in and out of the house and frequently served as surrogate caregivers (“At nightly prayer, there were a number of women who insisted on saying ‘a-woman’ instead of ‘a-men,’” she writes. “I was so influenced by this that I took to calling mayonnaise ‘womanaise’”), and a weekly trip to the Jessup Market to pick up produce rejected by the wholesalers provided most of their food (and that of many of their struggling neighbors).
The memories seem to be presented honestly, depicting Berrigan’s parents as loving, but not especially attentive:
Looking back on it now, I think my brother and I fought with each other because living with a bunch of peace-seeking adults was not always fun, because going to school as the peace-activist kids was only occasionally fun, because having our parents go off to jail was not ever fun, because being together all the time was not fun at all, because life in general is stressful, and because fighting provided a release for all of that.
And while the family is presented warts and all, Berrigan seems anxious for the reader to come away with positive impressions of all involved. The section describing how her parents spanked her is especially defensive, mentioning several times that her parents never committed this act—a strangely violent act for a family of pacifists—“in anger.”
The polemical sections of the book feel rote, even for someone like me, who is inclined to agree with most of them. It’s as if Berrigan, a lifelong activist and thinker, can’t help but recite a few of her talking points whenever something such as defense contractors comes into the book’s purview.
But the most difficult parts of the book to get through are the judgmental tirades about parenting. These are especially tough to take as a parent of older children, who recognizes the hopeful naiveté of passages like this, complaining about parents who worry too much about germs:
Of course I want to protect Seamus from what is dirty. But I am not all that concerned about the spectral dog pee lurking on the ground where bananas and toys may fall. I want to protect him from prejudice, from racism, from hatred—from the real dirty underside of life.
Yeah, because parents who toss out dirty bananas clearly don’t give a shit about racism, right? And then, after relating a totally unrelated story she heard on NPR (cue eye roll) about racism on a school bus—a story that had nothing whatsoever to do with germs—she writes this parody-worthy sentence: “Isn’t protecting our kids from the disease of hate and violence more important than sanitizing their toys?”
There are plenty of eye-roll opportunities in “It Runs in the Family,” but it’s hard to get too worked up about them. Berrigan is clearly a smart, well-intentioned new mom with some killer childhood stories. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a few years, she can sit down with her kids over some chicken nuggets and mac and cheese and laugh about how she thought she had it all figured out.
“It runs in the family” is available at orbooks.com