'The Peace Kids' grow up: Daughter of activist recalls extraordinary upbringing

New London — Frida Berrigan was 8 years old the first time she was arrested, protesting with her parents and about 500 others in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in a remonstrance intent on improving the lives of the homeless.

Ronald Reagan was president, and Berrigan, the daughter of an excommunicated priest and nun, was in the third grade.

"My friend Seamus, who was a little older, told me that we would get to watch TV while we were being held, and that the last time he had gotten arrested, they had a clown in the lockup," recalled Berrigan, now 42, a mother herself and a resident of New London.

"So I was super disappointed when, instead, I got this really stern talking to and like the threat that I would be taken away from my parents and put into foster care in Washington, D.C.," she said.

Her father, Philip Berrigan, the nationally known peace advocate who led draft board raids and aroused opposition to the Vietnam War almost 50 years ago, died in 2002 at the age of 79.

A Josephite priest, he was excommunicated after he married Sister Elizabeth McAlister of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary. 

Today, McAlister lives in Baltimore, where Frida Berrigan was raised with her two siblings in Jonah House, the faith-based compound founded by her parents as a haven of nonviolence, resistance and community.

That extraordinary upbringing has made Frida Berrigan the woman she is today.

She's married now, to Patrick Sheehan-Gaumer, who was raised in Norwich by parents Rick Gaumer and Joanne Sheehan, who founded the New England chapter of the War Resisters League in 1985 and are still active in the cause.

The couple lives in a home they own on Connecticut Avenue and are the parents of three young children — a son and daughter of their own and Sheehan-Gaumer's daughter from a prior relationship.

They are "purposely poor," Sheehan-Gaumer, 34, said, explaining they are "a family of five living below the taxable income level on purpose, so that we don't pay federal taxes."

Asked why, he said, "Because about 50 cents of every dollar paid in taxes goes to the Pentagon." 

Sitting at their dining room table from a secondhand store, like everything else they own, the "Sheebarrigaumerans" — it began as a joke but that's what they call themselves now — explained how their life in New London has been influenced by their upbringings.

He is an educator who works toward peaceful resolutions with youth and adults at Safe Futures, and she is a newly hired half-time office manager at FRESH New London and a regular contributor to the website Waging Nonviolence with her column, "Little Insurrections."

Sheehan-Gaumer acknowledges that his wife's childhood "was a little more out there" than his own but said there are things they've both shared that give them a particular perspective and help connect them.

"It's pretty odd growing up as the peace kids," he said.  

He recalled his youth in Norwich, "where like half my classmates were EB and Navy kids and my parents moved to the area to protest EB and the sub base."

Unlike his wife, who estimates she has been arrested 20 times as a result of her activism, Sheehan-Gaumer said he has never been detained by police but regularly attended War Resisters League meetings and protests, where he was able to "play with other kids who were also going to these things."

Only as an adult, he said, did he come to realize that the two-week trip to western Massachusetts with his family each summer was not a vacation, but "long-form nonviolence training for my parents and time for me to play with (friends)."

Berrigan's parents and her uncle, the Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, who died April 30 at the age of 94, were jailed on multiple occasions, including in Catonsville, Md., in 1968, when they and others seized draft records and doused them with homemade napalm made from soap chips and gasoline outside a Selective Service office.

In 1980, the Berrigans and others broke into a General Electric nuclear missile site in Pennsylvania, poured blood onto documents and files, and damaged warhead nose cones.

They protested war, agitated for civil rights and other causes and galvanized others across the country to do likewise.

Her parents, Frida Berrigan said, guessed they had spent 11 of their almost 30 years of marriage separated by prison. She recalls visiting them in jail.

She also still has clear memories of being a small girl on the sidelines at the Pentagon when protesters dressed in black robes painted their faces white and dug graves on the lawn leading to the Potomac River. 

She remembers another time, in the early '80s, when she was part of a group that towed two "junker cars" to federal property and deflated their tires to call attention to people forced to live in their vehicles because of the slumping economy. 

And then there was the time she helped plant hundreds of white crosses in Washington to represent the war dead.

"Growing up, we protested all the time," she said. "We were always at the Pentagon. We were always at the White House. We were always somewhere telling somebody to stop doing something. We were the protesters. Our family, our community, our whole lives were oriented around that."

Berrigan said she never realized how poor her family was until she won a scholarship to Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., that covered every cost except $800 a semester.

Her mother told her they didn't have $800, so she would have to earn it.

And so she did, working at a food co-op.

Later, after graduating, she moved to New York City, where she says she had "a normal job" for a while and continued to engage in protests.

"But it was different there," she said. "It's this huge place and there was anonymity and a lack of accountability."

"I could be in Times Square in an orange jumpsuit saying 'torture is terrorism' and pissing people off and people hating you and saying all sorts of nasty stuff to you, but they had to go, because it was New York and you don't stop," she continued. 

"And then you take the jumpsuit off and put the sign away and get on the subway and you look like everybody else," she said, "and you go right into Macy's and do whatever."

That wasn't enough for Berrigan, so she gave up her apartment and the well-paying job at the think tank where she was tracking military spending and arms sales.

She moved into Maryhouse Catholic Worker in the city, where she would earn $20 a week preparing and serving the lunch for needy women and helping with the clothing room and other services.

She stayed about a year and met Sheehan-Gaumer when the two connected while organizing events for the track club for the War Resisters League in New York City.

There was an immediate attraction and they married on June 27, 2011, at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation in New London.

Today, with Sheehan-Gaumer's daughter, Rosena, 9, and their two — Seamus, who will be 4 in July, and Madeline, 2 — they are settled on Connecticut Avenue and engaged in the community.

They chose their location so they could walk downtown and to their jobs, shops and church, and to the library and waterfront park.

Berrigan notes that these days, she's more engaged in changing diapers than changing the world.

She's written a book, "It Runs in the Family — On Being Raised by Radicals and Growing Into Rebellious Motherhood," and she writes her regular columns. In one, "How's a busy mom supposed to find time to protest Guantanamo?", she writes about what she's missing.

"They are vigiling, witnessing and organizing to shut down Guantanamo, end torture and ensure accountability for the perpetrators. They are wearing orange jumpsuits and black hoods (over very warm coats). They are at the Pentagon, the White House and the Capitol, as the new Congress is sworn in. They are embodying solidarity by showing up for demonstrations against police brutality and U.S. military aid to Mexico. They are waking up early, going to bed late and sleeping on mats on the floor. They are hungry and cold. They are meeting, planning, praying and singing."

"I am not there. I am missing it and I am missing them," she wrote in the Jan. 9, 2015, column.

But Berrigan said she's peripherally involved in the causes she was once passionate about, like Witness Against Torture, which focuses on indefinite detention and related issues.

"I try to pay attention to things, but it is easy to get really, really small," she said. "So my friends sort of keep me in the loop around the issue of Guantanamo and more broadly around the issue of indefinite detention and the backlash against Muslims and in the context of war against terror. But I'm not like on the ramparts of these issues these days."

In New York City, the name Berrigan garnered attention, but mostly now, people don't make the association with her rebellious father and uncle.

"Like one of the mailmen downtown asked me once," she said, "he said that's a name you don't hear all the time; it's kind of famous."

She's become more involved with St. Francis House in New London and appreciates the work being done by Cal Robertson, who has advocated for peace on city streets for more than 30 years.

But with young children, she said, she can't join him right now. 

And, while she's still opposed to massive spending on the nation's military, she acknowledges that she sees the situation in a different way now that she knows so many fellow parishioners at All Souls, and so many parents of her children's classmates, are employed at Electric Boat and the Naval Submarine Base in Groton.

"I can't say, and I don't (say), 'You have the blood of innocent children on your hands,' which is the kind of stuff I grew up seeing the adults around me saying ... They're not bad people. And they don't have the blood of innocent children on their hands," she said. "They are good fathers and good mothers and good members of this community."

Berrigan said that planting roots in a small community has given her a new perspective.

She said she likes the life she and Sheehan-Gaumer are living with their children and their work within the community.

"We both grew up with families that were purposely poor, and both of us and our families didn't want a lot of material things, and I think both of us got a lot out of that," Sheehan-Gaumer said. "Because of that, we both learned to value people over things, and we try to live our lives that way today."

They recently debated and ultimately purchased a $60 couch from Homeward Bound Treasures downtown.

She thought it was a good price; he was less convinced.

"We negotiated it down from $80," Berrigan said.

"It was $85," Sheehan-Gaumer said, adding, "Well, it's a nice couch and Homeward Bound is worth every penny."

Proceeds from Homeward Bound go to support services for the homeless in New London.

The family regularly shops at the Jumble Shop at St. James Church and visits the Salvation Army store on Bank Street on Wednesdays, when almost everything is half price. 

"I think it is easier to maintain (living purposely poor) than to break with convention and go for it," Berrigan said.

When she recently began her part-time job at FRESH, Sheehan-Gaumer reduced his hours at Safe Futures to keep their income level low and to allow him to spend more time with the children.

When the two old cars they used to have broke down — "They both died. They fully failed within a month of each other," he said — they pulled money from their savings account to get a replacement vehicle.

"We upgraded from a 1998 to a 2001, and we have been a one-car family for the last year and a half because of that," Sheehan-Gaumer said.

Berrigan said that about a year before her uncle died, she met a woman who shared a story that Daniel Berrigan had told.

It was about another Frida Berrigan, the paternal grandmother for whom she is named.

The woman who told the story was frustrated because she wanted to be an activist but couldn't because she had small children.

The gist of the story was that during the Depression, the other Frida Berrigan fed a stranger who had stopped by her home in upstate New York looking for a handout.

Later, when the police came looking for him, she pointed down the road and told police the man had gone on his way with a full belly and some provisions for his journey.

But Daniel Berrigan's mother had pointed in a different direction than the one the man had taken.

"The lesson he drew from that was that this was his mother's world, that kitchen, that neighborhood, and her interactions with the world came in the form of the people she met there. She made a choice. She chose the poor man instead of the police. She lied to the police to let the man get a little further away."

"Bloom where you are planted. That is the lesson he drew from it," Berrigan said. "And that is what his mother did in spite of lots of constraints."

Berrigan said she is content to be in New London with her husband and children.

"It's different now than being an activist when I was in my 20s," she said. "I am not oppressed and lonely the way my grandmother was, but I am grateful for a set of brackets around my life; to be operating in a particular context.

"And this is where I will be planted for the rest of my life."

a.baldelli@theday.com

Editor's note: Commenting on this story has been disabled because of repeated violations of our commenting policy.

Frida Berrigan, center, joins hands with her husband Patrick Sheehan-Gaumer, left, and children Madeline, 2, Seamus, 3, and Rosena, 9, Thursday as each member of the family takes turns talking about what they are thankful for that day, as they sit down for dinner at home in New London.  (Tim Cook/The Day)
Frida Berrigan, center, joins hands with her husband Patrick Sheehan-Gaumer, left, and children Madeline, 2, Seamus, 3, and Rosena, 9, Thursday as each member of the family takes turns talking about what they are thankful for that day, as they sit down for dinner at home in New London. (Tim Cook/The Day)

Excerpts from the Frida Berrigan interview

On her faith:

"I describe myself as a Catholic in waiting, you know, waiting for the church to be a church of the gospel, the church that really kind of puts the works of mercy as a central focus ..."

"I find (Pope) Francis really challenging and lovely and provocative. He's doing lovely challenging things and I find him very exciting."

On growing up with few possessions:

"My brother, my sister and me, we grew up wanting everything and it felt so rebellious to want ... We used to sit with The New York Times Magazine and — you know how they have all those real estate ads in the back — we would just stare at them and dream; all these fancy apartments in New York City ... it felt like kind of transgressive to do this ... But as adults, or young adults, we worked all that out."

On imposing her views on other people:

"That is something my parents were really good at — telling other people how to run their lives. But I'm not doing that. I'm not a former nun or priest."

On living in New London:

"... I love that we are a small community where the contradictions that are inherent in our community are really easy to see. And I love that the actions and the work and the investment of individual people has made a real difference and will continue to make a real difference here."

On what she learned from her father:

"He just loved people. He had all the time in the world for people. He was always inviting people in. He was always connecting people. He never missed an opportunity to see somebody, and I would like to think I learned that from him. That is something that I want for myself. I want to connect people. I want to see people. I enjoy people."

On her mother learning that Frida was sometimes frightened at protests:  

"She said, 'Well, when you put it that way, it sounds kind of harsh. But we had fun, didn't we?' And she says, 'Well, it's what made you the person you are today.' And it sure did. We don't get to go back and rewrite our lives, but I wouldn't take any of it away for sure."

On war:

"War is just wrong. It's always wrong. There are better ways to solve conflict. Better ways. The seeds of the next war are always in the war we're in, and there is no resolution. No end. ... We just take in on faith that oh, to do something, we do something militarily."

On living in 2016:

"The world is trying to change us all the time. There is a message and it comes from our media and the way our history is taught and our economy. It comes in all these different ways and all these validators but the message is the same. It's just like, you're too little, you're too small, you're too stupid, you're too poor — you're too everything to make any difference at all and just don't worry about it, it's too important and you can't make any difference anyway ... But I don't want to get all infected with that message. I want to believe different."

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