The passionate lives of Dan and Phil Berrigan

The Berrigan Lettersby edited by Daniel Cosacchi and Eric Martin

Orbis. 304p $30

“How do they keep going?”

That is the hard question hanging over the decades-long public witness of Daniel and Philip Berrigan—in particular, the years of grinding punishment the brothers endured for their shocks to the conscience, whether napalming Vietnam draft files or anointing nuclear weapons with blood after symbolically disarming them with blows from a household hammer.

I first heard the question uttered by a Jesuit in the basement of a Washington, D.C., church as he vested for early morning Mass. This was in the mid-1990s. I cannot recall the priest’s name, but I do recall how he marveled at the Berrigans’ sheer endurance. Then he kissed his purple stole before adding a cryptic compliment: “The beauty of Dan and Phil, for me, is their anger.”

To help us reflect on the brothers’ anger and mull the source and sustenance of their careers, we now have The Berrigan Letters: Personal Correspondence Between Daniel and Philip Berrigan.

From 1940 until Phil’s death in 2002, the Berrigans wrote each other just about every week, often from whichever correctional facility they found themselves in after one of their peaceful protests, a return address generically rendered as “Idiot Acres” by Phil. Their “immortal patchworks,” as Dan described the letters with his trademark combo of irony and affection, were a lifeline for the brothers throughout times they held to be mad, and so maddening.

How do you keep going when J. Edgar Hoover’s agents are swarming the country, hell-bent on flushing you from “the underground” and burying you alive in a penitentiary? How do you summon the nerve to go underground in the first place, a rare sacrificial act among the more commonplace activist posturings of the 1960s and 1970s? Or in the case of Phil, while still ordained, how do you face your friends and allies after learning that an F.B.I. snitch, your cellmate, is making a gift to the bureau of your love letters to a nun, and that a prosecutor might use them to accuse you and others, including Dan, of a plot to kidnap Secretary of State Henry Kissinger?

Historical footnote: not making this up.

And how do you carry on when a majority of your own church, clerical and lay, denounces you—or worse, as happened to Dan, you are banished to South America, minus a return date?

Now imagine the treadmill of peace work in the decades following the Vietnam War: tedious travel on a shoestring budget; bickering over tactics and goals; the rigors of communal life, which Phil admits can leave him “sorely perplexed and torn” and includes the occasional volunteer who is, alas, a nut job; ideological sniping from all directions, like the bishop who called Phil a disgrace, and the wannabe revolutionary who denounced Dan at a late 1970s dinner party for failing to see that in the third world, as it was then known, the way of the gun was the one true path to justice. “Too bad you can’t face these things!” Dan recalled as the critic’s parting shot, which he shared in a letter to Phil.

So this was one of the ways they endured: by sharing their daily trials with a survivor’s eye on the long run. In the bulk of their letters, each setback described is balanced with a note of hope. Dan adds that beside that disagreeable dinner party, his recent travels had acquainted him with a number of people committed to nonviolent action, who appear to him in memory as “good faces alight in the dark.” Then he exercises the brothers’ inexhaustible ingenuity at finding new ways to say to each other, “I love and admire you.” He draws a heart on the page and tells Phil that he has thanked God in prayer “4 yr. great courage.”

The strength of this collection is its detailed accounting of faithful lives entwined and its intimate look at the deepening of the brothers’ bond, despite flare-ups of the family anger.

“Why do you on occasion grow so furious at me?” Dan asks Phil in a painful attempt to clear the air after a conflict over trial strategy. In another letter, Dan warns Phil that “there’s a certain violence that afflicts you,” which he connects to a dark inheritance from their short-tempered father, Tom.

Previously, Phil had defended his father’s outbursts for toughening up the Berrigan boys and preparing them for a life of public battle. But elsewhere Phil concedes his own insensitivity and failures to communicate by calling himself “the cabbage.” This is illuminating stuff. Daniel Cosacchi and Eric Martin do a good job of setting up these moments, as well as placing the Berrigans’ exchanges in historical context.

The book’s weakness is its gaps. I wanted less minutiae about the brothers’ political organizing and more coming clean about their relationship and how it survived several profoundly dramatic developments. For instance, how did they work through the bombshell of Phil’s clandestine love affair with Elizabeth McAlister, who would become his wife, the mother of their three children and stalwart collaborator in the Plowshares antinuclear movement? The secrecy of the couple’s beginnings was a betrayal of Dan and their friends, several of whom found themselves indicted as a result. Phil and Liz’s letters gave the federal government an opening to try the so-called Harrisburg Eight on conspiracy charges that carried the threat of crushing prison terms.

We know from other accounts that one of the Berrigans’ co-defendants, Eqbal Ahmad, was furious at the dangerous naïveté behind Phil and Liz’s lapse, to say nothing of the breaking of their vows. (The two were excommunicated in 1973, but the ban was later lifted.) But what, of all people, did Dan think? We don’t know. Was it because the editors of this volume came up empty when they sifted through the brothers’ correspondence? Or did they decide not to include that kind of material? They don’t say.

The trial of the Harrisburg Eight turned out to be a textbook case of prosecutorial overreach—a vindictive circus that took a careless phrase about Kissinger and spun it into the lynchpin of a (nonexistent) plot. The outcome was a mistrial. (In a separate deliberation, Phil and Liz were found guilty of the minor charge of letter-smuggling.) The F.B.I. lost, but gained their larger goal of weakening the antiwar resistance of “The Catholic Left,” a movement inspired and driven by the Berrigans.

And still, the Berrigans kept going. (Dan died in April of this year.) They hewed to their vocation, as they saw it, to take personal risks in opposing war and the resource-suck of perpetual war preparations. They also felt an unbreakable obligation to each other, in part because their mutual project had saved them from their greatest fear: living mediocre lives. And despite the hardships produced by their actions, they deeply believed, as Dan wrote Phil, “in the old comfort that, without them, things would be even more bestial than they are.”

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