Review: The Half Life of a Free Radical

Review and Author Interview in Asheville’s Mountain Xpress

 Conversation with Clare Hanrahan

Posted on July 14, 2016 by Thomas Calder

If you’ve ever driven past the Vance Monument during one of the many protests held there over the last 20 years, there’s a fair chance that Clare Hanrahan numbered among the folks making their voices heard. For the Asheville resident, writer and activist, visibility is a key tool in the fight against injustice.

Hanrahan has stood with and helped organize such groups as Veterans for Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War and Women in Black. More recently, she’s traveled throughout the Southeast under the auspices of the New South Network of War Resisters, giving presentations on the military’s environmental impact.

Since moving into the Battery Park Apartments four years ago, however, Hanrahan has shifted her focus more toward writing. Her latest book, The Half Life of a Free Radical: Growing Up Irish Catholic in Jim Crow Memphis is available now at local bookstores and on Amazon.

Xpress sat down with Hanrahan in her Battery Park apartment recently to discuss this latest project.

Mountain Xpress: The title of your book touches on two major issues: race and religion. But the book ranges far beyond those two topics. How would you describe what has influenced your life and work?

Clare Hanrahan: I grew up in a time when social change was swirling all about us. And although we were financially poor, we were wealthy in having parents who were educated and could help guide us in critical thinking, and sensitize us to injustice, and make us aware that we had a role in the world beyond our own selfish pursuits. …

It was complicated by personal impetuousness, I would say, and family alcoholism always takes a toll. You never know how much of your behavior is reactive. … But I do believe that every kind of hardship or difficulty has the potential to really deepen us and make us very much more aware, able to experience the world in a deeper way. I’m pleased to have come through what I’ve come through and grateful for what I’ve been able to learn.

You’ve written two books about your time in captivity (Jailed for Justice: A Woman’s Guide to Federal Prison Camp and Conscience & Consequence: A Prison Memoir). What inspired this latest book, and how is it similar to and different from your earlier works?

Conscience & Consequence is like walking inside a women’s prison with me and experiencing it as I did. It gives a lot of insight into how difficult that can be. … That one was easier, because it focused on a six-month period. … I wrote down things in that guidebook that I wish I’d had awareness of ahead of time. That one was not so hard to write: It was more research and getting it down. … It wasn’t fraught with the kind of emotional potholes that I had to navigate in looking back on my life and trying to be honest about places where I turned wrong or turned right or stumbled.

That brings to mind parts of Half Life where you touch on the difficulties of balancing family responsibilities and the desire for social change — namely, the strain it caused in your relationship with your daughter. Can you speak to that?

You’re asking the toughest question, because it’s still a difficult place for me, and it’s still a source of some tension between my daughter and me. … All the personal sacrifices I made and imposed on my daughter — who was just coming along by default — were born out of a real sense of urgency: as Dr. King says, “The fierce urgency of now.” In retrospect, I think the state of mind I was in was “three minutes to midnight.” …

I still struggle with it. … Do you give her a normal American way of life and wait until she’s through with college and then begin your activism? Do you soft-pedal your activism so as not to take risks? There’s some middle ground in there that I didn’t find. … I thought living authentically was a better example of how to navigate in the world than just living safely and trying to take care of our personal stuff.

You write about our responsibility to reckon with the whole history of our homeplaces. What was the research for Half Life like, and how do you see Memphis’ past tying into the book’s broader examination of race relations in modern-day America?

What I was able to uncover and reckon with in the history of my own homeplace was how deeply rooted racism is, how institutional racism persists over generations, and how intentional it was. It wasn’t just a matter of ignorant people but of intentionally arranging social orders that benefited some and using others to enrich yourself. I didn’t get a lot of that history, certainly not in my parochial education. We learned a lot about martyrs in the Holy Roman Catholic Church, but we didn’t learn much about the social history of our own community. … We’ve got to reckon with it, ’cause it’s still happening. We’ve got to learn from what’s happened and ask ourselves if we’ve really changed.

When people read your biography and see you served a six-month prison sentence in your quest for peace and justice, some might conveniently write you off as just a crazy, nut-job liberal. Is there a healthier, more constructive way to discuss the difficult questions you raise?

I try to do that all the time. I live in a very diverse community here. I think listening is the biggest thing and recognizing that we all come to our own truth, from which we act, based on all kinds of forces that shape us throughout our lives. So it’s very, very helpful to hear people’s stories. I think when people feel heard, they’re more likely to listen. …

I was an insufferable teenager and young adult: I knew it all, I was right, I had the analysis down. I’m much more aware now of how complex it all is. I think we all need to come out with our own truth — but we have to be willing to have that challenged, be willing to listen and say maybe there’s another way of looking at this, another way of acting in the world against injustice.

What’s the best way for the average citizen to fight injustice day to day?

I used to know exactly what to say, and I’d tell them exactly what to do: that they damn well better start doing it! But now I’m more inclined to say, “Recognize our own complicity and see how you can start undoing your participation in it.” What I experienced in Memphis with the civil rights movement was the dignity and decency expressed in the way they challenged injustice. That discipline and dignity are what we need to really hone.

I recently saw those young people in California who were challenging the KKK. … People ended up being bashed with sticks and stabbed. And one side says they’re victorious because they chased off the KKK. To me, that doesn’t speak of dignity and discipline: It’s mayhem.

I understand it; I understand that we’re in times where that kind of reaction from the oppressed may rise and might continue to rise. But it behooves those of us who feel like there might be a third way of confronting injustice to prepare ourselves to speak out and act with discipline, dignity and courage. … All of us who want to speak out against injustice have to listen to one another, understand where we’re coming from and figure out ways to act together.

Pushing the boundaries: A book review of Clare Hanrahan’s “The Half Life of a Free Radical”

MEMORIES COME HARD: In her most recent book, Clare Hanrahan writes of her childhood in Memphis and her gradual awareness of the social injustices surrounding her hometown.
MEMORIES COME HARD: In her most recent book, Clare Hanrahan writes of her childhood in Memphis and her gradual awareness of the social injustices surrounding her hometown

It’s hard to pin down local author Clare Hanrahan’s latest book, The Half Life of a Free Radical: Growing Up Irish Catholic in Jim Crow Memphis. Part history, part memoir, part dreamcatcher, part adventure story, it defies easy categorization.

As the title suggests, much of the book focuses on the author’s early years in Memphis during the 1950s and ’60s. Desegregation, Elvis, the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. all get a mention.

Seeking to better understand her own childhood experiences, however, Hanrahan also looks to the more distant past, tracing her lineage back to the early 1800s. Tied in with these familial accounts of love and loss are the social and political issues faced by prior generations, many of which eerily echo present-day events.

The great flood of 1927, for example, displaced over 200,000 people, two-thirds of them black field laborers and their families. “People of color in the Delta,” writes Hanrahan, “were herded into camps and denied adequate food, medical treatment and shelter. Relief administrators siphoned off funds and supplies.”

The author then juxtaposes that disaster with 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. In both instances, notes Hanrahan, the Mississippi inundated African-American communities. And in the latter case, displaced residents were directed to the Louisiana Superdome, where they were “abandoned for days without adequate food, medical treatment or shelter.”

The book’s early chapters repeatedly employ this back-and-forth technique, highlighting the author’s own family connections to drive home the similarities between then and now. Her mother, for example, who was 10 years old in 1927, lived in an area affected by the flood. And while readers might initially be tempted to attribute the authorities’ poor decisions and immoral behavior to the simple fact that it all happened so long ago, the more recent events to which she draws comparisons quickly challenge and disrupt that notion.

Besides helping readers connect with the past, the technique also allows, if not forces, them to view the present through a historical lens. How will the events unfolding now be remembered when time has washed away our current defenses and justifications? What will future generations think of our behavior?

Half Life also seeks to demystify the radical: that perplexing figure who challenges the status quo. In 2000, Hanrahan was arrested during a peaceful protest at Fort Benning, Ga., and spent six months in a federal prison. For many, the story might begin and end right there: just another crazy, nut-job liberal. But the book aims to capture her gradual transformation into conscious citizen and activist. The fourth child of nine, she recounts such simple struggles as fighting for a place to sit at the dining room table, seeking a private moment in the bathroom, impatiently noting the slow progress of her developing breasts.

These anecdotes, however, impede the book’s pace and dilute the focus. Part of the problem is that Hanrahan tends to end sections with broad, bold statements about government lies and corruption, presumably meant to intrigue readers. But by sandwiching them between seemingly unrelated events, she leaves the reader wishing for more substantiation.

The second half of the book follows Hanrahan out into the greater world, though she returns to Memphis time and time again. Her writing is at its best when it’s most specific, vividly depicting particular experiences culled from a wildly unconventional life.

The details of the time she spent living on a shanty boat floating down the Mississippi, for example, create a seamless narrative, albeit one that’s still politically and environmentally motivated.

This section also serves up some of Hanrahan’s deepest moments of self-reflection on the consequences of a nomadic lifestyle — particularly the strains it created between her and her daughter. Those brief passages left this reader, at least, wondering whether the author might have another book up her sleeve.

On Wednesday, July 27, Clare Hanrahan will discuss her book at Firestorm Cafe & Books in West Asheville. On Thursday, Aug. 18, she’ll give a reading at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe downtown. Both events start at 7 p.m.

Thomas Calder

Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

Review by Bill Branyon, Author, Liberating Liberals

Clare Hanrahan’s new memoir is like those marvelous movies that start with a static picture of a populated main-street and then, suddenly, all the people start moving and the plot kicks intriguingly in. Hanrahan courageously and unflinchingly makes her 1950s and 60s Memphis home come hilariously, seriously, and deliriously alive with wonderfully idiosyncratic, richly-textured characters, a vibrant, wild and warm home and neighborhood life, and the Catholic, Irish, black, white, upper- and lower-crust of crazy, cozy, explosive Memphis Tennessee. Scores of richly-drawn characters, some famous and some now lost to history, live again in vivid conflict or harmony.

Ms. Hanrahan also elegantly dances through older, vivacious history that includes the burning of the crowded Sultana river boat after the Civil War, Ida B. Wells, Dorothy Day, Mother Jones, Elvis, the assassination of M.L. King, the effects of slavery and Jim Crow, Catholic comfort and trauma, and many other major Memphis and American historical events … all mixed lusciously together with intimate, interesting and funny family and neighborhood life in a way that shouts for a movie version of her book. It’s like a more courageous Forest Gump, only the heroine is brilliant instead of bumbling. Hollywood, take immediate heed! Ms. Hanrahan’s ability to set intriguing personal and neighborhood stories against the background of highly-textured history is a deep feeling that must be experienced by as many as people as possible.

You’ll never think of Memphis the same, and you will have your faith in human resilience and the ability to transcend one’s own flawed background, gloriously but realistically renewed. From Pillsbury Bake-offs to USO beauty pageants to prostitution con games to Vietnam’s unsung victims to Catholic Worker contradictions … the book seamlessly jumps back and forth from the shockingly frank domesticity of a nine kid family packed into a tiny house, to soaring, inspiring insights into large swaths of American history and freedom’s open road.

The memoir could have been written by Dickens with its numerous fun stories about child games and hanging out in Hanrahan’s hilarious and ominous North Memphis neighborhood, but it has constant Vonnegut irony and scope to keep it from too much sentimentality. It gets down and personal with Mercurochrome and Methyolate, Queen for a Day, Amos and Andy, Hambone, Brylcreem, W. C. Handy, Danny Thomas, horrible murders and hilarious weddings, etc. etc., all the way to totally immersed and scintillating story telling. And at the precise moment when Memphis starts to stultify and the social cornucopia seems a tad oppressive, Hanrahan launches on a Huckleberry Finnish, rickety houseboat, and then escapes down the dangerous Mississippi, slides into rural Tennessee splendor, confronts solace and challenge in St. Petersburg’s glorious and oppressed sunshine, and even flies to Europe’s emerald isle.

There is exquisitely beautiful writing throughout with often wonderfully-stark phrases like “endured dogma,” “letting go of the holding on,” “hair as gray as the winter clouds,” “the sharp tongue of invective as a shield for my more vulnerable self.” Golden sentences abound such as “It was an affliction wrapped up with the judgment of a moral failing and surrounded with deep shame,” and “deep stirrings of conscience that held me to the radical edge were such fragile feelings, cloaked with the familiar shame that is the dull companion of poverty.”

Hanrahan’s memoir is great historical drama, passionate sentiment, surprising information, realistic dialogue, courageous honesty, and shocking but compassionately-rendered frankness, all rolled into 300 riveting pages of rollicking, harsh and delicate revelation. Truman Capote’s early work comes to mind.

2 thoughts on “Review: The Half Life of a Free Radical

  1. Received the book yesterday, on page 205, more comments to follow from the oldest living cousin, at least this side of the Hudson. My wish is to meet with Clare. Ray


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