A conversation with Clare Hanrahan

MAKING AN IMPACT: On the roof of Battery Park, Clare Hanrahan speaks of her life as an activist: "I don’t have any illusions," she says. "I'm an experimenter in nonviolence trying to live with integrity." Photo 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.


Thanks for reading through to the end…

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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2 thoughts on “A conversation with Clare Hanrahan

  1. Marcianne Miller

    Thanks, Thomas, for such a good interview of a remarkable woman and an insightful review of her latest book, which I can’t wait to read. As an Irish Catholic liberal nut job myself, I have followed Clare’s bravery for years. She always leaves me thinking that I should be doing more of the actions in Life that really matter. Thanks, Clare, for your inspiration.

  2. boatrocker

    Clare- we’ve never met, but back in about 1998-99 I lived in North Asheville. Apparently, many people had our phone numbers confused and I literally got more messages for you than me on my answering machine (back in the days of land lines).

    At that point I knew who was going to be late, who could not make it to a meeting, and many interesting facts about a newsletter or a mailing list I believe.

    In addition, I would retroactively apologize if any of my friends who may have accidentally drunk dialed you at 2am to talk about something totally pointless.

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