I first heard about Helen Woodson in Moscow. During a human rights discussion with weathered, wary Kremlin officials, one burst out, "Everyone speaks of [Soviet dissident Andrei] Sakharov. What about in your own country a female from Woodside, Calif., the mother of seven, imprisoned for 18 years for damaging a Minuteman missile concrete? Nobody speaks about it. Nobody writes about it."
We Americans had to admit that it was true. I wrote about the incident as it occurred. I received a letter from Helen Woodson at the women's prison in Alderson, W.Va. It was tart and written on lined notebook paper: "Actually, it's 11 [children] with 7 still at home. The event took place in Kansas City, not California . . . . I am not surprised that you have not heard of me. For the most part, the American media is not interested in the only true disarmament taking place -- acts of faith and conscience by nonviolent civil disobedience."
We corresponded further. She had refused to join her codefendants -- Carl and Paul Kabat, brothers who are Roman Catholic priests, and Larry Cloud-Morgan, an American Indian -- in an appeal for reduction of sentence for their blood-and-jackhammer attack on a nuclear missile site near Kansas City, Mo., in November 1984.
The judge reduced her sentence from 18 years to 12 years with parole and restitution. She sent him an affidavit saying that, immediately on release, she would return to the missile-site, jackhammer in hand. That intransigence could keep her in jail until 2001.
She was willing to discuss her cause but not personal life. I could come and see her only if I signed a promise not to try to reach her children or their sitters, who live in Madison, Wis. She has one natural son, 21. Three autistic foster children were sent to other families when she became committed to civil disobedience. The seven at home are retarded. The youngest, Jeremy, 6, has brain damage.
I saw Woodson from the front porch of the administration building as she walked across the clipped quadrangle that gives the jail its collegiate look. She had bushy dark hair, heavy eyebrows and was whistling.
At once, she told me what sustains her. Since February 1985, there have been four other such actions -- prayerful, bloodstained swipes at nuclear weapons in the name of "Operation Plowshares" or "Silo Pruning Hooks," the term her team used. She is 42, bright, verbal, ebullient. She chain-smokes. She knows that many Americans view her kind of resistance as demented, futile and repulsive and regard the perpetrators as dogmatic, highfalutin' fanatics.
She sees the irony of being used for propaganda in Moscow and America as a caution for any minded to civil disobedience. She has contempt for all governments but is not an anarchist. She's a "Catholic resister-mother" and thinks that resistance is best based on faith -- "secular movements burn out quickly." She does not brood about her harsh sentence -- some murderers serve less than one-third of her time -- or the fact that her sacrifice is noted mainly in obscure religious journals. She receives 100 letters weekly, many praising her courage.
Her fellow prisoners understand, she says. "They know how bad the bomb is and what it has done to their lives. The only thing they don't get is that we hang around to get caught . . . . If 100,000 mothers did it, they would not be sent to jail, and we would disarm this country. I am in prison because there aren't many of us."
Four hours of conversation show no chinks in the armor of her certainty. Is she torn about her children? No, they are well taken care of -- "If they were in a burning building, I would try to rescue them. I am trying to rescue them from a burning world." She talks to them once a week and sees them about twice a year. She says they understand that "mom is trying to break the bomb."
She had one bad moment about her choice, after her first civil disobedience. She poured her own blood, carried in Jeremy's bottle, on the presidential flag, the U.S. flag and the presidential seal during a White House tour in September 1982.
"I was in D.C. Jail, doing three months. I knew that I was going to have to do it again or else stop thinking about nuclear weapons. I cried about it. I knew I might never see my children again. But I had to do what I had to do," she says.
Helen Woodson thinks that she is where she belongs, at home with her conscience, taking care of her children at a great distance, doing the Lord's work.