Kellyanne Conway’s Catholic girlhood and my own
People who know me even slightly are shocked when they hear me say that I have a lot in common with Kellyanne Conway. How can I, a left-wing feminist who went into four years of mourning at Donald Trump’s election, feel any kinship with the woman who arguably made his election possible? How can I, a person who prides myself on being devoted to precision of language, have any connection with the author of the phrase “alternate facts”? But my early life is eerily similar to hers.
We were both raised in families presided over by a working mother, a grandmother and aunts (we both have Aunt Ritas and Aunt Maries). Our households lacked fathers. Ethnically, we are both a mix of Irish and Italian, although in my case, my father, a Lithuanian Jew, enriches the broth. We are both products of Catholic education through high school. We were both ambitious, with almost no one around to guide us through luck or peasant wisdom to the goals we only dimly apprehended. We both got further than anyone might have predicted. We are both unafraid of standing up to powerful men.
Conway’s publication of her memoir, Here’s the Deal, prompted me to consider more closely our similarities and differences. I tried to make sense of them in the only way I can make sense of anything: by forming it as a narrative (albeit one without “alternate facts”). What would the shape of my narrative be? Its focus could be the historical and the cultural.
How can I, a left-wing feminist who went into four years of mourning at Donald Trump’s election, feel any kinship with the woman who arguably made his election possible?
Though Conway and I are both American and Catholic, we came of age (I am 18 years older than she) in radically different Americas and radically different Catholic Churches. The president of my formative years was JFK; hers was Ronald Reagan. Conway traces her attraction to politics to the time Reagan made a campaign stop in her hometown. In his speech, the visiting president even sang the praises of a local hero. “‘America’s future,’ Reagan said, ‘rests in the message of hope in songs of a man so many young Americans admire, New Jersey’s Bruce Springsteen.’” (Did Reagan actually listen to what Springsteen was saying about America?)
“Since I was co-captain of the field hockey team and had been New Jersey Blueberry Princess, I was among the handful of young people who got a chance to meet him,” Conway writes in Here’s the Deal. “It wasn’t any more than a polite hello and a handshake. But I was hooked.”
I wasn’t Blueberry Princess—or, God knows, captain of my field hockey team—I only got to touch Kennedy’s sleeve when he stopped at my home town. But I imagine that I found in him what Conway found in Reagan: “a leader who was aspirational and accessible. Patriotic. Resolute.” In my case, Kennedy’s words, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” were stamped on my imagination and my soul.
Though Conway and I are both American and Catholic, we came of age in radically different Americas and radically different Catholic Churches.
If we were raised in different Americas, we were raised in a different church as well. The pope of my young years was Pope John XXIII: the roly-poly Italian whose family brought him sausages from home, the one who opened the windows of the church. Hers was the lean and mean Pole—Pope John Paul II—a champion skier who made it his business to shut the windows tight.
Even as children, our way of being Catholic was very different. My way was to be insufferably pious; serious to a degree that must have made people want to slap me. I was obsessed with virgin martyrs. At 12, I wrote a book called God’s Young Friends about saints who had died young. One of them was Dominic Savio, and following his example, I held a crucifix in front of boys who were using “foul language.” I repeated Dominic’s words: “Say it in front of Him.” In his hagiographies, Dominic’s Neapolitan boys fell to their knees. My neighborhood guys said it in front of Him.
Conway’s descriptions of her childhood Catholicism focus on its social and communal aspects: weekly novenas, Sunday Mass, youth club. Although she thinks of herself as an “outsider,” she seems much more supported by her family and community than I was. Her grandmother and aunts seem nicer than mine. My grandmother was a tough, no-nonsense Irishwoman who had come over to America by herself at age 17. My aunt Rita was the coldest person I have ever known, with a well-honed talent for humiliation, particularly of the child she shared a home with.
I imagine that I found in Kennedy what Conway found in Reagan: “a leader who was aspirational and accessible. Patriotic. Resolute.”
And because Conway enjoyed sports, she was not an outlier in her community, as I was. My preferred sport was turning pages. I was happiest in books; reading was the only time I felt really at home. That I was a reader and she was not explains another aspect of the difference in our Catholicism: I was devouring Lives of the Saints in my childhood while she was working on booths for the parish fair. Her Catholicism is an outgrowth and extension of ethnic identity: to be Irish or Italian is to be Catholic. I found myself becoming a Catholic who wanted a world where people had never heard of Padre Pio but knew about Sartre and Matisse.
Her high school yearbook mentions her ambitions: “kissing Rick Springfield, being the best lawyer, wife and mother.” Mine were to be published in The New Yorker, live in the Village and be fluent in French. If I had wanted to kiss a singer, it would have been Leonard Cohen.
The two issues that estranged me from the church for more than a decade—“Humanae Vitae” and the Vietnam War—were old news by the time Conway was in high school. I came of age in the New York of Cardinal Francis Spellman, the architect of the American church’s response to Vietnam. In those years, to be Catholic was above all to be anti-Communist.
She was thrilled to have a private audience with Pope John Paul II. I was once offered the opportunity to meet him; not a fan, I refused. I said to the person who tried to facilitate that, “The pope and I have nothing in common but a publisher.” My husband, not drawn to the kind of smart-mouthing that Conway and I both enjoy, begged me never to put those words in print. Too late.
If I didn’t have an audience with the pope, I did have an encounter with Daniel Berrigan, S.J., to whom I, a pushy 16-year-old, showed my poems at a reading of his own poetry. He wrote to me after, saying I was a real poet. I knew I had to rethink Vietnam, and there was no turning back.
She was thrilled to have a private audience with Pope John Paul II. I was once offered the opportunity to meet him; not a fan, I refused.
Conway is eager to identify herself as Catholic, particularly in her position on abortion, and certainly in speaking about her wedding (not in her parish church but in the basilica in Philadelphia). It is clear that she made the most of her Catholic connections. But when the hierarchy says something critical of any of Donald Trump’s positions—on immigration, for example—she dismisses them “respectfully,” basically saying (on EWTN, no less) that the bishops don’t know what they’re talking about.
Conway was comfortable in the Catholic educational system; I was determined to escape it. Though she was valedictorian of her high school class, Conway was waitlisted when she applied to Georgetown. In a profile of Conway in Cosmopolitan in January 2017 by Kristen Mascia, Conway’s high school English teacher said of her, “I didn’t think she was a deep thinker. But I do remember that she would argue her point relentlessly. You would pray to God that the bell would ring.”
She was instead accepted at Trinity College. In the bad old days when Catholic girls were forbidden to apply to non-Catholic colleges (my high school refused to send my transcripts to Barnard. I had to have the Barnard admissions office call and shame them into doing it), Trinity was an elite school for smart middle-class girls. By the 1970s, it had changed its mandate to be more inclusive, “less selective” in Conway’s words. She didn’t apply to George Washington or American University.
I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I chafed under the agenda-based approach to the arts that seemed to me inseparable from Catholic education. I believed I couldn’t get what I needed unless I could be some place with a lot of Jews—preferably the Glass family from J. D. Salinger’s fiction, with whom I was obsessed. Because of them I made my way to Barnard, the women’s college of Columbia, where Seymour Glass had gone.
I can go just so far in being a neutral narrator. There is nothing in me that can empathize with the streak of cruelty that is everywhere present in the pages of Here’s the Deal. This is a person who makes a point of being grateful for her Catholic school training. One suspects she was absent on certain days when the nuns discussed the importance of being charitable to others. Conway is consistently comfortable mocking the physical appearance of those she believes have attacked her, or writing them off for being unmarried and childless—and therefore unable to make judgments on her or her family.
This is a rhetorical strategy that extends beyond Here’s the Deal. Responding to criticisms of her Inauguration Day outfit, she repeats and expands upon in Here’s the Deal an insult she first delivered in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in 2017: “Sorry to offend the black-stretch-pants-wearing women of America with a little color. I apologize to everybody out there who no longer wears anything that snaps, buttons, or zips.”
There is nothing in me that can empathize with the streak of cruelty that is everywhere present in the pages of Here’s the Deal.
If my narrative centered on the emotional and psychological aspects of my characters, I would concentrate on the response of Conway and myself to growing up fatherless. My father died when I was 7, and that loss more than anything has marked my life. My “Rosebud moment” occurred when relatives said to me, “You don’t have to be sad, your father is happy in heaven.” Something in me refused to accept that and rebelled silently. I determined that I would never accept anything that was clearly untrue. The five years after my father’s death were a fugue state of gelatinous misery.
Conway had her miseries too, but she won’t allow them to go by that name. Her treatment of them in her book is revelatory of her ability to present two contradictory versions of the same story without batting an eye, certainly without noticing the contradictions.
Arguably, the way one begins a book is an important move. This is how Conway begins hers:
I have an early memory of my father. The two of us are eating pancakes together, sitting at the kitchen table like normal families do, acting as if the scene was certain to repeat itself a million times over. So here’s what’s strange about that father-daughter breakfast: I’m not sure if it really happened or if it’s only wishful thinking on my part. But I cling to that early, early memory of us because it’s the only one I have.
After that, she doesn’t see him for nine years; then he shows up at her confirmation. “Then I had to decide whether to invite him into my life. I said yes, got myself a father and a half brother, and learned the value of forgiveness, redemption, and second chances,” she writes. “He quickly became a cool dad, taking my friends and me to arcades, scary movies, and Phillies games.”
I think I am luckier than Kellyanne Conway. There is no Donald Trump in my life.
There’s a major gap between the pancake episode, with which she begins her book, and the “no problem” response to her cool dad. She refers to painful memories with which I could readily emphasize: the uneasiness of being the only one without a father in her Catholic school class, the mortification when everyone else was making Father’s Day cards and she had to make hers for an uncle. But she never adds anger or sorrow to anything she says about her father.
She got the “no problem” tone not only from her mother, whose husband left her for another family, but also from her grandmother, whose husband did the same. But in her grandfather’s case, there was more than simple abandonment. As reported by Kevin C. Shelly in Philly Voice in 2017, a 1992 New Jersey Organized Crime Commission report on the hidden influence of organized crime in bars named James DiNatale, Conway’s grandfather, 26 times. He is repeatedly identified as a mob associate, though there does not appear to be any record of DiNatale being charged, let alone convicted, of any crimes.
He was known as “Jimmy the Brute.” In fact, “The Brute” is engraved on his tombstone.
But Conway’s mother insists that he got the nickname because he once lifted two heavy truck engines, not because of his Mafia connections. “My father was a good man,” she told The Daily Mail in April 2017. “He helped anyone who needed help. If someone needed money he would be there—and it would always be on a handshake not on paper.”
Anyone wondering why Kellyanne Conway was so skilled at defending Trump’s indefensible behavior and policies might note that this book portrays her as one of the third generation of women who believe that “men just do those things,” and no accountability need be demanded of them; it’s a woman’s job to make them look good.
I think I am luckier than Kellyanne Conway. There is no Donald Trump in my life.