Claudia Conway, the 15-year-old daughter of Kellyanne and George Conway, is, depending on who you ask, a whistleblower hero or a child in need of help whose privacy should be protected. Her medium of choice is TikTok, and in recent days, she broke the news of her mother’s positive COVID test, as well as her own. Her TikTok posts about President Donald Trump’s health being worse than his team has been letting on also have made headlines.
Claudia came to public prominence earlier this summer after posting anti-Trump and pro-Black Lives Matter videos, as well as emotionally plaintive videos referring to family strife, trauma, abuse, and her desire for emancipation ― all of which led Kellyanne to resign from her job as a White House counselor and George to step back from the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. Both cited a need to put their family first. Claudia immediately took to TikTok to condemn this as a PR stunt, revealing that her parents hadn’t even disclosed their plans to her, their purported priority. She found out, like the rest of us, from Twitter.
I have viewed her videos over the course of the past months with empathy, concern, and deep pangs of recognition. Like Claudia, I grew up watching my mother on Fox News, sought a public platform to differentiate myself as a teenager, and have grappled with my mother’s decision to defend a powerful Republican man credibly accused of sexual misconduct.
My mother, Susan Estrich, was the first woman to run a presidential campaign (Democrat Michael Dukakis’ in 1988); Kellyanne was the first woman to run a Republican presidential campaign. Though my mother is a Democrat and has always been vociferously anti-Trump, in 2016, she stepped up to defend then-Fox News CEO Roger Ailes.
When I was the same age as Claudia is now, I sold a novel inspired by my experiences growing up in Los Angeles among the progeny of Hollywood’s power players. It started out as a darkly comedic book about a 12-year-old girl struggling with body image, mental health issues, family conflict, and social alienation. By the time it was published, in the summer of 2009, it had morphed into a YA novel about a 16-year-old girl complete with the mandatory Best Friend, Bitchy Popular Girls, Seductive but Disappointing Love Interest, and even, though this I included reluctantly, The One Who Has Been There All Along. I took great pains to fictionalize the parents and ensure that none of the characters were too deeply flawed.
The book was published the summer after my freshman year at Harvard University, and my mother helped me prepare for interviews and TV appearances. If you ever feel stuck or don’t know what to say, just smile and laugh, she advised.
I spent many weekend afternoons throughout my childhood in the green room of Fox News’s L.A. bureau, chatting with the makeup artists while my mother did live hits. She was one of Fox’s token liberals, brought on to offer friendly dissent and liven up the debate. In spite of ideological differences, she got along with almost everyone on Fox. I learned from her ― and not just her, but all the prominent Democratic women of the time ― that diplomacy was a powerful and necessary tool. That the best way to change the rules was to play by them and win. Knock down the door from the inside, and so on.
My first live TV appearance was on Fox & Friends, during which the anchors asked if I thought Sarah Palin was a good role model for young girls. I said no, but I carefully sidestepped politics, focusing on Palin’s resignation as Alaska’s governor and her failure to follow through with her commitments. I also appeared on Sean Hannity’s Great American Panel to discuss health care reform ― a subject I, a 19-year-old novelist with exactly one half of a congressional internship under her belt, was hilariously underqualified to discuss. So I was deliberately conciliatory and measured in my support of a public option. I tried to thread an unthreadable needle, to be both incisive and uncontroversial, authentic and polished.
In spite of ideological differences, [my mom] got along with almost everyone on Fox. I learned from her... that diplomacy was a powerful and necessary tool. That the best way to change the rules was to play by them and win. Knock down the door from the inside, and so on.
My moment of greatest on-air discomfort took place on Fox’s now-defunct late night show, “Red Eye.” I sat at a glass table across from Kimberly Guilfoyle while the host, Greg Gutfeld, read my introduction off the teleprompter. ”Our next guest is just like (Ernest) Hemingway, if Hemingway had great legs and didn’t blow his brains out,” Gutfeld said. ”She knows teens like I wish I knew teens.”
The camera turned to me. I smiled and laughed.
I felt stiff and prudish and naïve compared to Guilfoyle, who jumped right in with bawdy jokes. She has since been accused of extensive sexual harassment during her employment at Fox.
I had been trying to leverage my age but not act it for years, ever since I first queried literary agents at age 12. By 19, I was used to being taken seriously, but not sexually.
My book made The Los Angeles Times Bestseller list shortly thereafter. This was followed by a profile on the front page of the newspaper’s Calendar section. I wore clothes borrowed from my mother to meet the reporter, who was more interested in my necklace, a black cord with a silver bar that read BREATHE. The reporter asked if this referred to anxiety, if that was something I had in common with the protagonist of my book. I didn’t take the opening. Instead, I said something evasive about it being a reminder to be in the moment and appreciate everything I have.
The opening line of the resulting profile read: A privileged life isn’t always the same as a charmed life, but Isabel Kaplan is one of those rare people who leads both.
Joke’s on me, I remember thinking, depressed and lonely in my childhood bedroom. Isn’t this what you wanted?
My freshman year of college, I took a class on autobiography and literary Imagination, taught by Jamaica Kincaid. The final project was to write our own autobiographies. Jamaica kept encouraging me to write with more vulnerability and ruthless honesty. I brought this up on the phone with my therapist, hoping for her encouragement. She was also, separately, my mother’s therapist. And my father’s. She advised me to be careful about what I wrote because she thought I might run for office someday and hadn’t I seen what the Republicans did, digging up and trying to weaponize the college papers of Barack and Michelle Obama?
I felt flattered by her belief that I might run for office. I tried to write a memoir that was both honest and kind. It wasn’t very good.
My mother and I have always had a close and complicated relationship, but our areas of greatest tension were personal, not political, until the summer of 2016, when she stepped up to defend Ailes against charges of sexual harassment, first by former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson and then by numerous other women. I struggled to understand why my mother ― a rape victim herself, who had fought doggedly for victim’s rights and to bring rape law into law school curriculums, who coined the term “nuts and sluts” to refer to character-smearing rape allegation defenses ― would agree to represent him.
I could have taken to Twitter; I could have identified myself as her daughter and offered public criticism. I might have gotten attention for it, might have increased my follower count. But I didn’t, in part because I was afraid of hurting her.
I did want to write about growing disillusioned with mainstream feminism and the ways in which my mother’s representation of Ailes led me to rethink and question my own complicity in a deeply broken system, but I wanted to do it in a nuanced, considerate way, and social media doesn’t allow for or encourage much of that. So I wrote a book, and I tried to write with more vulnerability, empathy, and understanding than I’d been capable of as a teenager. I still worry about upsetting my mother. I’m her daughter, and I love her. But she understands and accepts that writing is the only way I know how to process life, and that means a lot to me.
In Claudia Conway, I see a Gen-Z alter-ego, a teenager I might have been. In certain moments, I’ve found myself envying her candid, unvarnished honesty. But mostly, I find myself worried for and about her and the ways her cries for help are being co-opted and ignored by attempts to frame her as a whistleblower hero.
I still worry about upsetting my mother. I’m her daughter, and I love her. But she understands and accepts that writing is the only way I know how to process life, and that means a lot to me.
In a black and white video posted on Aug. 21, Claudia writes, in scattered text superimposed on a video of herself: You may know that my mom’s Kellyanne Conway but did you know... She reveals that she has severe depression, that she has bad PTSD from childhood trauma and abuse, that she doesn’t feel safe at home, that the hate from other social media users gets to her, that she wants a private life, that she misses her grandma, that it’s hard for her to feel drunk or high because she’s already so dissociated from reality, that she hates the attention, that she hates social media but it’s the only place she feels safe, that she hates hookups and just wants love.
Things have not, I would venture to guess based on the ensuing content, gotten much better for Claudia since then, though she has certainly accrued fame and TikTok followers. Some of her videos feature her scantily clad and heavily made-up, dancing and lip-synching to explicit lyrics. Other videos concern her leftist politics, and others her emotional struggles. A number of videos feature her crying, dark eye makeup running down her cheeks.
She has expressed frustration with the media’s coverage of her. During a recent livestream, much of which she conducted in the playground language of gibberish, presumably to avoid being overheard by her mother, she learned from a viewer’s comment that she was trending on Twitter and asked “Why? Why am I trending?”
She had, just half-an-hour earlier, posted a triptych of since-deleted videos in which an off-screen Kellyanne dictates what Claudia should say to clarify that Kellyanne did not conceal a positive COVID test from her daughter, as Claudia previously claimed, but rather that she took three tests, the first of which came out negative, the latter two positive.
Last week, Claudia posted screenshots of a statement in which she expressed regret at the controversy wrought by her recent videos and comments. “I am appalled at the mainstream media’s efforts to exploit a teenage girl, which is negatively affecting my mental health,” the statement reads. It concludes with a bolded paragraph explaining that she is quarantining with her mother and they are doing everything they can to stay healthy. “We are going to enjoy our quarantine together away from social media,” she writes. The comments section is filled with speculation about whether this is a veiled cry for help, whether her mother forced her to post it, whether she even wrote the statement herself.
Though Claudia has periodically announced intended social media breaks before, she’s never stayed off for long. Maybe this time, for the sake of her mental health, she will. But that seems unlikely, and it’s hard to imagine recuperating from coronavirus in isolation with the mother she has accused of abuse and sought emancipation from as a mental-health boosting experience to enjoy.
The media and Twitterverse are divided about how to discuss Claudia. Some extoll her as a hero, a whistleblower for our times. Others advocate for her right to privacy as a minor, even as she continues to post public videos. Some have likened her to a YA novel protagonist, which I find to be an interesting and useful comparison.
I never feel as old as I do when I scroll through TikTok and watch teenagers share their darkest secrets in the form of short video clips. How do they have the guts to do that, I wonder, though I know the answer, at least in part. It’s because they’re not alone...
There is an immediacy to YA novels, as compared to novels written about teenagers for an adult audience. Whatever’s happening is happening now; this is not a case of a narrator looking back on the past with the wisdom of hindsight and experience. There is great urgency and the stakes could not feel higher, regardless of whether it’s a political dystopia or high school rom-com. Perspective is limited. That’s what being a teenager feels like.
It’s also what living through 2020 feels like. Every day brings new, previously unimaginable horrors. Claudia Conway is crying out for help, and so is our country. Thanks to her political parentage, these two things, which should be separate, are now very much intertwined.
I never feel as old as I do when I scroll through TikTok and watch teenagers share their darkest secrets in the form of short video clips. How do they have the guts to do that, I wonder, though I know the answer, at least in part. It’s because they’re not alone, because they are modeling this kind of hyper-vulnerability for each other. Social norms have changed.
After I wrote my first book, I put a lot of pressure on myself to write another one quickly, before I aged out of precociousness. I’m extremely grateful to have had teachers who pushed back against that and urged me to take my time, to learn and grow first as both a person and a writer.
It’s boring and obvious to say our perspective changes as we get older. Generally speaking, what felt absolutely urgent at 15 seems less so at 30.
But in this specific moment, we may have an exception. This country is a powder keg. Every day, we wake up and log on and brace for new explosions.
We can’t afford to sit back and reflect, to take time to consider from all angles what we want to express to the world and how. I hope we’ll have time for that in the future. But right now, the house is burning down, and the Earth is burning up. Claudia Conway’s personal and family implosion is a microcosm of what’s happening in America. She should not be burdened with the role of The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen, but her despair and fury and rejection of civility politics should be a lesson to us all.
Isabel Kaplan is a writer from Los Angeles. She is the author of the national bestselling young adult novel Hancock Park and a co-founder of Project 100, an organization launched after the 2016 election to support progressive women running for Congress. She has a master’s degree in fiction from New York University and previously worked in TV drama development at Fox Broadcasting Company. Find her on Twitter at @isabelkaplan.