Claire Conner grew up "inside'' the John Birch Society, the anti-Communist, right-wing group started by Robert Welch in the 1950s. She was 12 when her parents became founding members of JBS, and she spent her teenage years wrapped up in their cause. Conner, a Dunedin resident, will be a featured author at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Saturday at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where she will discuss her memoir, Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America's Radical Right, which recounts her experiences and eventual break with her parents.
What books are on your nightstand?
It's funny you ask that. I just spent several days with my granddaughter (Madelyn Claire, who is 4 months old). We read all kinds of children's books, especially Dr. Seuss. I was really loving the language of Dr. Seuss and the messages of his books, in particular The Cat in the Hat. I love his words like: "This mess is so big and so deep and so tall, we cannot pick it up. There is no way at all.'' I realized that those lines remind me so much of what's happening in Washington right now.
Along with that, I've been reading The Grapes of Wrath. I haven't read it in a long time. It was very transformative to me when I read it in high school. I was born in 1945, after the Great Depression, but I heard many stories from adults on how beggars would come to the door of our Chicago apartment asking for food. That's how devastated the economy was, and the U.S. was, and there were no safety net programs. Steinbeck became powerful to me. That book did as much as any book in changing what the government should do to help people.
Did your parents stop you from reading certain books?
Well, actually most of the books I read, my parents did not approve of, but there was one particular high school teacher who had a shelf for advanced readers. She gave books to me to read. Because of her, I read classics like The Grapes of Wrath, The Pearl, Madame Bovary and The Catcher in the Rye.
How important of a role did books play when it came to your realization that you disagreed with your parents' beliefs?
They were everything. I think that fiction has an important way of making things real.