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Book Review : The Gee-Whiz Tale of 'Attila the Nun'

January 28, 1988|JONATHAN KIRSCH

Convictions: My Journey From the Convent to the Courtroom by Arlene Violet with Suda J. Prohaska (Random House: $17.95; 207 pages)

"When I was a child growing up, I never dreamed that I would become a nun," Arlene Violet confesses in her memoir, "Convictions." "I never dreamed when I was a young nun . . . that I would become a lawyer and be nicknamed 'Attila the Nun' . . . or that I would eventually be elected this country's first woman state attorney general. When I was attorney general, I never dreamed that I would retry Claus von Bulow, sit in a cell with a mobster, fight with politicians to rid the state of corrupt business practices, be profiled by '60 Minutes,' and employ bodyguards around the clock."

That's just the prologue to "Convictions," but the blurb pretty much sums up Violet's resume and the gee-whiz quality of the book itself. Violet shows herself to be a woman of conviction, a woman of accomplishment--but she and her collaborator have told the story in a curiously bloodless "celebrity bio" that somehow undercuts the seriousness of purpose in her life and career. And Violet persists in underplaying her own drive, her ambition, her undeniable hunger for power and fame--rather, she insists that she is astounded by what destiny has bestowed upon her:

"I never dreamed. I just followed my convictions. Sometimes they took you places you didn't want to go. But if you believed in your convictions, you couldn't help but get there."

Crusade Against Evil

Violet presents herself as a kind of jurisprudential Joan of Arc who was called to the law as an expression of her religious devotion and as a weapon for her crusade against evil. When she entered the Sisters of Mercy, she chose "crucis" ("Of the cross") as her name: "Not so much because I'm going to have a lot of crosses to bear in my life," she recalls quipping at the time, "but because I'm going to be a cross to a lot of other people." When she asked her superior for permission to attend law school, she announced that law "speaks to what we do best, filling the unmet need. The law is so powerful that it can literally change the way we act and think."

Violet's story is--as it is intended to be--thoroughly inspirational. She put herself to work in service to the poor, the disabled, the elderly, the young, and the vulnerable, both as a nun and as an attorney. She lived and worked in the worst urban tenements of Rhode Island, the nursing homes, the schools, the streets and back alleys.

She drew on her deep compassion, her sense of justice, and her skills as an attorney to fight against child abusers, despoilers of the environment, consumer fraud, organized crime, corruption in government. Along the way, she found herself at odds with her own bishop over the operation of a day-care center on property owned by the Church--and she allows us a rare glimpse of the passion that must have animated her throughout her life, but rarely surfaces in "Convictions."

Opts for Politics

"You are openly defying the bishop," her superior warned, "and it's bad for the Church to see a nun fighting with the bishop."

" 'He's a ruthless landlord," Violet replied.

"He's our bishop and God's representative on Earth."

"He's nothing more than an ecclesiastical blackmailer."

Eventually, Violet decided to enter electoral politics as a candidate for attorney general of Rhode Island, and she thereby shows us a more worldly and a more personally ambitious dimension of her soul. "I wanted to plumb the depths; I wanted to scale the heights," she writes of her victory at the polls. "I wanted to bring new vision to the office of attorney general." But she is somewhat less forthcoming about her fascination with celebrity, and her intuitive sense of self-promotion.

Indeed, Violet almost inadvertently reveals herself to be something of a self-promoter. As a prosecutor, she possessed a sure instinct for "sexy" cases and high-profile confrontations; she understood the novelty of her background and exploited her reputation as "Attila the Nun." For example, her decision to bring Claus von Bulow to trial after the reversal of his first conviction may have been legally sound, but it was also a marvelous opportunity to make headlines. And she betrays her own giddiness in devoting a whole chapter to her appearance on "60 Minutes" ("Slowly, the office transformed itself . . . to a small Cecil B. DeMille sound stage"), her visit to the White House ("I found Nancy to be personally charming") and her banquet-table chit-chat with Elizabeth Taylor: "I wish you lived in California," Liz told Violet. "We'd be great friends."

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