Patrick Kennedy, son of the late Ted Kennedy, has just published a personal memoir called “A Common Struggle” chronically Patrick’s struggles with alcohol addiction and mental health issues. In the book, Patrick provides in great detail his perception of his parents’ struggles with alcoholism and the Kennedy family struggles with mental health issues.
Patrick’s book has not been well received by some within the Kennedy family. Patrick’s brother Ted, Jr. stated: “I admire him for his candor about his own challenges. However, I am heartbroken that Patrick has chosen to write what is an inaccurate and unfair portrayal of our family. My brother’s recollection of family events and particularly our parents are quite different from my own.”
Patrick’s cousin Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the nephew of Ted Kennedy, disagrees. Robert Kennedy sat down with Sam Seder of Ring of Fire in a detailed interviewed. Some of Robert’s most poignant statements are below. The entire interview can be heard in the video of above.
There’s a hundred people in my family, so I think people will have different reactions to Patrick’s book. I, am personally, really proud of Patrick. I think what he’s doing is consistent with everything that my family has stood for. He’s fighting for an issue that he’s passionate about, which is civil rights for people with mental illnesses, and trying to bring those people into America’s democratic fold. He particularly wants to make sure that they feel confident to be out in the open and able to fight for their rights against an insurance industry that uses the secretiveness, the shame, the stigma of mental illness to deny them compensation for their healthcare. They are legally entitled to that compensation, but the insurers seldom pay since they are confident they can use the stigma to force people with mental illness to stand down. Patrick is standing up for them.
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[Ted Kennedy, Patrick’s father and my uncle] was utterly crushed by my father’s [Robert F. Kennedy’s] assassination, but he’d already been devastated by the death of my Uncle Jack [John F. Kennedy], his elder brother Joe and my grandfather’s debilitating stroke. His three elder brothers had all died in service to their country, and all of them died violently. He was traumatized. Patrick’s notion that Teddy suffered PTSD and was self-medicating with alcohol is plausible. Teddy had a hard time talking about anything to do with his brothers deaths or with my cousin, John’s, which shattered his heart. I did succeed in talking to him about the Warren Commission Report, but it was an agonizing discussion. He just had a visceral unwillingness. He would wince and his eyes would tear. He was profoundly and dramatically affected and he never got over it.
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Also, there was an ethic in my family that, we didn’t have much right to complain, because we were lucky in so many other ways. We had wealth, we had education, and we had wonderful friends. We had a very supportive family. There were kids in Harlem and Watts, and other parts of our country, who lost their fathers to gun violence every day. They didn’t have the resources that we did. My mother always said, “Everybody takes their licks.” Life is hard for everybody, and it’s been easier, on balance, for us than it is for most of the people on the planet. That was a perspective that made it easy to stay grateful.
Any kind of complaining or self-pity was definitely discouraged. My grandfather, Joseph Kennedy, would clap his hands and say, “No whining in this house – and no long faces.” I don’t think that was so bad. There’s a peril to dwelling too much in the past. It was like, “You can look, but don’t stare”. If you dwell too long on your injuries or your troubles or your tragedies, you can get stuck there. It’s like swallowing poison in a way. You have to move forward. We all, ultimately, have to move forward and create our own narratives. I don’t think it was necessarily an unhealthy impulse, not to dwell so much on those tragedies. My Aunt Eunice would tell us that there were too many important things going on right now – too many problems that could actually be solved. My own experience was that I had a much greater comfort talking about the assassinations among some members of our generation and with my children, than with my Uncle Teddy or my father’s other siblings.
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Patrick talks about an intervention that he participated in, where Teddy walked out. Many of us participated, that year, in interventions with Uncle Teddy. More than a dozen of us from two generations were involved in various coordinated interventions. My own experience was a very good one with Teddy. I flew to Washington to talk to him, and he responded very positively, and he was both grateful and gracious. In the end, I think, a combination of all those interventions and his subsequent marriage to Vicky really helped to change the way that he interacted with the world, and the way that he used alcohol. He never stopped, which, of course, we all advocated. But he moderated his drinking, so that after 1992, it was no longer causing a serious problem in his life.
I think everybody in my generation, at various times, had anger at Teddy, but over time, we all forgave him. We knew that he was crushed by my father’s death, by the deaths of his three older brothers. He was left raising twenty fatherless children, my eleven brothers and sisters, John Kennedy’s two children, Peter Lawford’s four children, plus three of his own. He never missed our birthdays. He attended all our weddings. He was at all every graduation. He returned every phone call and almost always within the hour.
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With all of these different expansions of American Democracy, our family has been at the forefront. Going back to my great-grandfather, Honey Fitz, his proudest achievement in Congress was killing Henry Cabot Lodge’s literacy requirements that were designed to exclude Italian immigrants from taking part in the democratic process. I think the last frontier of those battles, and the last barrier, is for people who have mental illnesses. Under the law, people with mental illnesses are entitled to health insurance. They’re entitled to treatment in hospitals, but the insurance companies systematically deny them, believing that they’ll be too ashamed or too fragile to stand up for themselves. Patrick’s effort is to say, “We’re coming out of the darkness. People who have these illnesses have a right to treatment. They are our brothers. They are our sisters. We need to take care of them as American’s.” Patrick has stood up to say, “I have this illness myself”. He is giving other people the courage to do the same. I think he needed to start that journey by telling his own story of mental illness. I think it’s noble, and it’s heroic, and I have nothing but admiration for him.