Scott MacKay Commentary: Patrick Kennedy's Journey In His New Book

Oct 9, 2015

Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy has pulled the veil from his famous family in a new book that details his addiction and mental health issues.  Some members of his family have reacted angrily to the book, calling the memoir inaccurate. RIPR’s Scott MacKay says Kennedy deserves a Profile in Courage award of his own.

Patrick Kennedy, not the turkey, may be the one getting carved up at the family Thanksgiving table next month. His book, `A Common Struggle’ tells the story of his mental health and addiction battles and his heart-wrenching story of trying to live up to his family’s legacy and secure his father’s love, respect and affection.

One of three children born to Sen. Ted Kennedy and Joan Bennett Kennedy, Patrick Kennedy was riddled with anxiety from an early age. He recalls starting to drink at age 13 and landed in drug rehab while still in prep school after a cocaine binge.

After washing out at Georgetown University, Ted Kennedy’s youngest son went to Providence College.

In one of the saddest and most revealing parts of the book, Patrick Kennedy recalls the serious spine tumor he developed while at PC. He required complicated surgery that could have left him paralyzed and put him in Massachusetts General Hospital for three weeks.

Yet, when he was diagnosed, he was gleeful. ``When I got this news I was, in some strange way, thrilled,’’ he writes. For once, Kennedy says, he had a sickness that society and his friends and family considered ``real, something you could see.’’

Kennedy laments that he told his 20-year old self, ``Thank God I have cancer’’ which his doctors initially feared. That was in sharp contrast to his addiction and mental health challenges, which made him feel like a weak person, ``as if I could control these illnesses but simply chose not to.’’

The segments  of the book that have generated the most publicity and family angst are those dealing with his mother, depicted as being so afflicted by alcoholism that she shambled around the house in the afternoon in a booze-induced haze, wearing a terrycloth robe. And his famous father, who salved his emotional pain and post-traumatic stress with alcohol.

These disclosures have rankled his bother, Ted Kennedy Jr., a Connecticut state senator who has also dealt with substance abuse, his mother and his step-mother, Vicki Kennedy. Brother Ted says that Patrick’s ``recollections of family events and particularly our parents are quite different from my own.’’

And Ted Jr. called his brother’s portrayals of his father ``inaccurate and unfair.’’

It is no secret that the Kennedys have fiercely protected the family’s public image. It started with patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy, the financier, diplomat and Hollywood mogul, who shaped an image of an All-American family with Irish roots. Rhode Islanders of a certain age will remember all those Life and Look magazine photos of the handsome clan playing touch football on the lawn at Hyannis port or sailing on Narragansett Bay near the summer White House in Newport during the 1960s. Then, after President John F. Kennedy was murdered, his widow enlisted journalist Teddy White to create the Camelot myth.

Ted Kennedy led both a charmed and tortured life. He was born to wealth, educated at the finest prep schools and Harvard. But this man born on third base would be the only of Joseph Kennedy’s four sons to live to have a head of gray hair. He lost a brother to war and two others to assassins. One sister died in a plane crash and another was institutionalized after a botched lobotomy.

What the surviving Kennedys should understand is that nothing Patrick writes will ever diminish his father’s achievements or his political record. While brothers John and Robert were bored by the Senate, Ted became arguably one of the most productive senators of all time. He was a liberal’s liberal and a liberal’s bipartisan. The father of womb to tomb health care, in his half-century in the Senate this man of means became the foremost voice in Washington for those who had none.

Ted Kennedy’s accomplishments are too long to list. What is missed most in this era of gridlock and bitter congressional partisanship is Kennedy’s ability to walk across the aisle and forge compromises with such Republicans as John McCain and Orrin Hatch, politicians he didn’t much agree with but always treated with respect.

The other aspect is that Ted Kennedy’s struggles were well-known. Reporters who covered him, particularly between his divorce and remarriage,  saw this. The media was full of these reports.

I’ll never forget a sunny Sunday morning in September, 1988, three days before Patrick Kennedy’s primary election for a state rep seat in the Providence’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood. Ted Kennedy arrived about 7 a.m., very hung-over, hands trembling, breathing vodka through a half-dozen spearmint Certs. I wondered how he could deliver his scheduled speech at a big breakfast rally for his son.

Yet, 90 minutes or so later, after some coffee, it was vintage Ted Kennedy. Rivulets of sweat running down his florid face, his bracing baritone reaching the back of the huge function room, he urged the crowd to ``do yourself a favah, do Rhode Island a favah, on Tuesday vote for Paaaatrick Kenneeddy.’’

But Ted Kennedy suffered in private. After his son’s infamous 2006 auto crash at the nation’s capitol when he was a congressman, his father sought to minimize the accident. Even though his son was high on pills and had no recollection of smashing his Mustang into a security barrier, the senior Kennedy called the wreck a little ``fendah bendah.’’

That’s how the senior Kennedy wanted it played in the media. Kennedy recalls his father being livid after Patrick, post-crash, went public about his addiction treatment in the New York Times. A reporter had quoted Patrick on the iron curtain of family secrecy regarding depression and substance abuse.

He recalls his father labeling the Times piece a ``disaster’’ that hurt the family.

``I stood there on the verge of disintegration. I was still early in my sobriety and still pretty vulnerable.,’’ Patrick writes.

Then his cousin, television reporter Maria Shriver, challenged Ted. ``I think what Patrick did was fantastic,’’ Maria said. ``That’s what we need in our family, someone to talk about this.’’

Since leaving Congress after his father’s death, Patrick Kennedy has been doing just that. In 21st century America, it is well neigh impossible and irresponsible to say that we don’t need to remove the stigma from mental health and addiction treatment. Every day brings news of a mentally unbalanced young male, marinated in our gun culture, shooting up a school, church or movie theater. Every day there is another report of the troubles opioid addiction is causing our society. Every day brings news of another fatal car accident triggered by a drug or alcohol impaired driver.

If you or someone in your family or friendship circle is suffering from mental illness or addiction issues, please get help or urge them to. Do yourself a favah, before it’s too late.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40 and atg 5:44 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political commentary and reporting at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org