Memoir’s revelations humanize Kennedy legacy

In a new memoir, Patrick Kennedy contends that his father, Sen. Ted Kennedy, self-medicated with alcohol.
In a new memoir, Patrick Kennedy contends that his father, Sen. Ted Kennedy, self-medicated with alcohol. AP

Exposing the foibles of the Kennedy family has been a cottage industry since old Joe Kennedy made a bundle during Prohibition and caught a glimpse of Gloria Swanson.

The Kennedy story, equal parts triumph and tragedy, has been hawked by serious historians and shameless hucksters alike, gobbled up by an insatiable public that never seems to tire of tales where wealth, power, and misfortune collide to produce a quintessentially American saga.

It was amazing how much the Kennedys tried to control their narrative. They couldn’t do anything to stop the books, movies, and supermarket tabloids. They could, however, rest assured that no one in the family would break the Irish omerta that was honed over generations. It was as if the family had internalized that old Seamus Heaney verse: Whatever you say, say nothing.

That’s why Patrick Kennedy’s candid memoir about his struggle with mental health and addiction – and especially his contention that his father, Senator Ted Kennedy, self-medicated great emotional pain and post-traumatic stress with alcohol – is so shocking.

Almost as surprising, Patrick’s brother, Ted Jr., fired back with his own statement, guaranteeing this gets even more publicity. “My brother’s recollections of family events and particularly our parents are quite different from my own,” Ted Kennedy Jr. said.

But that’s not surprising. Patrick Kennedy acknowledges he has bipolar disorder. Even if he didn’t, his perceptions of relationships and defining events in his family would naturally be different from those of his siblings and other relatives.

Patrick Kennedy’s book is part of his ongoing recovery. It’s going to make some people, especially his relatives, very uncomfortable. Some will accuse him of soiling his father’s legacy to make a buck and sell some books.

That’s unfair to Patrick Kennedy and his father.

Since leaving Congress, Patrick Kennedy has devoted himself to pushing for better mental health care and drug treatment. In doing so, he is his father’s son. Ted Kennedy’s legislative achievements are unmatched in the Senate, but one he doesn’t get enough credit for is creating the mental health parity law.

Mental health and substance abuse should be treated no differently than a heart condition or diabetes, and reimbursed at comparable rates. One of the missing voices as insurers deny or nickel-and-dime mental health care and addiction treatment is Ted Kennedy’s. Parity is the law, but its implementation has lagged.

Ted Kennedy was a lion of the Senate, but he was human. He struggled with responsibilities that sometimes seem more inherited than genuinely wanted. He lost three brothers. He caused the death of a young woman. Fate forced him to be the patriarch of America’s most prominent political family long before he wanted or was ready.

I think there are few people who would be surprised to learn that Ted Kennedy drank too much at some points in his life. But I think the vast majority of people didn’t judge him so much as pity him. They recognized the burden and wouldn’t want it.

Patrick Kennedy’s account of his father’s personal struggles doesn’t diminish Ted Kennedy’s achievements or his humanity. It puts them in a more honest, human context. I admired Ted Kennedy more because I knew he was, like all of us, flawed. He spent much of his life searching for redemption, and he found it sticking up for the most vulnerable among us.

Patrick Kennedy’s book is essentially Step 4 of the 12 steps, in that he made a searching and fearless moral inventory of himself. We all should be so lucky.

Kevin Cullen writes for The Boston Globe.