Tuesday 20 February 2018

My dad the drunk: book that outraged the Kennedys

A revealing new memoir by Edward's troubled son Patrick has sent the clan to war

Family misfortunes: Patrick Kennedy with his father Ted, who he claims had a drinking problem, in 1980
Family misfortunes: Patrick Kennedy with his father Ted, who he claims had a drinking problem, in 1980
Patrick Kennedy

Debbie McGoldrick

The Kennedy family has lived through more than its fair share of gossip and drama over the years, but when one of their own turns the screws it's cause for particular pain and anger.

And so it goes with Patrick Kennedy, the youngest son of the late Senator Edward Kennedy, who just published a new self-help memoir titled A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Though the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction.

Former politician Kennedy (48), details his almost lifelong struggle with addiction and mental health issues in the 410-page book, and along the way outs his iconic father as an alcoholic and often distant parent who resorted to booze as a salve to cope with a host of Kennedy tragedies, chief among them the assassinations of his elder brothers John and Robert.

A teary-eyed Patrick, sober for almost five years, has been making the TV rounds to promote his book, but his mother Joan and sole surviving sibling Edward are angry that he's dredged up painful family history. They also assert that Patrick's recollections are untrue.

Joan Kennedy's myriad battles against chronic alcohol addiction are well documented, and her son's new book contains many passages that she likely hoped would stay private. "She spent much of my childhood in her room, doing little but drinking and surviving, as her mother did before her," Patrick writes.

"Occasionally she would come out and try her best to be attentive, like driving us somewhere. And when she swerved slowly down the street, my brother, sister and I would just giggle because we didn't know what else to do."

Joan Kennedy, now 79 and residing in Boston - her children assumed legal guardianship because of her alcoholism - said on Tuesday that she had no input into her son's book.

"I had no knowledge that Patrick was writing a book, and did not assist him in the project in any way. I was not given a copy of the book and have still not seen it or read it," Joan's attorney Margo Nash said on her behalf.

Patrick's brother Edward, who has also struggled with substance abuse, said the book is "misleading and hurtful."

"I am heartbroken that Patrick has chosen to write what is an inaccurate and unfair portrayal of our family. My brother's recollections of family events, and particularly our parents, are quite different from my own. Our father was a man with an extraordinary capacity for empathy and intimacy," Edward said in a prepared statement.

Patrick's book conjures a number of thoughts. It's easy to see how his mother and brother consider him to be indiscreet given the often dysfunctional family dynamic he describes.

But even more so, after he details one drunken and drugged-up episode after another - the first started at 10 years of age - it's a miracle that Patrick Kennedy is still alive.

His life in one way or another always revolved around Edward Kennedy. "My father went on in silent desperation for much of his life, self-medicating and unwittingly passing his unprocessed trauma on to my sister, brother and me," Patrick writes. "His own anguish was palpable and unspoken."

Family problems, Patrick says, needed to stay behind closed doors no matter what.

"I saw my mom's alcoholism and depression through the lens of my father's old-school attitude that she just couldn't keep it together. I can still hear him: 'Here she goes again…Oh my God…I can't believe it.'"

According to Patrick, his father was consumed with his work in the US Senate and would only truly focus on his youngest son when he suffered through regular asthmatic episodes. Raised by a nanny while his mother based herself in Boston after the separation from Edward, Patrick was regularly drinking and smoking pot by his early teens. Knowing his father was entertaining girlfriends in their family home increased his sense of isolation, he writes.

"He and my mom were separated by then so, in theory, he was free to do what he wanted. But it was still very weird for me to realize what was going on behind the closed door," Patrick writes.

The first of Patrick's multiple trips to rehab occurred in his teens, but his father couldn't accept that his child had issues with substance abuse.

"My dad had a drinking problem and was deeply in denial about it, but, well, he did function as a US senator, and a powerful one," Patrick offers.

"So it is unsurprising that he didn't believe in abstinence. And even after I had been in rehab at 18, he didn't seem concerned about my drinking or even drinking too much. He seemed mostly concerned that I not get into trouble or attract any negative attention to the family."

If that's true, Senator Kennedy didn't get what he wished for. Patrick's political life, which started when he won a local seat in Rhode Island and escalated to his election to the US House of Representatives when he was only 22, is chock full of horror stories including intoxicated car crashes, substance abuse covered up by loyal staff members, and debilitating bouts of depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder.

He writes that he and his two siblings - Kara, his only sister, died of a heart attack in 2011 at the age of 51 - tried to stage an intervention with their father to get him to curb his drinking, but the plea fell on deaf ears.

The move came after the infamous 1991 Florida rape trial and acquittal of Kennedy nephew William Kennedy Smith, son of former US Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith. Edward Kennedy led the Palm Beach drinking party on the fateful night in question, and suffered through the public shame that followed.

"We had our heads between our knees, almost, saying, 'Dad, we're concerned, we're worried about you, and we think you're drinking too much.' He took it the exact opposite way we hoped.

''What he heard was that we were abandoning him when he felt must vulnerable to the world and the judgments being made about him."

Patrick hardly practised what he preached, though, and continued drinking heavily and abusing all kinds of drugs. He recalled an incident in 2000 when he joined the Clintons on a trip to Ireland in the weeks before President Clinton left the White House. The invited delegation headed over on Air Force One.

"The atmosphere on the plane that evening was pretty charged," Kennedy recalls. "There was a lot of emotion and frivolity on that plane, and a lot of drinks being served. I was pounding rum and Cokes, and Jack and Cokes…and I remember, somewhere just before landing in Shannon, I was in the Air Force One bathroom again, this time throwing up.

"Of course I spent the next day with a splitting headache and feeling miserable, not at all enjoying what was an extraordinarily historic trip - the biggest official American trip to Ireland since my Uncle Jack went there in '63. I felt humiliated once I sobered up and realized that I had probably made an ass out of myself."

Patrick Kennedy left the US Congress in 2011 to fully commit to his sobriety - at that point, he clocked multiple stays in rehab - and focus on his personal life. He married his wife Amy in 2011, and they are expecting their fourth child. Mental health and addiction treatment advocacy takes up all of his professional time.

His father was hardly known as a saint, and Patrick Kennedy has faced backlash over his book not only from his family but from members of the public who feel that Edward Kennedy's personal issues should have remained private out of respect.

Though he felt overshadowed by his famous family for many years, Patrick Kennedy's memoir of rising above addiction and mental illness would have been a compelling read even without the airing of family secrets.

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