Yesterday I wrote this post about Mary Kennedy’s death. I wrote about how I empathized with her experience of divorcing a rich and powerful family and that, if I had had the severe depression and substance abuse that she apparently suffered from, I might have felt that ending my life was my best option.
I based my assessment of Mary Kennedy’s mental health and substance abuse issues on what I read in the media.
Acclaimed addiction writer Susan Cheever wrote a piece in The Fix blaming dual diagnosis (substance abuse and depression) almost entirely for Mary Kennedy’s suicide. Now, it could be that she didn’t get proper treatment at dual-diagnosis rehabilitation centers. Or it could be that substance abuse treatment wouldn’t have solved what appears to be a bigger problem.
Copious news stories painted a picture of a woman who had wrestled with debilitating depression since girlhood. There were reports of erratic behavior, driving while intoxicated, an attempt by Robert Kennedy Jr. to get his wife hospitalized.
Most of the dark details the media glommed onto were quotes from Mary’s friend and sister-in-law Kerry, and from Robert Kennedy, who stated “I don’t know how she made it through the day. She was in agony for a lot of her life.”
Shortly after I posted my piece, a source in Mary’s camp wrote to tell me that my piece had missed the mark. My source told me that the Kennedys had put a spin on Mary Kennedy’s suicide, attributing it solely to weaknesses that were taken out of context — a context of a divorce she didn’t want, and a horrific custody battle.
Here is what my source wrote me:
“All M’s friends were thinking ‘What? Demons? Lifelong agony? Did I miss something?’ … they all concede that Bobby leaving left her shattered. She was in denial at first, then depressed … and it did get worse and worse. But that is hardly the story of her life and if he had any compassion — did he really need to do red carpets with new girlfriend, did the new girlfriend need to tweet every detail? Did he need to serve custody papers? — maybe she’d still be here. By saying M. suffered from depression, her whole life, he is removed from any accountability, it’s all depression’s fault.”
When I read that last line, I started to cry. I was siting in front of my computer in the butler’s pantry, and I kept getting up to go into the breakfast nook where the Kleenex is, to grab one or two tissues. But I kept having to get up to get more tissues because I couldn’t stop crying, until finally I grabbed the whole box.
I thought about Mary’s family, the Richardsons, who had a separate memorial from the Kennedys. I thought about her children — her children! — who may grow up to believe the narrative that their poor dad had to divorce their mother because she was a crazy alcoholic.
And as I sat there snorting into my Kleenex, I felt sick. Sick that I had swallowed the media spin. Sick that in my last post I in any way perpetuated the story that Mary would not have told about herself.
So I’m writing this piece to honor this woman in her entirety, instead of reducing her years on earth to a series of depressive, drunken episodes.
Yes, she drove under the influence. But there’s more to that story, says my source:
“The two DUIs? One was dismissed altogether because the substance was doctor-prescribed anti-anxiety pills. She was speeding, got pulled over and offered that information to the police. But the only law she broke was speeding. The other was reduced to negligent driving. So in other words, even the truths are warped and exaggerated for effect.
“Obviously no one kills themselves unless there’s something really wrong, but it was situational. No lifelong demons, no lifelong substance abuse. Depression / drugs and demons were not her life story.”
I don’t know what Robert Kennedy is really like, and I don’t know the reason he chose to leave his wife. But I do know this: when you are in a toxic relationship, especially one where there is an extreme imbalance of power, you can say and do crazy things.
Towards the end of my first marriage, Prince and I went on a Carribbean vacation with the entire Machiavelli clan. And on that trip it became blazingly obvious to me that his true attachment was to his family, and I was just someone to accompany him to parties and dinners. I knew that the marriage was going to end at some point, even if it took me leaving it.
And so I freaked out. I had kind of a breakdown. I couldn’t sleep or eat. I spent most of the vacation in bed, or holed up in our sumptuous hotel suite on the phone with my relatives, sobbing. I’m not religious, I don’t pray, but I sat on the floor of the shower, water pouring over me and I prayed to my dead mother to give me strength and show me what to do.
When I did shuffle out of the hotel room for dinner, I looked like hell. I had dropped several pounds in a few days, my face was gaunt, and I barely spoke. Prince never asked what was troubling me, but seemed irritated that I wasn’t being any fun. My mother-in-law glared at me and told me to “put on some lipstick” because I looked pale. My sister-in-law advised me to get my act together because “you don’t want my mother to see you being weak.”
It took me a couple more years to file for divorce, but when I did, I vacillated about leaving, which compounded Prince’s naturally aggressive temperament. When we finally did split, the splitting was more brutal than anything I could have imagined. Prince thrived on the brutality, while I struggled to keep myself from drowning in the undertow.
The Machiavellis seized on my vulnerability as further proof of my “mental illness.” A few years after the divorce, my babysitter went to my old house, the house where Prince still lived, to pick up my kids. My mother-in-law tried to hire her away, saying Prince needed a sitter. She interrogated my babysitter and slandered me: “Pauline doesn’t look well — what medication is she taking?”; “who is she dating and does he sleep over?”; “she was always a gold digger.”
My sitter went into the house to get the kids. Prince had just had surgery and was lying in bed, his future wife Sarah at his side. Prince also tried to hire away my sitter, telling her I was a terrible mother and my kids were much happier with him. Sarah sat there, expressionless, as if Prince were talking about the weather. My kids were playing down the hall. Who knows what they heard?
Who knows what anybody heard about me? Especially once the custody battle ignited? When Luca went to wilderness camp, he was given a psychological evaluation without my knowledge. When I got my hands on it, I read that Prince had told the psychologist the court had taken away my custody because I was “mentally ill” and “emotionally unable to parent” Luca. The truth was that I had voluntarily given Prince custody.
But what if I had never spoken to the psychologist and given him the custody order so he learned the truth?
And what about the people who have never met me, the people who just assume that I am the unfit mother who lost custody of her child?
The custody battle almost did me in. It was months and months of little sleep, little food, and terror that I would go bankrupt from legal fees. Plus, my son already hated me.
In the early morning darkness, during those hours when even mundane worries loom large, I laid wake and thought about ending it. Not because I wanted to die, but because I couldn’t imagine how I could survive the pain of losing Luca. I couldn’t imagine how I would reconstruct my life.
What kept me alive were three things.
My kids, especially Franny, whose attachment to me never wavered.
Not wanting to give Prince and his family the satisfaction of having destroyed me.
And this: I didn’t want my life narrative to be rewritten so that I looked mentally ill. I didn’t want Prince to run around gloating, “See? She really was crazy!”
Which brings me back to Mary Kennedy. Let’s remember her as a three-dimensional woman. Let’s tell the story told by those who really knew her:
“She was a strong, confident, kind woman, not this seething hysterical thing they made her out to be.”
Rest in peace, Mary Kennedy.