Mental illness. Is it something that resides within people? Or is it a dark beast that takes up residence on the shoulders of those who are labeled mentally ill? Is it strictly a faulty neurobiological mix? Or is it partly a reasonable response to feeling marginalized, elbowed into the corner by dominant social paradigms?
If you don’t see your lived experience reflected anywhere, or if your reflection tells you you’re “bad” or “defective,” wouldn’t you begin to feel depressed? If you feel you don’t have a voice, or if your voice is invalidated, what do you start to look like as years pass?
If you were a woman who felt confined during the Victorian era, perhaps you were labeled “hysterical.” Anyone remember the post-partum protagonist from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper? Her physician husband took her journals away and banished her to a single room in a bizarre attempt to confine her “slight hysterical tendency”…until she really did descend into postpartum psychosis, “seeing” other women trapped in the yellow wallpaper.
This short story is considered one of the first feminist literary works because it dared reveal what happened to women who chafed within the social constructs of traditional womanhood. If they didn’t do what they were supposed to do, they went crazy, died, or were simply forgotten.
Like the subjects of this post: Rosemary and Mary Kennedy.
JFK’s “retarded” younger sister was lobotomized on the down-low by Papa Joe and cloistered far from Hyannisport. Remember her? I didn’t, until one of my astute readers wrote me about the similarity between the ostracized Kennedy daughter and the latest ostracized Kennedy wife.
So I surfed over to Wikipedia, where I learned some interesting, and profoundly sad things.
It is suspected now that Rosemary did not have a low IQ, but an average IQ of 90 — that, when compared to the high IQ’s of her siblings and parents, seemed low. Growing up in an immensely competitive and high-achieving family, Rosemary knew she couldn’t match her siblings or please her father, to whom she wrote: “I would do anything to make you so happy. I hate to disappoint you in anyway.”
Reportedly, Rosemary suffered from an “agitated depression” marked by tantrums and rages. But I ask you: if you knew that your family was trying to keep you from view because you embarrassed them, would you not be given to tantrums and rages?
Or, as Kennedy biographer Robert Kessler writes:
“I think it’s likely she was somewhat slower than the others. Then she was treated as if she was retarded. Then it becomes reactive depression, including rages and loss of control. That is mental illness. … The reason she got depressed was that she reacted to being treated as a lesser member of the family.”
When Rosemary died in 2005, she was buried apart from the rest of the family, without a discernible grave marker. Even in the 21st Century, she was still considered a blight on the family’s record. For what? Being a slow student? Being depressed? Being depressed because she was cast off from her family? This is worse than addiction, philandering, bootlegging, blackmailing and any other assortment of abuses of power?
Here’s what Joe Kennedy wrote to the superintendent of Rosemary’s institution, thanking him for hiding the nuisance that was his daughter:
“After all, the solution of Rosemary’s problem has been a major factor in the ability of all the Kennedys to go about their life’s work and to try to do it as well as they can.”
Now. Couldn’t this statement apply just as easily to that other female Kennedy cast-off?
I don’t know if she had borderline personality disorder. I don’t know what happened in her home. I don’t know if her mental health issues precipitated her marital problems, or if her marital problems led to her mental health issues. But here is what I do know.
There is NO good reason the court documents from her custody battle should have been publicized. None. The decision to broadcast those lurid details, true or not, is heinous and classless.
The woman is dead. She can’t tell her side of the story. And because of this, she is now the poster child for borderline personality disorder.
So let’s have a look at the DSM-IV criteria for BPD. Let’s apply them to Mary Kennedy and try to tease out what her bag came packed with vs. what got packed in her bag.
1. Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment.
I’d say the abandonment was as real as it gets! The woman was losing her husband, her children, her home, her livelihood, her social circle, and her reputation. Given all this, how could she NOT be frantic?
2. A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.
I’ve only read about her relationship with her husband. But how could she NOT idealize a Kennedy? Our entire culture idealizes them — AND devalues them.The Kennedys, and our reaction to them, embody borderline phenomenology: they represent both the pinnacle and the underbelly of American success.
3. Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.
I don’t know what her self-image was like before her husband filed for divorce, but I do know this: for a woman, the prospect of losing custody of her children is core-shattering. When a father loses custody, it’s devastating — but he’s still a man. When a mother loses custody, she’s a social pariah: a half-woman, a non-mother, someone we don’t know what to do with. So any “identity disturbance” Mary Kennedy might have felt would have been completely justified in light of a custody battle.
4. Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating).
Okay. According to reports, Mary was hospitalized for anorexia. She had an eating disorder at one point in her life. So did I. So do bunches of women. When I was in college in the 80s, it was not uncommon to walk into the bathroom and hear someone barfing. Not every woman with an eating disorder is borderline! And as for substance abuse and impulsive sex — these behaviors also describe Mary’s husband.
5. Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior
She hung herself. We all know that. Did she make prior attempts, or threats? Who knows? Here’s a radical suggestion: perhaps not every person who contemplates suicide is mentally ill. A quote from my friend “Cynthia,” who was devastated by her sex addict partner’s betrayal:
“I was at the brink of suicide with the sociopathy and acting out behaviors so I well understand the despair that such predators can visit upon spouses. It wasn’t that I wanted to die as much as I wanted the pain to stop. I do not have a history of depression or mental illness (or drinking or drug abuse) but Mary’s situation might have been more than I could have handled. And I am one tough cookie.”
6. Affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood (e.g., intense episodic dysphoria, irritability, or anxiety usually lasting a few hours and only rarely more than a few days).
News flash: going through a bad divorce, hellacious custody battle, a lawsuit from American Express, and reading your ex’s celebrity girlfriend’s tweets about the fun she’s having with your kids would probably give you “affective instability.”
7. Chronic feelings of emptiness
A scorched-earth divorce will leave you feeling empty. For a time. Anyone who says otherwise is lying.
8. Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, constant anger, recurrent physical fights)
I don’t know if Mary hit Bobby. I do know Erin Nordegren went after Tiger Woods with a golf club when the news of his sexploits hit. Does that make her borderline too?
9. Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms
Again, let’s put this in the context of living with a serial cheater and someone who may have been emotionally abusive. Read what my friend “Lesley” said about her final days with her sex addict ex:
“Once your spouse, the person who typically looms largest in your life, or a powerful male in your life unequivocally declares you crazy or hysterical or depressed or whatever … then there’s shame and embarrassment and secrets … it’s so awful. I didn’t tell anyone the things [my ex] was saying about me, I felt ashamed. What if they were true? What if someone believed him? He was completely unwavering.. I went to therapy for my “depression” and it was kind of a joke because I was pretty happy. We talked about writing and my husband mostly, but the woman I went to didn’t help me see that what I was dealing with was possibly his disorders. Would have helped so much.”
Was Mary Kennedy Borderline and What Does It Mean if She Was?
Marsha Linehan, a psychologist and the creator of DBT — a treatment model created specifically for BPD — says that borderlines are victims of trauma. She knows, because she was one. Yes, they enter the world with a hyperreacative neurobiology, but if they feel contained by a loving family, they’re generally okay. If they meet with a harsh, invalidating environment, they’re cooked geese.
And if they can’t regulate themselves, they are likely to say and do crazy things that invite more invalidation that then exacerbates the trauma.
Borderline. Trauma victim. Booted out of the dominant paradigm. Perhaps they’re three different views of the same mountain.
It’s time to sidestep this dominant paradigm, this red herring of a conversation — “Mary Kennedy was mentally ill!” — and talk about this instead:
Mary Kennedy, like Rosemary Kennedy, was having a sane reaction to an insane situation.