The Kennedy way of grief

Is the clan's Irish stoicism linked to its history of alcoholism, risk-taking and self-destruction?

Published July 22, 1999 11:30AM (EDT)

Like millions of Americans I'll be watching whatever is televised of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s funeral Friday. But I may be alone in hoping to see somebody in the stoic Kennedy clan defy history and break down over the loss of their cherished relative.

All week long, reports from inside the Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port said the same thing: The mood there was somber, but composed. "Kennedys don't cry," commentator Rowland Evans told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Sunday. Evans had been at the compound to attend Rory Kennedy's wedding, and he was there when it turned into a wake. He praised Ethel and Ted Kennedy for their stiff-upper-lip sense of orderliness, making sure Mass was said daily and everybody got fed. Ethel and some of the cousins even went out sailing twice, in the same waters that had claimed their beloved John. Life went on, if sadly.

But I'd have been happier if Evans had described wailing and keening and rending of garments inside the compound. Because I think the Kennedy way of grief is linked inextricably with the Kennedy way of tragedy: alcoholism, addiction, risk-taking, self-destruction and early death -- a flight path that is particularly male and congenitally Irish.

There's not an Irish American alive who doesn't feel some connection to the Kennedys, even if they resist or reject it. Jack Kennedy's 1960 election was a huge psychic boost for American Catholics -- he was the first and last Catholic elected president, remember -- but particularly for Irish Catholics. It was a step toward recovery from that vicious sense of inferiority and Irish self-loathing that's made worse by the fact that no one ever admits to it.

My Irish-American parents, just a few years removed from Brooklyn and the Bronx (and in my father's case, one generation from Ireland), worked hard to belong when we moved to the suburbs, to shed their working-class, ethnic roots. I remember my mother in the kitchen, obsessively transferring all food from cooking pots to serving dishes, because "only the shanty Irish eat from the pot." Bringing a pot to the table, even for seconds, would trigger a scolding. She had reason to worry: Our next door neighbor, a working-class first-generation Russian-American, called us "shanty Irish" whenever the grass got too long or the shingles needed painting. "Just like the niggers," he used to mutter.

The Kennedys, of course, were lace-curtain Irish at minimum, but Jack Kennedy's ascent to the nation's highest office took the rest of us up a notch with him. Although separated from the Kennedys by millions of dollars, private-school pedigrees, yachts, planes and several homes, we felt a part of the family. I was brought up on the full-strength Camelot myth: that JFK started the civil rights movement, tried to stop the Vietnam war and with his youth helped awaken the conscience of a generation.

As I got older, I realized my family had more in common with the Kennedys than roots in Ireland and Democratic politics. I saw a dysfunctional Irish stoicism in the Kennedy way of grief that I would notice later in my childhood, when tragedy hit my family, and my mother, youngest cousin, favorite uncle, grandmother and grandfather got sick and died within a seven-year span, in what felt like our own not-for-television version of the Kennedy curse.

I saw that stoicism first in President Kennedy's death, the first big loss of my childhood. Wild with grief, my family watched TV all weekend, and the images are indelible: the flag-draped coffin in the Capitol rotunda; Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald; the funeral procession; the riderless horse; and the salute, John-John's goodbye to his father, televised over and over.

But even at age 5, I remember feeling a queer, animal revulsion at the salute. I was sick with sadness over the Kennedy children. Already a daddy's girl, I couldn't imagine losing my father, and if I did, I'd knew I'd be howling in fear and grief, not saluting. John-John's salute, and Caroline's composure, seemed the cost of being Kennedy. What others praised made me cringe, to this day.

So I comforted myself, at age 5, by writing letters to Caroline Kennedy, who was a year older than me, and was, like me, a precocious oldest daughter with a mischievous little brother named John. My parents encouraged my epistolary ministry, though they warned me not to write about her father, so as not to upset her. My letters asked her about school and invited her for play-dates. I don't know how many I sent: more than one, fewer than five. My mother would write our return address on the envelope.

One day Tony the mailman came running up my street with some neighborhood kids trailing behind him. He was carrying a large manila envelope addressed to "Miss Joanie" at my house (I'd never signed my last name), from "Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy, 1040 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY." There was a picture of the Kennedy family, and a typed thank-you card, signed by Jackie. It was my 15 minutes of childhood fame.

We kept the picture and the note for a long time, but it eventually got lost, after my mother died and my father moved away and there was nobody to keep track of the family lore, ours or the Kennedys.

As I grew up with the Kennedys I watched their family, and mine, corrode with grief. When his brothers were assassinated, Ted Kennedy went off a bridge, emotionally, but he could never deal with his loss. A year after Bobby died, the hard-drinking senator acted it out literally, at Chappaquiddick, taking Mary Jo Kopechne with him.

With eerie timing, Maria Shriver just published a children's book about death, because she remembered the Kennedy adults being unable to talk about their many losses to the grieving kids. There are too many stories about how Bobby Kennedy's boys fell apart after their father's murder, and got little comfort from anyone. Family matriarch Rose Kennedy walked the beach alone and told the fatherless children: "God gives us no more than we can bear."

On the train back from the funeral, Ethel applauded as eldest son Joe walked through the cars, shaking hands with passengers and repeating, "I'm Joe Kennedy, thanks for coming," as though they'd been to a political rally, not a funeral. "He's got it!" Ethel crowed proudly -- and indeed Joe had Kennedy political instincts, as well as Kennedy denial.

Meanwhile, a despondent David Kennedy, who would die in 1984 of a drug overdose, hung his head out that same train window, and almost lost it to a passing steel girder. All summer after his father's death, David would tell biographers David Horowitz and Peter Collier, he tried unsuccessfully to get somebody to talk to him about it. "It's not a subject I want to discuss," Ethel snapped at him. (With no apparent irony, the family sang "When Irish Eyes are Smiling" at David's funeral.)

I know something about how David felt. My father could only talk about my mother in small doses, and her brothers all but avoided me after her death, as though the sight of me was too painful. They'd keep a friendly distance at family events when sober; collapse in tears, unable to talk about my mother, when drunk. (My aunts were a little better, though all of them were undone by crying, so I learned not to.) My family rivals the Kennedys when it comes to drinking and denial, not just early death, and there's no doubt a connection between them.

I have always heard a strange double-meaning in the phrase "bottled up," as though it was inextricably, etymologically linked to alcoholism. It's the bottling of feeling that leads to the unbottling of alcohol, and to the morbid excesses of families like the Kennedys, and so many of the Irish. It took me more than a year after it won the Pulitzer to pick up Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes," and when I did I read it slowly, reluctantly, in pieces, because I couldn't stand it, it felt so close and real: The loss, the sorrow, the anger and the drunken, broken men.

Clearly there are millions of Irish-Americans who escape these patterns. But from the dirt-poor McCourts at the bottom to my up-from-working-class family in the middle to the Kennedys on high, something of the strangling, self-destructive Irish way of grief has kept its hold. To her credit, Jacqueline Kennedy, after encouraging the robotic, boys-don't-cry salute by John Jr., actually raised her children differently. There's the oft-told anecdote about how Bobby Kennedy told young John, after a ski-slope mishap, "Kennedys don't cry." His nephew retorted: "This Kennedy cries."

But not publicly. John Kennedy's announcement of his mother's death outside her apartment in New York struck me as too composed, too detached, for a man who'd lost his only parent, to whom he was famously close. He was well-behaved for a Kennedy man, but his compulsive risk-taking and thrill-seeking, not to mention his inability to find a career or marry until his mother's death, makes me wonder about whether he ever recovered from the loss of his father. That he plunged to a watery death in plain view of his mother's Martha's Vineyard estate chills me.

I'm superstitious -- the Irish are -- but not enough to believe in a Kennedy curse. Still, I've found myself thinking this week that maybe the Kennedys will have to endure loss after loss until they finally bow to it, and give up their stoic pose in the face of grinding pain. Maybe they need to say to fate or God or nature what is the truth, and has been for a while: that they have been given more than anybody can bear.

By Joan Walsh

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Ted Kennedy