Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne
Every person’s life is like a kaleidoscope. Some pick up another’s life, hold it to the light and all the glass chips fall this way or that. And the person sighting through the cylinder puts it down and turns away, saying they’ve seen it all, when in fact, they’ve only seen one facet, one pattern in another’s life. Thus some remember only one thing or two about the life of another long lived.
But there are other ways to see most of a life in depth, that is, to keep turning the kaleidoscope, letting the glass shards open and reveal, shade and hide, depending on the turn of the scope. Adding up all the patterns, keeping the sum of the brilliant and the dark turns: that’s a view in depth of the life of another.
I’d just lay out a few turns of the kaleidoscope of Ted Kennedy’s life here, a lost story:
Some of the glass shards part, and we see in paradoxically jeweled light that Ted Kennedy was born to a brutally ambitious father, Joe Kennedy, and his mother Rose, was a good Catholic girl, demure and subservient to her wealthy, bellowing husband.
Joe Kennedy true to his obsessive nature, kept his wife pregnant for most of sixteen years, she giving birth, not including miscarriages, to nine children in that time. Ted was the youngest born in 1932.
Ted would be eventually groomed and glossed, and also pressed to follow his father’s example… the ill and clearcut way the older Kennedy conducted himself politically and personally: teaching his male children that Kennedys’ get what they want when they want it how they want it for no other reason that they want it… and it is alright to use most any means to get it.
Another father, with different values, might have pressed an entire set of young Kennedy male offspring, to grow far more seated in heart and soul and clearcut ethics, far sooner.
As a young man, Ted, sent to the top school, Harvard, got kicked out for cheating. He was readmitted, but though some might say he cheated because of laziness, it may also be that his lack of studying and rousting about was his finger flapping in the face of his immensely overbearing father… yet Ted may have tried to fake the grade still fearing his old man.
Ted had reason to fear his father. Being the youngest child in the family, Ted was close to his sisters, and was doted on by Rosemary who was 14 years old when he was born. They laughed together and delighted in each other, and yet when Rosemary began displaying too wild a behavior by her father’s lights… showing interest in sex and sensuality… being too wild for her father’s hyper hypocritical tastes– he himself rumored to have many affairs–
Ted at age 9 witnessed his father dispose of his sister Rosemary as though she were a block of cordwood.
Joe Kennedy secretly arranged that his daughter Rosemary, age 22, to be forced bodily from their home, and incarcerated in a mental institution where Joe signed papers that were not his to sign, as his daughter was of legal age…
the papers the pater familias of the Kennedy clan signed were to ok a surgeon to slice into his daughter Rosemary’s brain through her eyelids, performing a lobotomy. This selfsame so-called “surgeon” would later be hounded from the medical profession for his butchery of human beings. But the good doctor at that time (1941), met Joe Kennedy’s needs.
Afterward, Rosemary no longer had sexual being. She also could not speak and could not hold her urine or her bowels for the rest of her life. She suddenly had the IQ of a child under seven. She had previously been, by all accounts, a bright, normal, willful, beautiful young woman, not retarded, not mentally ill. But to cover his egregious sin, Joe Kennedy spread the rumor over and over that Rosemary had always been ‘retarded.’
Women were a dime a dozen in his world, and Rosemary was shut away in diapers and babbling and out of sight, out of mind.
Joe Kennedy allowed no one to defy him without using all power at his disposal to destroy individuals. He was a bully and a boor. What he couldn’t get through power, he took by underhanded force… and then tried to cover his tracks, buying silence, or eliminating talkers.
To Joe, women were seen as Catholic scapulars, or as servants, or as good time girls. He carried and taught to his sons the old madonna/ whore split. A whore was to be used. A madonna was to be perpetually impregnated within marriage.
But a daughter, a woman, threatening his carefully built image, that was another story. For Joe, is was within his purview as a male to utterly harm a girl and leave her as good as dead.
Thus Joe Kennedy set hideous, puerile and murderous examples for his boys. And I believe, imprinted them, as well as intimidated and horrified them, when they were young… and yet evilly offered them riches and position as they became older… if they would just cover for and remain loyal to their corrupt father. He would be their Boston Machiavelli.
Thus he burnished and protected the family image at all costs. Except, in all his slit-eyed plans, all his prancing and smokers and under the table deals, all his pretense and vulgar displays of wealth and power, he never set in place examples of heart for others… Joe’s hope for his boys centered on eliciting in them and from them, chips off the old block, that is, greed and lust for power.
In time, as we witnessed, one of Joe’s sons, Ted, at age 37 would drive off the Dike Bridge late one night. A young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, age 28, one of several “Boiler Room Girls” (girls who worked on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign the year before) who’d held a party that night, was in Ted’s car. Ted Kennedy made it to shore. Miss Kopechne did not. Ted Kennedy did not report the accident until the next day.
Some say he had a concussion and wasn’t thinking clearly. Others say he was drunk and out of his mind. Others say the unthinkable: that he did not value a human life. That he tried to cover up.
We may not know which one it was, or which two, or all four– or more. What we do know is that the ill trajectory for harming an innocent was laid down in spades in Ted’s young life by an exemplar father who was supposed to instill life-sparing and life-endorsing in his boys …instead of a careless regard for life… especially the lives of women, be they wives, mistresses, girlfriends, daughters, women one found attractive. For some observors and historians, the life’s end of Marilyn Monroe rings a similar bell.
Are the sins of the father the sins of the sons? I dont think we know for sure. It seems that sometimes hell is on earth for some— and I think of Ted Kennedy’s ‘cant face myself in the mirror’ for a long time after Miss Kopechne’s death… but also the prior hellacious loss of Rosemary… and the loss of a dear older brother in war… and also the harrowing of Ted’s soul after his two brothers were murdered. The lessons, the opportunities to become human and humane at last, came one after the other, relentlessly.
… and even more so of how ancient Ted Kennedy suddenly became on the small boat, his face collapsed into itself, his shoulders gone all ‘old man’… as he grimly sailed out to recover John-John’s body and the bodies of two others of the young from the tragic small plane crash in the ocean at niight… his nephew John, son of Jackie and JFK, who so promised in good looks and youth, in vitality and smarts… to maybe bring back the Kennedy political sheen… now the last charismatic male Kennedy of that generation was dead too. Also, literally, dead in the water. Like Mary Jo.
We who are religious are taught that all will be judged not with fury but with fairness when they die. Whatever was not learned on earth, some say, will be learned in heaven, or in a stopping and resting place on the way there. It’s said too that one receives credit for learning on earth from one’s abject suffering, no matter what crassness or separation from the God of Life and Love, preceded it.
So may it be for Ted Kennedy, having now left this world at age 77. So may rest continue for Mary Jo Kopechne who would be, had she lived, 68 years old this day.
Resquient In Pace, both souls.
CODA: Photo toptext: the Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, 1969