Politics

Patrick Kennedy reveals family’s struggles with alcohol in new book

Describes a family fighting dysfunction

US Congressman Patrick Kennedy (left) and his father, US Senator Edward Kennedy in Pawtucket, R.I. in 2006.
Brian Snyder/REUTERS/File
US Congressman Patrick Kennedy (left) and his father, US Senator Edward Kennedy in Pawtucket, R.I. in 2006.

WASHINGTON — In a new book that is strikingly raw and emotional, Patrick Kennedy paints a detailed portrait of the complex and fraught relationship he had with his father, Edward M. Kennedy, as well as some of the intense pressures of living in one of America’s most storied political families.

Kennedy, in a book scheduled to be released Monday, provides an intimate picture of a dysfunctional family and some of its well-publicized struggles with alcoholism and mental health issues — and what he describes as a blanket of secrecy that papered over their problems.

Kennedy says he believes his father suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after living through the assassinations of both of his brothers, President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy.

Advertisement

“I can now see my father suffered from PTSD, and because he denied himself treatment — and had chronic pain from the back injury he received in a small plane crash in 1964 when he was a very young senator — he sometimes self-medicated in other ways,” Kennedy writes in the book, “A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction.”

Get Today in Politics in your inbox:
A digest of the top political stories from the Globe, sent to your inbox Monday-Friday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The book, which Kennedy will discuss on CBS’s “60 Minutes” Sunday night, is bound to rile other members of the famous family.

“I know how some of them are going to react,” Kennedy says in a brief show excerpt released by CBS. “They’re angry.”

Kennedy and his mother, Joan, did not respond to messages on Saturday, nor did Senator Kennedy’s widow, Vicki. His brother, Ted Kennedy Jr., released a statement early Sunday.

“I am proud of my brother Patrick for his tremendous work to make mental health parity part of our national conversation,” he wrote. “However, I am heartbroken that Patrick has chosen to write what is an inaccurate and unfair portrayal of our family. ... Mental illness and addiction are critically important issues that deserve a serious discussion, not a narrative that is misleading and hurtful.”

Advertisement

Patrick Kennedy, a former eight-term Democratic representative from Rhode Island, retired in 2010 and has since married and had two children. He says he has bipolar disorder and has dedicated his life to becoming an advocate for fighting, and speaking out about, mental health issues. He decided to write the book, with coauthor Stephen Fried, to highlight his personal journey.

In a deeply personal and revealing account, he writes about abusing alcohol, drinking in private, and developing a dependency that was so well known that in the mid-1990s, he agreed to become chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — on the condition that he would not drink during his tenure. Instead, he started abusing prescription narcotic painkillers.

He describes a drunken sailing trip in 2000 that turned out to be an embarrassment, and he says he vomited in an Air Force One bathroom on the way to Ireland after too many rum and cokes.

Two days before an infamous crash at the US Capitol in 2006, he writes, he drank eight straight miniature vodkas on the Acela from New York to Washington. No one was injured in the subsequent crash, which occurred in the middle of the night. Kennedy blamed it on taking a combination of Ambien and Phenergan.

He writes of being impaired on prescription drugs on the House floor in 2009, as his father was being treated for brain cancer, and of how aides prevented him from making a speech on CSPAN.

Advertisement

But some of the most telling insights are about living in the high-pressure, but long-troubled, family shadowed by violence. Kennedy writes that after his father died in 2009, he was given a letter that his father had written to him at the start of his 1980 presidential campaign, in case he was assassinated like his brothers.

“In it, he talked about how much he loved me, and how I had given him so much love,” Kennedy writes. “He said he would never forget the times we went fishing and sailing.”

But throughout the book, Kennedy brings up his father’s struggles with alcohol, writing that it was such an issue that in 1992 when he was invited to his father’s 60th birthday party he declined to attend, unless his father stopped drinking.

In the early 1990s, Senator Kennedy gave a highly anticipated speech and seemed to acknowledge some of his problems, saying, “I recognize my own shortcomings.”

But to his own son, the words rang hollow.

“Many people thought this was his great mea culpa,” Kennedy writes. “To me, the speech reinforced the denial I had lived with most of my life.’’

Kennedy writes that he doesn’t have anything to add about the Palm Beach rape episode in spring 1991 — in which his cousin William Kennedy Smith was accused of rape after a night of drinking with Ted and Patrick — and gives it only a few sentences.

He says that he was nursing ginger ales when they were at the bar, noting that he did most of his drinking at home, alone.

He does write that he felt great shame about the episode, and the significant news coverage that it received. In the weeks after the incident, there was a national debate about his father’s drinking, and his mother was arrested on a DUI charge.

It was around this time, Kennedy writes, that he and his siblings met Ted Kennedy in his study in McLean, Va., for what he describes as an “intervention.” With views out the window of the Potomac River, and with Ted Kennedy settling into his favorite blue suede chair, the children told their father he had a problem.

“‘Dad, we’re concerned, we’re worried about you, and we think you’re drinking too much,’” Kennedy recalls him and his siblings saying. “Then we all cried.’’

“He took it the exact opposite way we had hoped,” he writes. The senator thought his children were taking sides against him, siding with “those people’’ who didn’t understand how difficult his life was.

“I’ve been seeing a priest,’’ Ted Kennedy said. “But you wouldn’t know that. If you had bothered to ask me rather than just accusing me, you would have known I’m trying to get help.”

With that, Kennedy writes, his father got up and walked out of the room. “That was it.”

Kennedy writes that his relationship with his father was at times so frayed that Ted Kennedy suggested that when Patrick was in Washington he stay with his sister, Kara, and when he was on Cape Cod he stay with his mother.

His father once told him that he knew his son struggled with drug problems when he was young. He had seen Patrick’s ATM receipts that showed him withdrawing hundreds of dollars at 3 a.m. He was 18 and attending Andover at the time, and Kennedy writes he long wondered — but never asked — why his father didn’t do anything.

In another telling anecdote, Kennedy writes about his father admonishing him at a family gathering after the funeral of Ted Kennedy’s sister, Patricia Kennedy Lawford, in 2006.

His father was upset that, after he had crashed into a barrier at the US Capitol, Kennedy had gone public with his issues of addiction, in a New York Times article that appeared just days before the funeral.

“He called the article a disaster — the word he always used to describe the most extreme situations,” Kennedy writes. “How dare I talk about the family this way? How dare I discuss ‘these things’ in public? I stood there on the verge of disintegration. I was early in my sobriety and still pretty vulnerable. And I watched my father circulate around the room, talking about the article.’’

But then, Kennedy writes, he was heartened when his cousin Maria Shriver apparently challenged Ted Kennedy.

“I think what Patrick did was fantastic,’’ Maria said, according to the book. “That’s what we need in this family, someone to talk about this.’’

Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com.