Picture a woman who is married to a man who loves someone else. He may or may not be cheating, but she knows that his heart and perhaps even his loins are directed elsewhere. Don’t ask how she knows. She knows.
Without concrete evidence she has no way to deal with the situation. And yet, she knows, perhaps even before he knows.
She is desperate, and desperate people do desperate things. She throws screaming fits about his infidelity, real or emotional. She becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol. She might suffer an eating disorder. She might threaten or attempt suicide.
Then, she turns family life into a permanent drama. She indulges self-pity and becomes uncontrollably violent, even to the point of trying to hurt her children.
Her loving husband tries to help but is overwhelmed. Finally, he can stand it no more and acts out her worst fear: he has an affair.
Who is this woman?
Is she Mary Richardson Kennedy, as portrayed in the just-released affidavit her husband filed in his divorce proceedings, or is she Diana, Princess of Wales?
Let’s not forget that the late lamented Princess of Wales suffered from a serious psychiatric condition called borderline personality disorder. She threatened suicide, threw screaming fits, and became bulimic. Once, while pregnant with her first son, she threw herself down a flight of stairs.
Everyone has assumed that Diana’s husband played a part in her mental illness. Yet, when Laurence Leamer recounts what happened to Mary Richardson Kennedy he absolves her husband of all responsibility. He blames Mary Kennedy’s borderline personality disorder.
Leamer offers what he tells us is the most advanced medical opinion. Mary Kennedy was sick. Her husband and an army of psychiatrists tried valiantly to help her. To no avail. She was too crazy to save.
Of course, we are only reading one side of the story. Members of Mary’s family have vigorously denied that she suffered from this illness. When it comes to the charge that she abused her husband and step-children we have only the word of Robert Kennedy, Jr. and his lawyers.
Yet, no one expects that an affidavit filed in a divorce proceeding offers the unvarnished truth. As with any contested judicial proceeding it is always good to hear both sides of the story. Today that is impossible, because Mary Kennedy is dead.
If it were possible to slander the dead, Leamer’s article would have done just that. One finds it difficult to imagine that her children will not be hurt by these disclosures.
Also, since we know that Mary knew what was in the affidavit we imagine that she might very well have been horrified by possibility that these scenes, real or exaggerated, be revealed to the general public.
Did the threat of disclosure have anything to do with her suicide?
These questions remain unanswered.
Relying on the best psychiatric opinion Leamer presents a picture of borderline personality disorder that might apply to Mary Kennedy.
And yet, we are not exactly in the realm of hard science. Borderline personality disorder is not terminal cancer. It is not analogous to a heart attack or stroke.
Leamer's version of the story does not resemble a case history as much as it fits an older, slightly outdated narrative.
Leamer describes Mary Kennedy as someone who might have been suffering from demonic possession. He presents her husband as a saint who loved his wife, tried to help her, and was ultimately defeated.
His love, coupled with the ministrations of psychiatrists, therapists, and couples counselors lost out to her demons.
In the past a woman suffering from demonic possession would have been called a witch.
Witches were reputed to be so unattractive that they inhibited their husbands’ sexual performance and drove them into the arms of other women. Witness the testimony of Prince Charles. When asked why he abandoned his conjugal bed Prince Charles once remarked that since Diana was bulimic her breath smelled of vomit.
The best American psychiatrists might have been powerlessness to treat Mary Kennedy but that does not mean that there is effective treatment. Princess Diana was treated more or less successfully for her borderline personality disorder.
The most salient characteristic of borderline personality disorder is what the psychiatrists call an exaggerated fear of abandonment and rejection, of the loss of love.
Such a woman—and borderlines are mostly women—would fear that her husband’s wandering eye or philandering threatens her home and her health, her honor, dignity and self-respect.
A woman who is suffering from this condition will develop a variety of symptoms… from addictions to eating disorders to impulsive and violent outbursts.
These symptoms, as I see it, are her efforts to treat her illness, to exorcise her demons. If Mary Kennedy was abusive, if she expressed her anger inappropriately, she might, for all we know, have been trying to expel a demonic force that had taken possession of her soul. Or else she was following the now outmoded therapist's nostrum: express your emotions, get them out and you will be on the path to cure.
By the evidence of Leamer’s article Mary Kennedy did feel a momentary sense of relief when she let off steam. Unfortunately, expelling anger only provides a momentary calm.
The constellation of borderline symptoms feels like efforts at self-medication and self-treatment.
Leamer quotes a world-renowned authority on borderlines, a Dr. John Gunderson who declares that these patients are hypersensitive to rejection. At times they have a reason to fear abandonment; at times they do not.
In Dr. Gunderson’s words:
At the heart of this disorder is a hypersensitivity to other people, such that they can perceive rejection and anger from others when it isn’t there, and when it is there, they react with even more desperation. It is thought that this hypersensitivity is present even in childhood, during which they will often feel neglected or mistreated.
Unless there is overt abandonment or cheating this psychiatrist wants to focus on perception and feelings. Borderlines are sick because they are afraid of rejection even when they have no real reason to be.
On the other side, an anonymous source told Leamer that Bobby Kennedy, Jr. was a known philanderer who would always be a philanderer. If Mary feared his cheating ways her feelings were not irrational hypersensitivity deriving from an infantile trauma. Clearly, she lacked the skills to deal with the man she married, but that is not the same as being deluded and sick.
If a woman has reason to believe that her husband is cheating or if she knows in her heart that he is having an emotional affair, how will she react to psychiatrists who tell her that she is making it all up.
If they cannot hear her then perhaps she will try to self-treat and even to speak louder.
Princess Diana insisted that her husband was having an emotional affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles. Her husband claimed that nothing was going on. Was Diana wrong?
True enough, Prince Charles might not have been having carnal relations with CPB in the early days of his marriage, but we all know now that his heart was with Camilla.
Gunderson also offers his opinion that her suicide “was an angry statement of her perception that she had been abandoned and betrayed.”
“Perception?” Why does he qualify it as a perception? She had been abandoned and betrayed. She was losing her husband and her marriage and her children and home. By intimating that it was just her “perception," he is suggesting that she might have hallucinated it all or that she was misinterpreting what was going on.
Mary Kennedy was naïve and in love. She knew about her husband’s womanizing ways but she might have believed that he would change once he married her. Call it bad judgment, but do not call it an incurable disease.
We should know that women believe more strongly in the power of their love than men believe in the power of theirs. They might believe too strongly, but theirs is an error in judgment not a sickness.
Gunderson says that borderlines are looking for caretakers, but it seems more accurate to say that they believe in the therapeutic power of love.
Many therapists also hold the same belief. Our culture often touts the medicinal and therapeutic qualities of love. It declares that if two people love each other fully and unconditionally they will live happily ever after.
Are those who believe this detached from reality, even more than the borderlines?
If you live according to the values that pertain in our culture, to the point where you stake everything on true love, where do you go and what to you do when love fails?
Naturally, many psychiatrists see the roots of borderline personality disorder in childhood. They declare that since Diana Spencer was abandoned by her mother when she was a child, she was necessarily prone to fear rejection. The same might apply to Mary Richardson since her father died when she was “barely a teenager.”
Even if there is some truth to this etiology, one doubts that every child who has lost a parent at a formative age becomes afflicted with a borderline personality disorder. This explanation would not tell us why borderlines are invariably female. Aren’t male children subjected to abandonment?
Since the best treatment for this condition derives from cognitive therapy, we must underscore that cognitive treatment is not based on uncovering the past or excavating lost memories or coming to terms with past history. It is based on replacing old bad habits with new constructive behaviors.
Nowadays borderlines are most often treated by the dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) that was created by Dr. Marsha Linehan.
Linehan herself suffered from borderline personality disorder as an adolescent. She was hospitalized, treated with medication and subjected to Freudian psychoanalysis, to no real avail.
In the end she developed DBT in order to heal herself.
Benedict Carey reported her thinking in the New York Times:
Bang her head where she would, the tragedy remained: no one knew what was happening to her, and as a result medical care only made it worse. Any real treatment would have to be based not on some theory, she later concluded, but on facts: which precise emotion led to which thought led to the latest gruesome act. It would have to break that chain — and teach a new behavior.
Linehan’s DBT is not an outlier among treatment modalities today. In the best psychiatric clinics it is considered the treatment of choice for borderlines.
Borderline personality disorder is a serious affliction. It is very difficult to treat. Yet, it is not a death sentence. The stories of Princess Diana and Marsha Linehan show that it can be overcome.