Monday, June 11, 2012

The Case of Mary Richardson Kennedy

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 na├»ve 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.


EyeRoller said...

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.
Which begs the question of the timing and purpose of publishing this article. The news stories of this incident had all but died down in the last week or two and it suddenly pops back up in the form of a "leaked" affidavit from a divorce proceeding? It quacks like the Kennedy PR machine. Why continue with the noxious narrative? The public hasn't been buying it since Day One so what is there to gain? The real personality disorder lies with RFK Jr.

Anonymous said...

To blame the man to "finally give in and have the affair the woman dreamt up" is outrageous...
Mary knew, and he wa just to good at hiding it...
I know this person myelf. I am sitting next him as I type this. He is just as good at hiding it.

Anonymous said...

Save a thought for children of BPD's in nuclear families. The chaos, emotional & physical abuse, confusion, fear, shame, and other traumas are simply incredible.

I know. I was one. -- Rich

Anonymous said...

She killed herself to get back to her husband. She didn't care how devastating this would be for her children. Forget the he-said-she-said. Her actions indicate an extremely selfish and emotionally immature person. Many of us have had our hearts broken but we didn't hang ourselves leaving our children clean up the mess.

I was married to a woman with BPD. They destroy the love in the marriage through their hostile irrational behavior. It's not easy to love someone who curses you and throws things at you over the most petty issues. Most have no idea what a living hell it is to be married to someone with this disorder.

Don't judge RFK unless you've been in a relationship with someone with BPD.

Anonymous said...

Agree with cannot know what it's like to be in a relationship with this kind of personality until you have lived it.
Sometimes nobody but sees this bad behavior but the ones closest. She/he can appear to be the most lovely person imaginable to others.

Anonymous said...

What kind of personality? Where are you getting your information? From her husband's divorce affidavit in which he wanted custody and went for the jugular? Or perhaps the "expert" from Harvard who ran his mouth at the behest of the Kennedys? It is amazing how blind people can be when it comes to a family who has proven time and again not to be trustworthy about very much at all.

Retriever said...

There's a fairly common pattern of men who used to be married to borderline women trashing them. Sometimes with good reason.

However, assortative mating is typical. In general, most of us (unless those compulsively acting out rescue fantasies) are drawn to marry people at about the same level of emotional functioning as ourselves. Usually not the identical type to our own personality, but some complementary one. Marriages between narcissists and borderlines are common, for example.

All that being said, borderline covers such a spectrum--Anonymous may have lived a virtual hell on earth and had the patience of a saint til he had to get out for self-preservation (or, as often happens, to preserve some normal life for children). Other borderlines are high functioning, or recovering, and their spouses use the diagnosis to justify cheating on or abusing them.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks to Artemis for the comment. Readers might also be interested in her interesting analysis of this topic on her blog:

Anonymous said...

Mary Richardson was a lifelong friend of the Kennedy's. From day one, hanging around whichever compound they were partying in as a teenagers with her "best friend Kerry", she was certainly aware of the way women were treated by the men of that family.

You would've had to have been severely mentally retarded not to not have seen that with your own eyes, and come to the conclusion that women were treated as disposable items, and always would be.

That behavior was learned at the feet of the master, Joseph P., and passed on down by example to every male in that family.

Hello?...This is a revelation? You need therapy to figure this out?

She signed on for it with her eyes wide open.

The money, influence, and power rush of being a "Kennedy" was to strong to resist.

Sadly, the detox wards, rehabs and cemeteries are full of the casualties of this great American political family.

Camelot my ass.

Sam L. said...

I did not know that about Diana. I expect that's because I don't read celebrity gossip.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

If anyone wants to probe the Diana story, I read the discussion of the borderline diagnosis in Sally Bedell Smith's book on Diana. There are also books by Tina Brown and Julie Burchill that are well enough written to be worth reading.

I think that anon makes an important point, that I acknowledge. Mary Kennedy was close enough to the Kennedy family to know what she was getting into. She ought to have entered the marriage with her eyes wide open. I would agree with the suggestion that she was blinded by the fame and the power and the money associated with the Kennedy family.
Or else, one might say that she was blinded by love. She was also 34 at the time and may have felt that she had to compromise and that she was willing to gamble that she could change him.

It would not be the first time that I have seen a woman believe that the power of her love could change or reform a man.

Among men and women I have also seen many situations where both men and women believe that they can deal with an occasional betrayal, only to discover that emotionally they cannot.

Even if she does bear responsibility for her decisions so does Robert Kennedy. It's one thing for your husband to cheat. It's quite another for him to humiliate you. And it's quite another for him to try to take away your home and your children, all the while parading around with his mistress.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about RFK and Mary's relationship issues... but being married to a borderline, a high functioning one is extremely painful.

Anonymous said...

I am no expert, but I am pretty sure (through help of therapist and much reading and introspection) that I am a codependent.
Mary sounds to me like a codependent as well. At worst, they can spiral so far down into helplessness that they ultimately do the unthinkable.
I reiterate that I am no clinical psychologist or anyone truly trained to make this diagnosis.
But from an outsider, it sure seems to fit, some offer it to the experts as an alternative theory...

Anonymous said...

Don't judge someone with the disorder until you have it. I know, because I have it. Your generalizations do nothing to prove the point you are trying to make. We aren't all the same. So why defend one and blame the other?

Anonymous said...

I don't get what this article is saying. You call BPD an incurable disease then you say there's hope? People really shouldn't talk about this disorder without some authority on the topic. You've shown that you don't even have much knowledge about it.

Anonymous said...

She killed herself without regard for if the children would find her. And didn't she get into an accident while under the influence with children in the car? I think he's an arrogant womanizer, but to criticize him for trying to get his kids away from that? Though he may be an awful husband, at least he was trying to protect his kids as their dad.

Anonymous said...

I was married to a man with BPD who committed suicide while I was on the phone with him. He did this to ensure I would be scarred for life. Borderline personalities are extremely difficult and create a situation where you can never do enough or the right thing, and they inflict torture to punish you for any perceived hurtful action or inaction. You can do 1,000 things right but do one thing they perceive as wrong, and you are subjected to a fury of hateful accusations to scar and damage you, since they perceive you have hurt them and they cannot help but vocalize their extreme emotional displeasure. If you are in a relationship with a borderline, please run - don't just walk away because they do not have the tools to maintain a successful relationship and you only end up battered, abused and hurt. Life is too precious to travel down the road in this manner. Seek a healthy relationship where you are treated lovingly instead of being a whipping post for someone who cannot control their extreme emotions and abusive tendencies. I could have had a happier life but stayed with a man who abused me for decades. Remember we all deserve to be treated in a caring, respectful manner.