The Kennedy family has been in the news lately. Patrick Kennedy, son of former U.S. Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy and nephew of President John F. Kennedy, has released a memoir that has become controversial, at least within the Kennedy family itself. In the memoir, Patrick, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, details a family history of alcohol abuse and mental illness. Patrick describes himself, his father and mother as having alcohol problems. In addition, Patrick has a history of prescription drug abuse. It is his belief that his father also suffered from undiagnosed PTSD resulting from, among other family traumas, the assassinations of brothers John and Robert Kennedy.
In addition to the publicity surrounding the release of the memoir, media attention has been captured by the negative reaction of some of Patrick’s relatives to the book’s more personal revelations.
Older brother Ted Jr. is quoted as saying, "I am heartbroken that Patrick has chosen to write what is an inaccurate and unfair portrayal of our family. My brother's recollections of family events and particularly our parents are quite different from my own." (King, 2015)
Patrick’s mother, Joan, has denied knowing about the memoir and said she did not participate in its writing.This claim has been disputed by the book’s co-author, Stephen Fried. (Phillips, 2015)
A Family Systems Lens
Given the voluminous quantity of information available about the political and personal history of the Kennedy clan, it’s no surprise that family researchers have already tackled the challenge of viewing it through a family systems lens.(McGoldrick, 2011) This article will describe specific family systems concepts using this branch of the Kennedy family to illustrate, but is to be taken as hypothetical rather than factual as the author has no knowledge of the family beyond what has been written.
Why Would Brother’s See Things So Differently?
Since both Patrick and Ted Jr. grew up in the same household, it can be a challenge to understand how each of them could view family events so differently.Ted Jr. was the second child born, and the oldest male.Patrick was the youngest child.
Patrick is six years younger than Ted Jr., giving him a different vantage point from which to view family events.It’s possible that the alcohol abuse he attributes to his parents worsened at some point when Ted Jr. was less involved with the family.Even individuals identified as alcoholic do not always drink the same amount.They drink more or less, often depending on the amount of stress the family is dealing with at a given point in time.
Every child in a family has a different relationship with his or her parents than every other child.Some parents go to great lengths to treat each child the same, and other parents work equally hard to cater to what they see as the unique personality qualities of each of their offspring.Whichever the case, the reality is that no two relationships in a family are identical.
Parents respond, often on an unconscious level, to both reality and projected differences in each child.Reality differences include all things that may be regarded as factual; age, gender, developmental stage, and some temperamental characteristics are examples.Projected differences, however, are probably more pervasive.These include the different ways children are treated based on the thinking and feeling profile of the parents, as well as the way each child is triangled into the parental relationship. (Hecht, 2015)
When Patrick was just six years old, his brother Ted Jr., then 12, had his leg amputated due to bone cancer.It is a reality that the parenting needs of the two boys would have been quite different.Ted Jr. needed help recovering from cancer and amputation, and later with rehabilitation.These events would have distinguished his relationship with his parents from his younger brother’s.
How the parents reacted emotionally to Ted Jr’s cancer and interacted with him as a result, would be an example of a projection process.When parents direct anxiety at a child, the child will respond in reciprocal fashion. This reinforces the parental projection.As an illustration, if Ted Jr’s mother became concerned that Ted Jr. would struggle socially as a result of his amputation (perhaps because she had struggled with peer relationships as a child), she might develop a sensitivity to any signs that he was unhappy at school.Ted Jr. would pick up on mother’s worries and mirror them back to her. He might get in the habit of reporting any social difficulties to his mother, thereby validating her fears.If he hadn’t absorbed his mother’s apprehensions, these same social situations might have been brushed off. Instead, as a result of a parental projection, the social problems were magnified.Anxiety around peer relationships increased, and social problems became a major issue for Ted Jr.(This is a hypothetical illustration of an interpersonal process and not in any way intended as fact in this case.) (Hecht, 2011)
Like his father, Patrick was a youngest son and youngest child.The following is a quote referring to his father, Ted Sr.:
“His parents were affectionate toward him as the youngest child, but also compared him unfavorably with his older brothers.”(Ted Kennedy)
If true, this quote alludes to a projection process that distinguished Ted Sr. from his older brothers.Because Patrick and Ted Sr. shared a birth and gender order, a similar family projection process may have been passed down to Patrick.This would in some ways account for his being the brother to “inherit” the family drinking problem.
Projected differences are perhaps most clearly seen by the ways different children are treated based on their birth order.There is no inherent difference between an oldest child and a youngest child, yet the oldest will often be instilled with a greater sense of responsibility than the youngest.In his book Family Constellation, author Walter Toman details characteristic differences between siblings based on birth order and position.As he says about the youngest brother of brother(s):
“He is a capricious and willful man, a person who can surprise and amaze his elders but also put them at a loss, annoy, and antagonize them.” (Toman, 1961, p. 34)
This may or may not be a description that could apply to Patrick, a man who held a distinguished political career but who was also at times caught up in scandal. (“Rep. Kennedy” 2006)
Nuclear Family Triangle
Regarding the family’s reaction to Patrick’s memoir, it appears that a relationship triangle has developed or become visible.Joan and Ted Jr. have aligned in their disapproval and disavowal of the memoir.Patrick is in the outside position of this triangle.(Hecht, 2015, “Em. Triangles”)
The publication of a tell-all memoir is undoubtedly an anxiety-provoking event in a family.It is not surprising under these conditions that the triangles in the family have been activated and become visible.The triangle is apparently currently structured with Joan and Ted Sr. in the inside position and Patrick in the outside position. This may or may not be indicative of a long-standing pattern in the family.If it is characteristic for this family, it may also speak to the nature of the projection process, with Ted Jr. more likely to be involved in a positive projection process with his mother, while the process with Patrick is more negative.If true, Patrick’s drinking and drug use would be intertwined with the projection pattern.(“Family Projection Process”)
So much is known about the Kennedy family history that it is nearly impossible to confine an examination to relatively few details. By writing this memoir, Patrick Kennedy hoped to make public conversations about addiction and mental illness a little easier. It was difficult to break the family “code” by doing so, but he believes the benefits to himself, his family, and the nation are worth it. For those interested in looking at the big picture; how an individual’s behavior reflects the relationships and tensions within an entire family system, Patrick has given us much to think about. (“P.K. Memoir”)
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Emotional Triangles Result From Tension
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