Addiction in Society

Addiction—the thematic malady for our society—entails every type of psychological and societal problem

The Politics of Suicide and Depression

Mary Kennedy committed suicide—then the battle began

There are always differing views of events, based on the standpoints and interests of those relating the events. In the case of Mary Kennedy's suicide, these differences rose to the level of a public dispute, a debate over the cause of her death, and a treatise on the nature of depression. Can the truth be known?

When someone commits suicide, people question whether those closest to the person somehow failed that person. Or is the suicide completely on the dead person? There are survivor groups whose mantra is, "It's not your fault." On the other hand, a well-meaning spouse may say to themselves, "Obviously, I wasn't enough to keep the person from wanting to kill himself." (The wife of a close relation of mine who committed suicide told me that, even after attending many survivor group meetings.)

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

I don't pretend to know the answer, if there is one. The Reverend George Thompson put it this way at Mary Kennedy's funeral following her suicide: “Death is a mystery, and we can never fully understand it. This is especially true when people die suddenly like Mary did. We cry out why and there are no words that explain, no words that satisfy.” The good Reverend avoided specifically discussing the mystery of suicide, which is understandable.

If you're a public figure, you fight to capture the airwaves to attribute blame elsewhere. And that was certainly true at Mary Kennedy's funeral, presided over by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the husband from whom Mary was separated. According to the New York Times, Mary "was remembered as a woman who, for the past five years in particular, struggled with depression and substance abuse until the end, when she could struggle no more."

This narrative relied on the idea of the disease of depression as an independent force that drove Mary to kill herself — no one could help.  (This idea, of course, disputes our belief that we now have reliable cures for depression.) RFK Jr. said, "Mary suffered from demons. There's nobody who bore what she bore. She was in agony for five years." Kerry Kennedy, RFK Jr.'s sister and Mary's closest friend, endorsed her brother's view, describing "her friend's lifelong struggle with depression."

There had been a war over who would control the funeral. Since RFK Jr. and Mary had filed divorce papers in 2010, Mary's family argued, they should manage her funeral.  But the couple weren't divorced, and this IS the Kennedy's, and they won. At the official funeral, an A-list of celebrities and Kennedy's appeared (including Caroline Kennedy, John McEnroe, Glenn Close, Chevy Chase, Maria Shriver, Larry David). And the narrative at the funeral is reflected in the Times's title, "Robert F. Kennedy Jr. says wife struggled with depression." The Times also reported on "a private memorial service organized by Ms. Kennedy’s friends and the Richardson family" that took place after the funeral. That "warring" service, according to people who attended, was "overwhelmingly positive, with no references to Ms. Kennedy’s personal struggles."

Thus, there was an entirely divergent explanation from the "official" view of Mary Kennedy's death.  As described in People:

Many of Mary's friends and loved ones took offense to the Kennedys' comments. "Mary did not have a history of depression," says a close friend. "She became a troubled person because of the divorce." 

The split from RFK Jr., says the friend, "sent her down the hole." The couple's ongoing and escalating battle over custody of their four kids – Conor, 17, Kyra, 16, Fin, 14, and Aidan, 10 – was also extremely difficult for Mary.

"There was great pressure on her to conceivably agree to a situation where she wouldn't be able to see them for some period of time," says the close friend. "She couldn't take it."

As the rift deepens, a friend who knew both Mary and RFK Jr., says of her death: "Alcohol, depression and hanging may be the mechanics of it, but her heart slowed beating and began to numb. In the end, I think she died of a broken heart."

Although RFK Jr. hasn't run for office (he has spoken of doing so), he is nonetheless a highly visible, public figure through his environmental work and media appearances.

And he is a Kennedy, who projects an image that he needs to protect. His version of reality will prevail, we may assume. After all, his funeral had the Kennedy family and the A-list celebrities.

 Follow Stanton on Twitter

Stanton Peele, PhD, JD, is the author of Recover! He has been a pioneer in the addiction field since publication of Love and Addiction in 1975.


Subscribe to Addiction in Society

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?