In the brutal sparring between estranged spouses that usually defines contentious divorce and custody proceedings, sworn affidavits are arguably more discursive position pieces than they are lenses onto reality, the truth, or “what really happened” in a marriage. These documents are written to construct legitimate grounds for divorce or a change in custody. They are, if you will, highly "political" in nature. That is why it is tragic that Robert Kennedy Jr.’s affidavit in his divorce proceedings—a document in which he describes his wife Mary Richardson Kennedy, who killed herself by hanging on May 16th, as an emotionally and physically abusive alcoholic, a borderline and an unfit mother—should be considered anything but a strategic document, a means to an end in a negotiation. Yet in fact, it has been reported as virtually factual by more than one news outlet.
Kennedy’s allegations may seem spectacular—he asserts, for example, that his wife, a previously high-functioning, highly respected architect, pummeled and beat him severely in front of his children. But what really shocks is the fact that, after making such accusations, he (or his lawyers) would feel the need to accuse Mary Richardson Kennedy not only of being a bad mother by reason of mental illness, physical abuse and alcoholism, but of being an unfit mother by virtue of being a “mean” stepmother.
There is no more potent myth in our culture than of the child victim and the victimizing wicked stepmother, and the media predictably found this development irresistible. The Huffington Post thought the parts of the affidavit that alleged that Richardson was unkind to Kennedy’s daughter from a previous marriage merited a headline: “RFK Jr. Accuses Mary Kennedy Of Being Abusive to Children From Earlier Marriage,” it blared.
The affidavit includes a description of how RFK’s daughter would apparently misplace items while at her father and stepmother's home for the weekend. “Daddy, I think Mary is stealing from me,” Kennedy recalled his daughter saying in the affidavit.
“Honey, don’t say that, Mary loves you,” he says he replied.
“No, Daddy, Mary hates me.” Such an accusation from a child is, its presence in the affidavit seems to suggest, a nail in the coffin of an argument about a woman being an unfit mother. Stepmothers accused by stepchildren of hating them are necessarily bad.
Kennedy further alleged that “a few weeks later, looking for something in Mary’s bureau, I found a collection of Kick’s lost items concealed beneath a layer of Mary’s clothing.”
Later in the affidavit Kennedy asserts, “I learned from Kick and many others who had witnessed Mary’s conduct, the heartbreaking story of Mary’s long campaign of cruelty and abuse directed toward Kick.” He alleges that Kick told him that Mary would "take her into a closed room to harangue her about her many supposed faults, including the way she dressed. Once she slapped Kick for speaking critically to one of Mary’s children," according to the affidavit.
Shocking? Not really. Stepfamily experts will not be surprised to hear of tensions in a system where several people who are not family bring their separate family histories, allegiances and cultures to the table; where grieving children are wary of stepparents, suspecting and even accusing them of malevolence; where parents and children alike feel closest to their own; where children might act out in disrespectful and even hostile ways, sometimes toward their half siblings; and where adults fail to support one another as a team, lose their tempers and might even lash out physically .
Indeed, experts who have experience working with remarried and repartnered couples with children would likely consider a number of alternative hypotheses to Kennedy’s version of events. As often as stepmothers behave “wickedly,” a vast body of literature on stepfamily adjustment suggests, grieving children may attempt to drive a wedge between their parent and stepparent, understandably hoping their own parents will reconcile. In addition, the stepfamily literature indicates that preadolescent and adolescent girls and their stepmothers have dismal success records, where success is defined by smooth sailing and closeness; and fathers tend to slip into permissive parenting post divorce, leaving their “new” wives to seem stricter—and often behave more strictly—in comparison. As reprehensible as most of us will find the allegation that Richardson “slapped” her stepdaughter, we do not know whether or how it happened, and few of us who have raised teen girls and been subjected to their wardrobe choices have not lost our tempers and raised our voices on the topic.
So as easy as it is to be lulled by the familiar cadences of the wicked stepmother tune, and as comforting as the black and white distinctions between "stepmonsters" and "child victims" might be, one hopes that no one who reads the accusations that Richardson was a “terrible stepmother” buys it hook line and sinker. The fact is that the reality of step”family” life is virtually always less straightforward on the ground.
While there are a number of plausible explanations for and potential versions of what allegedly took place between Mary Richardson Kennedy and her husband’s daughter, we will never know the truth. Perhaps RFK Jr has described what really happened--perhaps he has exaggerated, stretched the truth, embellished or overemphasized certain details in this most political of documents. What sticks, however, is the allegation. When a man has so much ammunition and power, yet reverts to a stereotype like "wicked stepmother" to discredit the mother of his children, we might well wonder why didn’t he just accuse her of being a witch who offered his daughter a poisoned apple and be done with it.