The Kennedy Curse Unmasked

By Susan Cheever 08/01/12

With Mary Kennedy's suicide in May followed by Kerry Kennedy's car crash this month, talk turned again to the eerie hex cast on this golden American dynasty. Could the mystery be hiding in plain sight?

Kerry Kennedy after her plea photo via

When Kerry Kennedy got into a potentially fatal accident with a tractor-trailer after nodding off at the wheel at around eight in the morning on the way to her gym two weeks ago, she became part of a long tradition of accidents has haunted one of America’s political dynasties for three generations: the crashes of four planes and at least six cars, a fatal ski accident and a lethal drug overdose, not to mention the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and of Robert F. during his own presidential campaign in 1968. 

Kerry, 52, the daughter of Robert and Ethel Kennedy and the former wife of New York governor Andrew Cuomo, was charged with misdemeanor “driving with ability impaired” by drugs; she pleaded not guilty. Kennedy’s first public response was that she may have nodded off because she took an Ambien sleeping pill instead of her thyroid medication that morning. Then she released a statement saying that the accident may have been caused by a partial seizure or some related neurological event.

Final toxicology reports released July 25 showed that she was apparently right the first time—she had a generic version of the top-selling prescription sleep agent in her system when police found her dazed and disoriented behind the wheel of her damaged 2008 Lexus after she drove away from the scene. In fact, Ambien, a quick-acting, supposedly non-addictive anti-insomnia agent, has long been suspected of causing a wide range of unwanted “sleep” behaviors, from walking to eating to driving. The drug is on the top-10 list of drugs found in impaired drivers in many states. These so-called Ambien drivers tend to display a type of road recklessness more bizarre than most DUIs, such as driving in the wrong direction or slamming into stationary objects like parked cars and light poles. Kennedy was reportedly driving erratically before colliding with the tractor-trailer and then continued driving up the road until pulling off at the first exit.

Being accident-prone is a well-documented symptom of addiction, even if the accident is as small as reaching for the wrong pill.

Yet toxicology reports aside, this latest scandal inevitably reinforces the suspicion that the Kennedy clan is, at the very least, conspicuously accident-prone. Kennedy watchers refer to this seeming propensity for accidents as the “Kennedy Curse”—a frequent trope in media coverage. But given that Kerry Kennedy’s close friend Mary Kennedy, the estranged wife of Kerry’s brother Robert, committed suicide in May, this most recent trouble seems like something more than generic bad luck. Still, like the husband of Diane Schuler who went the wrong way, causing a Taconic Parkway crash in Westchester with multiple deaths, many people would rather believe that an enraged cosmic deity like H.P Lovecraft’s Cthulu has cursed this family than admit a much simpler diagnosis. Perhaps the Kennedy Curse is nothing more mysterious than garden-variety alcoholism and drug abuse.

Kerry Kennedy appears not to have been drunk that morning—no alcohol was reported to have been found in her blood—and the causes of the Kennedy accidents may ultimately be impossible to know. Still, having accidents is a well-documented symptom of alcoholism and drug abuse, even if the accident is as small as reaching for the wrong pill. The way the disease of addiction has emerged in the Kennedy family, skipping some generations and shapeshifting others, is an almost textbook profile of how the disease works.

Some members of the family, including Kerry’s brother Robert, have come to terms with their addictions and found help in recovery. Chris Kennedy Lawford, whose mother, Patricia, was one of nine children of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. and his wife, Rose, has written brilliantly about recovery in and out of Alcoholics Anonymous. Lawford’s Aunt Joan took him to his first AA meeting, and when he knew that he had to finally stop using, he called his cousin Bobby. “I called the one guy on the planet I didn’t want to bow to, my cousin Bobby, and asked him to tell me what to do,” he writes in Symptoms of Withdrawal

Lawford’s memoir is a heart-rending portrait of what it was like to be a golden boy in a beloved and legendary family undermined by addiction. Of his cousin Michael’s death in a 1996 skiing accident on Aspen Mountain—he was playing football—following a scandal over his inappropriate relations with an underage baby-sitter, Lawford writes, “To many it didn’t make sense—he was way too good at both sports to die like this—but to me it made perfect sense. If I hadn’t had drugs to alleviate my internal angst, the emotional pain would have sent me looking for a hot babysitter to fuck or a giant tree I could slam into going 70 miles an hour on skis."

The litany of Kennedy traumas and troubles is painful to contemplate, but to mistake their appalling series of human accidents and errors for Greek tragedy is to avoid the distinctly unromantic reality of addiction. Only the plane crashes are, as reported, free of the suspicion that alcohol or drugs may have played a role. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr.’s plane crashed over England during World War II in 1944; four years later, his sister Kathleen died when her plane went down over France. The most heart-breaking plane crash was probably the loss of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s Piper Saratoga off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard in 1999, in which he, his wife and her sister were killed.

To mistake their appalling series of human accidents and errors for Greek tragedy is to avoid the distinctly unromantic reality of addiction.

Edward Kennedy, the late Massachusetts "lion of the Senate" and a longtime alcoholic, was severely injured in a crash in 1964; the pilot and one of his aides were killed. Five years later came the most infamous Kennedy automobile accident, in which the senator drove his car off a bridge in Chappaquiddick on Martha’s Vineyard, trapping Mary Jo Kopechne inside where she drowned. Later, Kennedy himself, who had been drinking at a party before the accident, wondered if “some awful curse” hung over the family.

Many third-generation Kennedys came of age in the '70s and early '80s, when recreational drug use among teens was rampant. The Kennedy kids did not come through unscathed. Hardest hit was David Kennedy, a son of Robert and Ethel who died of an overdose of cocaine and the opioid analgesic Demerol at age 28 in 1984. In 1973, David and his then girlfriend had been riding in a Jeep driven by his older brother Joseph when it overturned, paralyzing the girlfriend and seriously injuring David, who reportedly became addicted to painkillers and was in and out of rehabs for IV drug use over the next decade. But reports of hard partying by many of David's brothers, sisters and cousins surfaced over the years.

To be a Kennedy means to live in the glare of the public spotlight. American’s fascination with the family and its dozens of cousins has hardly abated since the legendary days of the Camelot White House. The Kennedys are unusually good-looking, glamorous and wealthy with a deep and noble commitment to public service. The activism that many of them embrace—from progressive politics to environmentalism and AIDS—are worthy causes. America is a country in need, now more than ever, of intelligent, altruistic politicians. Still, to have many members of a family that is so widely revered consistently try to downplay their own struggles with addiction when so many families nationwide are mystified and destroyed by it, seems less like a public service than a damn shame.

Susan Cheever, a regular columnist for The Fix, is the author of many books, including the memoirs Home Before Dark and Note Found in a Bottle, and the biography My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson—His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous.

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Susan Cheever, a columnist for The Fix, is the author of many books, including the memoirs Home Before Dark and Note Found in a Bottle, and the biography My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson—His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous. You can find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.