The Kennedy Clan Combats Addiction

By Susan Cheever 01/09/13

When Christopher Kennedy Lawford and cousin Patrick Kennedy, two ex-addicts from America's most famous family, sit down to discuss Lawford's exhaustive new book about addiction, they aren't afraid to make it personal.

Christopher Kennedy Lawford photo via

Christopher Kennedy Lawford is on a tour to promote a fascinating, perhaps definitive book about the full spectrum of addiction, called Recover to Live: Kick Any Habit, Manage Any Addiction. Joining him is his cousin, Patrick Kennedy, son of Senator Ted Kennedy and a former 16-year Rhode Island congressman who wrote the introduction. Together, Chris and Patrick make a formidable and entertaining pair, and may just be the hottest ticket in addiction advocacy at the moment.

In addition to both being Kennedys, the two share a history of multiple addictions, as well as public and private trauma—family traits that have been well documented and go back in some ways to grandfather Joe's days as a bootlegger. They also embody other Kennedy traits—a fierce commitment to public service, electrifying speaking talents, whip-sharp intelligence, and an absurd share of the world’s good looks. Lawford, the son of actor Peter Lawford and Patricia Kennedy, got sober 25 years ago and has devoted his life to addiction advocacy and education. He has a law degree, a master’s in psychology and is the author of the best-selling memoir, Symptoms of Withdrawal.

Kennedy, like Lawford, writes about addiction from personal experience. In 2006, then Rep. Kennedy famously crashed his car into a barricade on Capitol Hill in the middle of the night. In dealing with the scandal, he acknowledged that he had an addiction to prescription drugs and went for treatment to the Mayo Clinic. After a series of relapses, bad behavior and bad press, Kennedy got sober in February 2010—for what he hopes is the last time.

Recover to Live, Lawford’s third book, is more ambitious than the standard self-help book. He has set out to gather the best thinking and advice of 100 of the world’s addiction experts on the seven deadliest dependencies: alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, hoarding, sex and pornography and nicotine.

Minutes after the two appeared on The Today Show, they joined Fix columnist Susan Cheever for coffee in Manhattan.

Susan Cheever: Why did you write this book?

Christopher Kennedy Lawford: Like many people, I would sit in front of my television a couple of hours a day watching CNN or whatever. Then an ad came on of this guy selling the “Addiction Cure.” It occurred to me that guy was the face of addiction for a lot of people in this country. And he was giving marginal information at best. His purpose is to sell his rehab. I wrote this book so that people will have real, actual information about addiction. They can assess where they are on the continuum and they can do something about it. And all the profits are going to a nonprofit called the Global Recovery Initiative. I’m not going to make a dime.

Patrick, did you have a part in writing the book?

Patrick Kennedy: I did the introductory chapter. And addiction has been the cause of my life. When I was in Congress, I was the author of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, which was signed into law in 2008 by George W. Bush. It means that every insurance plan in the country will now have coverage of some sort. The question is, what kind? The law is five years old, and we are pushing to get a final rule, which will define the scope of coverage.

Can you footnote the relationship between mental illness and addiction?

Kennedy: They are both brain diseases. Many people who have addiction issues also have depression. That is why they get addicted. They are self-medicating. The big thing here is the earlier people experiment with substances, the more likely they are to become addicts. The big push now is prevention. Every parent just dismisses prevention. They say, Well, that is all part of growing up—it’s their rebellion. The prevention strategies we have used do not work, as evidenced by the fact of the escalating rate of use.

The truth is that getting up and talking about being in recovery is not inconsistent with the traditions of AA.

When did you start using?

Lawford: I was a teenager, 13 or 14.

Kennedy: I was 12.


Kennedy: A lot of factors go into creating an addict. You have genetic factors, environmental factors. Trauma is an environmental factor. If you add trauma to genetics—like a parent or a family member having it—you are really creating a perfect storm for addiction to take off. Unfortunately, we do not treat addiction as a physical illness. When we look at people like myself—I was in and out all the time—and ask, “What is wrong with them? Why can't they just decide to give it up?” That is the whole issue of where problem use turns into abuse and then addiction.

Chris’ book identifies how to determine where you fall on that spectrum. It’s such a useful tool. Where we need more hard science and evidence, Chris has assembled the best experts in the field to provide it. And we need to do more. That’s why I started One Mind for Research, which will funnel more research dollars into brain science.

One of the things in Chris’ book that I found very moving was when he talked about the traumas that he suffered both from his parents’ divorce and from the death of his two uncles, JFK and RFK. That is a trauma that you share, right?

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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.