Mary Richardson Kennedy: The Blame Game Is a Dangerous Trap

Mental illness was the cause of her suicide, as it is with all suicides, which is why any effort to point fingers is so misguided

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Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Mary Richardson Kennedy on December 4, 2010.

Mary Richardson Kennedy committed suicide at her home on May 17, 2012.  When I wrote about how difficult it is for people to acknowledge the dangers of mental illness, both here, and on my personal blog, I was swamped with comments from people who blamed her misery on her divorce — and more specifically, Bobby Kennedy’s supposedly abusive treatment of her. She wasn’t ill, the argument went — until he decided to leave her. As Mary’s sister, Nan Richardson, told Kennedy, “You killed my sister.” His behavior unhinged her.

Now the blame has escalated to an entirely new level. Somehow, a sealed, 60-page court affidavit filed by Bobby Kennedy during his divorce proceedings was unsealed and given to Laurence Leamer, a Kennedy historian. Unless someone in Westchester family court was engaged in illegal smuggling, it isn’t hard to imagine that it was made public with Bobby Kennedy’s blessing. The pile-on was so intense, the level of loathing and blame so harsh, that anyone would want to defend himself. From the excerpts shared, the affidavit describes a grim life with a charismatic woman diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, one of the trickiest conditions to treat. It describes a violent, abusive wife and mother, and a heavy drinker. It is, in short, horrifying.

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But consideration of the children seems to be entirely missing in this situation. Not that this should surprise anyone who has been in, or near, a divorce in which the children are used as weapons aimed at the heart of one parent or another. It happens all too often: the husband who isn’t allowed to see his children if he is in a new relationship; the children who are told way too much about who did what to whom and are exposed to a constant barrage against their father or mother. Children have difficulty recovering from being so ill-used; they rarely forgive their parents for it, either, from what I’ve seen and read. Using one’s children to get the upper hand in a divorce is, in short, child abuse.

It is not for anyone to judge whether or not Kennedy’s affidavit is accurate — or a skewed tool used to manipulate the outcome of a rancorous debate. Divorce is no longer the issue, but blame still lingers. Certainly, if the affidavit is accurate, the children saw it all — and worse — and don’t need to be reminded of the toll her illness took on their mother. They surely don’t need to be convinced that their father wasn’t the cause of her suicide. Mental illness was the cause of her suicide, as it is with all suicides, which is why any effort to levy or deflect blame is so misguided and impedes the children’s ability to come to any understanding of the loss of their mother. After Bobby Kennedy’s affidavit was made public, the Richardson family issued a statement that it was “full of vindictive lies,” including the claim that Mary suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder. And it goes on.

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The blame game is a dangerous trap. It is never won. It takes prisoners for life. And it escalates until all memory of love is scorched and blows away, ashes to ashes. So it will go with the Kennedy-Richardson disaster. One family against another. There is nothing to be gained, and much to be lost, especially for the children left behind. When the ashes settle, the only thing that’s clear is that we still do not appreciate — or respect — the brutal reality of mental illness.

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