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What actually happened on the night of July 18, 1969, on Chappaquiddick Island?


Perhaps my motive for adding clarity to these questions is related to my Boston background and my observations of Ted Kennedy’s personality in a number of group settings.  I entered Harvard in the Class of 1953, one year before he entered Harvard in the class of 1954. Whatever our silent connection, I found it extremely interesting that I had a dream while I was a resident in Community Psychiatry in California on the night of his tragedy at Chappaquiddick in which I strongly sensed his frantic mind reaching out to my own for help.


I shared this with my mentor, Dr. Portia Bell Hume, a woman who was important in implementing legislation for psychiatric services in California, including the Short-Doyle Program, which helped fund two large Multipurpose Centers in Contra Costa County for Multi-handicapped Children and Adults that were unique to the entire country and for which I had the privilege of serving as the Medical Director for a period of ten years (1968-1978)


Dr. Hume encouraged me to go into silence for a couple of days to intuitively respond to his unconscious request.  She was so impressed with my result that she advised me to mail it to his mother, Rose Kennedy. Perhaps, I should have, but I felt that he deserved to be the first to see and comment upon it. I sent him my communication by registered mail, which he signed, but never responded to me in any way and, until now, it has remained between the two of us. Hopefully, it did have some personal value in helping him to understand what it means to experience, what much later became called, an Acute Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. 



The following formulation concerning this most recent of the Kennedy tragedies is based upon a professional, analytic examination of the current news media.  My wish to publicize these impressions is not for the purpose of salvaging the political career of Edward Kennedy, but to temper the biting and unwarranted judgments that have been spurred by a deluge of unanswered questions:


Why did Kennedy and Miss Kopechne leave the party?

• Why did he take the wrong road?

• Was the accident the result of drinking?

• Why didn't he call the police immediately?

• Why didn't he stop at one of the houses he passed?

• Why did he sit in the back of a car and waste time?

• Why didn't Gargan and Markham call the police?

• Why did he swim back to his hotel?

• Why did he convene famous men to help write his speech?

• Why did Kennedy wait so long to explain?


All of these many questions really reflect upon the key question concerning the inner workings of Ted Kennedy's mind, and concern regarding his integrity and competence under stress. The reason for this is that it is difficult for the average person to understand his actions immediately following the accident. His behavior during this period has been criticized as "incomprehensible" both here and in the foreign press, and he, himself, admits to finding it "indefensible."


As a result of the confusion over his "shocking lapse of judgment and control," he has become the unhappy target of speculation regarding his motives. These range from moral weakness to malevolent intent, from a selfish cover-up of intoxication and an obsession with the danger to his future political ambitions, to mental and emotional instability. All of these assumptions tend to lead the public toward the conclusion that Ted Kennedy suffers from either emotional brittleness or a lack of moral character.


Postponement of the inquiry only tended to further increase and prolong the sense of frustration at the delay in answering these questions. However, I believe that no inquiry could more accurately or fairly supply these answers than a careful, analytic examination of the facts already known, and the statements already made public by Senator Kennedy.



The true explanation lies in an understanding of the state of mind of Senator Kennedy during, and for several hours following, his accident. In order to help you to do this, I must first describe the phenomenon that, for convenience sake, we may label "post-traumatic" shock. Post-traumatic shock results from a unique series of events in a particularly predisposed individual which leads to an emotional state that is characterized by a feeling of loss of identity and disrupted contact with reality. Those who have in the past, experienced even a mild variant of this psychological state of mind may quickly grasp my explanation of its significance.


Since the advent of a variety of "mind drugs" psychiatrists and psychologists have become increasingly more aware of the many levels of states of consciousness under which the mind may operate in different circumstances. The various stages of sleep and the nature of the hypnotic state still remain somewhat of a mystery to us. There are times when all of us have experienced dreams that were as vivid as reality, while at other times the "real world" seems to take on all the characteristics of a dream. Our reactions at the time are, of course, influenced by our current state of consciousness and perception of reality, and our behavior may follow patterns, which on later sober reflection appear "indefensible."


There are many levels of conscious awareness in our waking state, and sometimes the line becomes very thin between fantasy and reality.  The work of children, through the process of play, is to discover, after many years, the difference between what is real and what is imaginary. In our development from infancy through early childhood, we outgrow that stage when each of us believes in magical thinking and in the plausibility of fairy tales (both pleasant and frightening) and learn to restrict our thinking to the unchangeable physical laws of reality. Even then, stories of the supernatural still intrigue us, as if we have not quite given up our ideas of ghosts and magical thinking. After all, the material world as we know it is really quite an enigma in itself, and we must constantly discipline our minds from soaring beyond the confining limitations of time and space as we have been taught to respect it.


Our hold upon reality must be constantly reinforced.  Sensory deprivation experiments demonstrate that many people, under conditions of total isolation from the environment, become rapidly disoriented and have terrifying hallucinations.  Similarly, patients who have recently undergone major surgery often complain of a brief but sudden frightening and overwhelming sensation of estrangement and of feeling alone and isolated.  Freud, in 1919, described a sensation of the "uncanny," associated with the feeling that one's actions are under the influence of the unconscious mind or of forces outside of conscious awareness.


The uncanny may be defined as an anxiety-like feeling or sensation resulting from sudden rediscovery of a repressed fear or fantasy due to an unexpected confrontation with a tragic reality. Deep unconscious feelings are reactivated (which normally are experienced only in dreams) and break through all defenses until it is felt consciously. To experience the "uncanny" there must be a conflict with rational judgment.


The individual, in addition, has committed an inexplicable act incongruous with his own self-concept, as if he were under the power of powerful forces outside of himself. The helplessness, passivity, and confusion lead to self-doubts as to whether there may be some inner unconscious self-destructive compulsion outside of his conscious control. Repressed fears become a reality.  Orientation of the environment is displaced.


This sudden sense of the uncanny promotes a feeling of "craziness" that transports the helpless injured party into a global "theatre of the absurd." Nothing seems real, and rational thoughts, such as, "Let's call the cops," would only compound the absurdity.  The sensation is not unlike that of being "high" on a psychotropic drug like LSD.


Even in this condition, some people are able to maintain enough control over their body activities to go through the motions of what they know the outside world would consider rational behavior, while inwardly they are in a state of turmoil.


Bruno Bettelheim and Victor Frankel are two psychiatrists who have written extensively about their own experiences of depersonalization and identity confusion in concentration camps. Frantz Fanon, in his book, “Wretched of the Earth,” describes atrocities committed by both sides in the French-Algerian War, and gives examples of emotional breakdown following the accidental or unthinking performance of acts, which are totally irreconcilable with a person's self-image.


A more common phenomenon which almost everyone has experienced many times, is the feeling of disbelief at the discovery of shocking news accompanied by an unconscious blocking of the impact from full awareness, so that each time it is repeated, it is like hearing it again, for the first time. For example, when President John Kennedy was assassinated, we all kept asking ourselves in disbelief, "Is he really dead?"


The salient characteristics of post-traumatic shock, of a sufficiently serious nature to result in the associated sequelae of a prolonged, all-pervasive sensation of the uncanny, such as suffered by Edward Kennedy, may be outlined as follows:


1. Predisposition. This is a previous state of tension and strain. This is why the trauma is a relative concept. It depends entirely upon previous experiences and the actual state of the mind before and after the trauma. No two persons will act the same under similar conditions. Senator Kennedy's predisposition was his state of mind during the past several months, which was reinforced by the events of the evening. He had been attending a party for his assassinated brother's campaign staff.  It was a "cookout" reminiscent of memories of recent grief; grief, which left in its wake not only a sense of loneliness (he was the only brother left), but also the added burden and strain of feeling responsible for the Kennedy family.


2. Sudden trauma. The element of surprise associated with events, which are rapid and overwhelming so as to temporarily overtax the adult sense of testing reality.


3. Overwhelming sense of helplessness, increased by guilt and by the knowledge that the tragic occurrence is too late to prevent.  It is like a betrayal of fate, which refuses to protect one any longer. Old, infantile threats and anxieties suddenly reappear and assume a serious character. The whole trauma may have a screening function — past memories often sweep by, when suddenly all repressed fears, all the imaginations of childhood, become a reality. Like under the impact of death, people speak of seeing their lives passing by before them. Concurrently, there is a strong reaction of disbelief and denial that the tragic event is a reality.


4. Biological response brought on by the release of the "stress hormones" (adrenalin, cortisone, and norepinephrine) greatly aggravated by frenetic activity, which only increases the state of alarm, confusion, and exhaustion.


5. Desperate attempt to withdraw and recoup, prompted by fear and intense psychic pain. Emergency functions take over the will without any participation of the ego. An attempt is made to remedy the situation within an upset of the entire emotional and mental apparatus. What goes through the mind can only be described as a nightmarish sensation — "the world's gone crazy." The world is seen in a wholly different way — anything is possible. Amidst the shock is the underlying awareness that, "I'm guilty." During this immediate reaction at mastery of the situation, all normal or usual modes of functioning have failed.


6. All rational thought is blocked by an attempt to master the sudden, overwhelming excitation. The general loss of higher cortical functions leads to a temporary regression with a sudden flooding of repressed fears. It is an upset of the entire mental equilibrium. Kennedy described this as only a person who had recently undergone such an experience could do:


 "All kinds of scrambled thoughts, all of them confused, some of them which I cannot recall, and some of which I would not have seriously entertained under normal circumstances, went through my mind during this period."

7.Regression into over-dependence and hyper-susceptibility to suggestion made by others. Because the validity of his own judgment is now doubted, he will seek out advice and act instinctively upon the judgments of others he has trusted in the past.


8. Frantic, belated attempt at mastery. Sometimes a person who has just been rescued from a burning building must be saved from his own attempts to reenter the building to salvage a relatively valueless object. Several tragic examples of this were recorded during the 1946 Coconut Grove fire in Boston.  Similarly, Ted Kennedy discharged his stored energies upon the obstacle of water before him as he stood waiting at the ferryboat landing. With no thought of the danger involved, he was literally compelled to act, to leap into the water and swim his way to the farther landing.


Ted Kennedy understands as well as any living man today the poignancy of the line from Gray's, “Elegy in a Country Graveyard”:  "The paths of glory lead but to the grave." He is no neophyte, exhilarated by the prospects of political ambitions about to become realized. Rather, ardent followers anxious to thrust prematurely political power into his hands surround him. The awesome challenge of picking up a fallen standard, with a commitment to excellence and courage is an almost impossible act for any man to follow. The danger attached to this standard is clear. He lives under the not unrealistic fear that "some kook" will want to get the last of the Kennedy brothers. By an ironic twist he has suffered a, perhaps, more tragic fate than his preceding brothers — one of character assassination. Tragedy has sobered and aged him — put behind him the early capers of a carefree undergraduate, the irresponsibility’s of a youngest son of a large and wealthy family.


Since Robert's assassination he has been a troubled and sober man. The picture of a cavalier politician with a few drinks under his belt and mischief on his mind is incongruous with the facts, as we know them. Kennedy was a deeply troubled man who took seriously his role of standard-bearer for his fallen brothers. All the more shattering must be his self- recriminations at his inexplicable and tragic folly.


Friends had noted that Kennedy had not been in a partying mood, especially a month after the anniversary of brother Bobby's death and surrounded by all of the "Boiler Gang" to make more vivid that tragic memory.  In a sense he was now being preened for the position of the new sacrificial lamb. His desire to leave the party early is understandable and the only way to do it easily would be to quietly "slip" out, unnoticed, except by someone who was, herself, on the lookout for an easy means for an early departure.


It is not unusual for a man who is driving with his mind preoccupied to inadvertently take a wrong turn onto a familiar and often-travelled road. However, it is unlikely that either the Senator or his young companion would not have soon recognized the error. We can only conclude that the turn to the right was intentional. There was still plenty of time to catch the ferry, and either Miss Kopechne, who was as disturbed by Robert Kennedy's death as any non-family member, or the Senator himself might have suggested a brief visit to the beach which both John and Bob Kennedy had so often frequented in happier days for the purpose of spending a few quiet moments in silent memory. Both perhaps welcomed a breath of fresh air to dispel the vapors of depressing memories re-conjured at the party.


With his mind thus ahead on the beach, perhaps somewhat relieved to be putting some distance between himself and the party, and with his thoughts drifting with the conversation to his fallen brothers, Ted Kennedy proceeded absentmindedly along, unaware that a simple stretch of road during the day was unexpectedly hazardous by night. From the angle which his car entered the water, it is clear that he had never made a special note of the unusual oblique angle which this bridge takes from the road. Thus, daydreaming and/or conversing, he suddenly found himself engulfed by water. Rapid and overwhelming events followed — a struggle to free himself and repeated efforts to save his drowning passenger.


"Then water entered my lungs and I actually felt the sensation of drowning. But somehow, I struggled to the surface, alive."


In a state of shock and desperation, increased by his repeated efforts to save Mary Jo, Ted Kennedy found himself heading back to the scene of the party where he collapsed momentarily in the back seat of a car in an attempt to recoup his senses. His own description of his state of mind at this time is classic of post-traumatic shock:


His scrambled thoughts were reflected in the various inexplicable, inconsistent and inconclusive things he said and did, including such questions as whether the girl might still be alive somewhere out of that immediate area, whether some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys, whether there was some justifiable reason for him to doubt what had happened and to delay his report, whether somehow the awful weight of this incredible incident might in some way pass from his shoulders. 


I was overcome — I am frank to say, by a jumble of emotion — grief, fear, doubt, torture, panic, confusion, exhaustion, and shock."


But why didn't Gargan and Markham call the police? Kennedy's outer facade of control undoubtedly fooled his friends and gave no indication of his inner turmoil. Otherwise, they could hardly have left him alone at the ferry landing, and by so doing, severely jeopardize his life. In this case, Ted's public stature worked to his detriment. His friends were afraid to do the wrong thing by taking matters into their own hands. They thought they were helping by suggesting that a more concise and accurate accounting of the accident could be given in the morning.


Unfortunately, they did not realize that because of Kennedy's hyper-suggestible state of mind at the time, they were, in effect, assuming the responsibility for his actions when he relied upon them. Similarly, well-meaning officials who did not wish to appear to be questioning his integrity denied Kennedy the usual processes of the law. Thus, tragedy becomes a special affliction of famous men who are subject to the scrutiny of the masses and are vulnerable to a paradoxical type of inequality, which prevents them from receiving the "common" treatment.


Other bits of seemingly inexplicable behavior now fit into place. Kennedy came out of his room to ask the desk clerk the time at 2:45 a.m. Physicians notice routinely that patients who are brought to them in a state of temporary confusion following a traumatic accident, invariably try to reorient themselves by asking, "What time is it?"


He made numerous phone calls during the night. The strength of each of the Kennedys rested largely upon family unity and in the ability of each to turn to the others for advice and support. There is no longer a Joe, a John, or a Bobby for counsel on intimate matters. Ted had to turn to his most trusted friends — and to his mother. Later, he called Robert McNamara, Theodore Sorensen, Richard Goodwin, Kenneth O'Donnell, and Burke Marshall to his Hyannisport compound for help in understanding himself and the entire debacle. This only proves that he neither took the incident lightly, nor felt above public condemnation.


Kennedy's state of shock precluded an earlier public accounting, especially since the details were so simple and his behavior under the circumstances so inexplicable to himself, probably even to the present time. A careful analysis of the speech by Kennedy given to a national audience can lead only to the conclusion that this was an honest attempt to describe to his constituents the reasons for his behavior and reactions, as well as he himself was able to understand them.


"I ask you tonight, the people of Massachusetts, to think this through with me in facing this decision.  I seek your advice and opinion in making it.  I seek your prayers.  For this is a decision that I will have finally to make on my own."


He was not asking for forgiveness, nor was he asking for their support. He was not even asking for their advice — for he saw the responsibility as being clearly his own. He was asking only for their prayers!


In these times of disillusionment with public figures and the questioning of cherished values, the Kennedy legend has been a sustaining factor toward national pride. We have adapted the Kennedy image as an ideal of excellence in a troubled world. The nation was waiting, and willing, to be seduced by rhetoric back into a settled reconfirmation of their faith in this dream. Many thus felt cheated and disillusioned by a speech that was too honest, too human, and which did not attempt to quiet their troubled minds with contrived answers to their prying questions — personal questions — that, hopefully, the world will no longer feel the need to ask.