by Christopher Kennedy Lawford; New York, William Morrow and Company, 2005, 416 pages, $25.95
Dr. Tepper is clinical fellow in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
It is a challenge for a memoir to be both compelling in its narration yet not make the author sound fully self-absorbed. It must have been particularly difficult for Christopher Kennedy Lawford, the son of Patricia Kennedy—a sister of John F. Kennedy—and Peter Lawford—a Hollywood actor. He was reared both on extended Kennedy family football games in Hyannis Port and in the company of such entertainment giants as Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, and Hugh Heffner, although he did not feel quite comfortable in either setting.
Although he alludes early in the book to his later struggles with drugs, reading the first third of the book feels a bit like being a voyeur into the Hollywood social scene of Lawford's parents before their divorce, and then into Kennedy family dynamics once Lawford moves with his mother and sisters to New York. A sense is prominent of how very difficult it is to find oneself in the context of such family greatness. "We were put on notice that there were more important concerns than the beat of one's different drummer," he wrote. "It really wreaks havoc on your inner self when you realize you have been born to a life so compelling and attractive that finding your own path and own self feels like losing." The mythic proportion of his uncles' murders and the early loss of male role models—his uncles John and Bobby and his father after his parents' divorce—further complicate his personal development.
More compelling and relevant for readers of this journal, however, is Lawford's discussion of his descent into drug use and subsequent recovery, which occupies most of the book's second half. This material is written with a great deal of honesty and a very valuable perspective. I found myself wondering if Lawford set out to write a book primarily about his recovery from substance use but the publishers felt that it needed the Kennedy and Hollywood cachet for sales. And sales are clearly in mind with the front cover photograph of a young Chris Lawford and John Kennedy. Regardless, his treatment of his substance abuse is more satisfying than that of his complicated feelings about his family. This seems likely to be true not just for the reader but also perhaps for Lawford; he describes recovering from substance abuse as one of the few things he can feel proud of having accomplished himself.
Lawford notes at the end of the book that "Although this book was published because of my family, is about my family, and most likely will be read because of my family, it is also my way of letting go of my family. My declaration of independence—I hope." From the intermittent anger, swearing, and bitterness that bubbles to the surface, the reader gets the sense that the "symptoms of withdrawal" due to separating from the Kennedy family might be harder to master than those from substance use.