Christopher Kennedy Lawford
No Penalty for Early Withdrawal
by Ronald Sklar
“The brilliance about being a drug addict and an alcoholic is that I’ve had my worst day,” Christopher Kennedy Lawford says. “Nobody can do to me what I already did far worse to myself. In terms of telling the truth about myself, no matter how much condemnation or disagreement I get from people, I’ve done far worse to myself.”
Lawford is telling the truth about himself as he performs a brave and scary task in his new book, Symptoms of Withdrawal (William Morrow). Though he is almost two decades sober and drug free, he is exposing a vulnerable nerve and beaming an unblinking light into the far reaches of his dark side. This is a rare and unusual move for a member of America’s Royal Family, all of whom are accustomed to having their every step chronicled and their every weakness magnified, but very rarely do they personally tell-all, minus the hearts and flowers.
Face it (as he has) and ask yourself: if I’m born into a very public family, who am I?
The completion of his book, which chronicles his uneasy journey, allowed him to emerge with some definitive answers.
“It was so amazingly cathartic,” he says. “To write it was wonderful. I’ve never had any regrets in terms of any of the stuff that was in it. I truly believe that we’re only as sick as our secrets. I truly believe that one of the difficulties in the world regarding relationships is when people are being other than who they say they are. One of the greatest things that you can do is realize who you are and what your truth is. People may not like that or want to hang out with you or have anything to do with you, but that’s their prerogative and you’ll find some people who do.”
Warning: If you’re looking to dig through the Kennedys’ garbage can, you’ll come up with some trash, but nothing you can sell on eBay. Still, you can’t completely separate the man from the family – so yes, Lawford has plenty to say about Camelot’s rise and fall, and about his own famous father, actor Peter Lawford, who suffered his own plummet into an inescapable haze of alcohol and drugs, which eventually took his life.
Before the tragic end, did the Lawford father and son have a happy ending of bonding and revelation?
“Not really,” Lawford laments. “We had a very specific relationship. We engaged in all sort of inappropriate behavior. That was bonding on some level, but it is not the kind of bonding that I would choose to do today. I regret that we could not have a more significant, more appropriate way of bonding, but it was the best either of us could do at the time. I love my father and I know he loves me. I carry my sobriety for him, and I think that his death had a lot to do with me getting sober.”
Christopher Lawford’s own introduction to addictive substances happened while at a private boarding school. He recalls, “When I was fourteen years old, my friends had asked me to do [LSD trips] with them, and I knew that it was wrong, but I did it anyway, and that sent me on this journey. I truly believe that my addiction was brought on by three things – a perfect addictive storm, if you will. One: a genetic predisposition; two: the times I grew up in, which were very different than they are today. People did not have an awareness of this problem to the extent that they do today. There was a lot more tolerance of experimentation [back then]; the third thing: the circumstances of my life were scary and somewhat painful. I come from divorce, which is painful for a kid. Two of my uncles had very public murders. And that’s scary. Those three things together provided an opportunity for me to do what I did, and then I ran with it.”
Sure, as a child he hung out in the White House with Uncles John, Bobby and Teddy, and sure, his father allowed him a front-row seat to the infamous ring-a-ding-ding banter of the Hollywood Rat Pack, and without a doubt, he enjoyed close friendships with his cousins (including John F. Kennedy, Jr. and David Kennedy), but this book is ultimately about Christopher. It’s about his descent into Hell and his eventual rise from the ashes. His supportive family happens to be with him and they naturally rally around him for that bumpy ride, but they take a back seat.
He professes nothing but love and respect for his clan, but he also admits, “One of the great gifts in writing this book is that I don’t ever have to talk about my family again. From now on, anybody who asks me about my family, I can say, ‘I don’t talk about that anymore – go read my book.’”
Like most of the thousands of Kennedy books that line the bookstore shelves, this one is brutal (even though it’s Lawford being brutal on himself), but unlike most Kennedy books, it’s free of an agenda.
Of the print obsession for his family’s equally wonderful and tragic story, he says, “I’ve read a few [Kennedy books] in terms of some of the research I did for this, just to get a sense of some things about my parents. Usually, these outside-the-family [writers] get it fifty per cent wrong. That may be fifty per cent factually or just that they don’t really put it into context. It kind of boggles my mind that anybody would even be interested enough to write these books. Look, if it’s a serious book about my uncles as political figures, I get that. [But] spending time writing about my family in terms of the stuff that some of these people write about is mind boggling to me. I guess it has a lot to do with the money and that they can sell that book. I don’t spend a lot of time reading that stuff.”
No need to read it when you’re living it. And live it they do, to the tenth power. The family matriarch, Rose Kennedy, had once said, “To those to whom much is given, much is expected.”
Lawford comments on growing up with that mouthful of a motto: “We do enjoy life and we do enjoy the gifts that we’ve been given. I love that ethic. I’ve learned that the two greatest things in life are love and service. That doesn’t mean that I spend my time chasing those two things. I spend a lot of my time chasing money, property and prestige, like everybody else in this country. But I do know – having lived the life I’ve lived – that those things will not bring me contentment and peace. It will not bring me joy. What will bring me joy is love and service. Selfless service. I appreciate the fact that my family gave me that ethic. It has been engrained in my life to one degree or another. I practice it very imperfectly but I’m grateful for that lesson.”
Unlike many of his relatives, he claims that the title of “World Leader” was not a career option for him – at least not for now.
He says, “I certainly thought that maybe I would get to the White House one day, because everybody grows up knowing that anybody can be President of the United States – I don’t necessarily believe that – but it’s one of the things that we are taught from a young age here. After my difficulties and my arrest, it didn’t seem like that was going to happen. It was clear that I did not have the makeup in terms of the presentation or the inner strength to do something like that. I’ve always been interested in politics, because once you are exposed to it, especially at a young age, it’s a very compelling world. It’s exciting. It means a lot. The people who are in it are more or less dynamic. There are a lot of aspects to it that are interesting. Plus, I grew up in a family in which public service was part of our ethic. I still have that feeling. I would never run for office now, because I think the process is so broken on so many levels that to be really effective is so difficult.
“My Uncle Teddy manages to do it but he’s a genius at it and he’s been doing it for thirty odd years. I respect and admire what he does there. But he has to do a lot of things that I can never do. You have to compromise, and you have to be patient. These are not qualities that I’m terribly good at. I’m not sure that I would be very good at it. That’s not to say that one day I might not just get fed up enough to run. But I’m much too radical to get elected anywhere but very few populations in this country. My views are way left. But we’ll see. We’ll see.”
In the meantime, three family members are especially vital to his journey back to life: his three children, David, Savannah and Matthew, to whom he dedicates the book. He says, “This is an oral history for them. They can come back to me and ask me stuff about me that might be generated from reading the book. It’s a beginning point. They can see it. They can touch it. They can feel it. They can read it and re-examine it. That book is a very good representation of my life and who I am as an individual. To be a good father [is what I’m striving to be]. And not to be right all the time, and not to be sane all the time, but to be present and consistent, pretty much all the time. Some days are better than others, and I’ve made some mistakes in terms of my relationships with my kids, and I’ve made some choices for myself that my kids don’t necessarily agree with. Getting a divorce from my wife is not a decision that my kids liked, and it’s not a decision that they necessarily accepted, and it has impacted our relationship. But we were able to maintain a relationship in the face of that pain – and that is also another gift of sobriety.”
Ultimately, what does sobriety mean for Lawford?
“Everything,” he says. “It means the ability to truly live and realize my life; it means the opportunity to make mistakes and correct them; it means the ability to be conscious of my life, to have relationships that are present and meaningful; it means having the ability to take advantage of all the stuff that I have been given in my life; it means that I can have a conscious contact with a power greater than me, that I can have a spiritual life. It means that I can – as my grandmother [Rose] said, live life fully, in all of its joys and its duties. If I was still using, I would be dead, certainly, but I would not be able to do any of those things.”
One of the passions he continues to pursue is acting. He had a long-running role on the ABC soap, All My Children, and is working with Anthony Hopkins in the upcoming film, The World’s Fastest Indian.
However, he will continue to find joy in writing.
“[Writing a memoir] is a really new experience for me,” he says. “Finding a voice – and getting it down on paper was a new, freeing wonderful experience. I had no idea I could do it. My mother said that I could do it and I didn’t believe her. And I found out at 48 that I could do it. One of the great gifts of this book is to find out that I could do something that I never thought I could do. Many people have this gift. If this book proves anything, is take a chance to do something. I was lucky because somebody paid me to do this, because I’m a member of the Kennedy family and they figured they’re going to get a Kennedy book and they could sell that and they paid me for it. Most people can’t get paid to write their books. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t write them. Believe me, the least good thing about this book was the ‘getting paid for it’ part. Not that getting paid isn’t good but compared to all the other gifts I got from it, getting paid was at the bottom of the list.
“There is a freedom to this. I grew up in a very public family. So, on some level, my emancipation has to be public. I’ve written an honest book about who I am. Now there are no more secrets or angst. It is what it is and now I can move on.”
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Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 22, 2005.