The news came over the wire in the early afternoon. Twenty-eight- year-old David Kennedy was found dead in a hotel room in Palm Beach. He hadn't made the plane home to Boston, and a "Mrs. Kennedy" had called the hotel to check. The secretary found him lying on the floor between two beds.
There was hardly time to shake a head, hardly time to say "what a shame" before the analyses started pouring in over the wires and airwaves. The word "troubled" was affixed to his name like a title. He was the "troubled son" of Robert Kennedy. He was the troubled son who had been deeply into drugs. He was the troubled son who was once mugged at a "bad- rep" hotel in New York, the troubled son who'd been hospitalized with a heart infection that can, they say, be related to drugs.
By the evening, everyone I met was speculating freely about why David Kennedy had gone down the tubes. It was because of problems without his father, problems with his mother, problems with his name.
Indeed, the story that seemed to stick was as simple as a docu-melodrama. David's life had been saved the afternoon of June 5, 1968, when his father pulled him out of the surf. Later that night the 12-year-old boy had watched him bleed to death on TV. "David Kennedy," said a late-night commentator, "died the day his father died."
With the special alchemy that turns every private tragedy of the Kennedys into public drama, a new act was inserted into the national play. This was the "Kennedy Curse, Part 10, The Next Generation."
Well, forgive me if I don't tell you "What Happened to David Kennedy" today, because I don't know. I don't believe that someone's life can be boiled down to a parable or a phrase. I'm not sure that it's truly finally "knowable."
We can follow clues to a conclusion. We can weave a tale from whatever threads are available in order to make, literally make, sense. But it's only partial sense. Until the day before David Kennedy died, there were at least two story lines to follow: one that traced his own struggle for recovery; the other that ended on the hotel floor.
If David Kennedy was a member of a clan, he was also an individual. If the traumas of his life were more profound than many and more public than any, we can't file away his life under the title "troubled" and under the curse marked "Kennedy."
I suspect that we analyze troubles in order to separate Them from Us and Ours. We look for a reason, a nice solitary reason for their disasters, one that could never happen to us. It's our safekeeping.
But no amount of explanations can solve what is essentially a mystery: the way in which one particular human being deals with one life. There were 11 children born to Ethel and Bob Kennedy. The Kennedy cousins number 29. They include cousins who have been in trouble with drugs and driving, cousins who are lawyers and broadcasters and students, cousins who work with the handicapped, the poor, the abused.
David's father was killed, but so was sister Kathleen's, and she lives, practices law and mothers. David suffered a horrendous loss, but so did cousin Ted when he gave a leg to cancer. David experimented with drugs, but what of others in and out of the family who were not trapped the same way?
I don't dismiss this Kennedy's pain; it was monumental. But if we could figure out what makes one kid survive and another go under, I swear I would bottle it and hand it out to every parent who ever stood at a grave or a drug clinic or a psychiatric ward.
David Kennedy himself described 1970 as "the point in my life when everything began to turn against me." He was 15 that year. Anyone with kids in that earthquake stage of life knows where the fault lines are. Many of our kids are shaken at one time or another. Some of them are more fragile than others. Some of them have stronger foundations. But there is no single Richter scale to measure the effect.
The Kennedys seemed more sad than surprised by David's death. It was clearly the end of a long, long road for all of them. But neither they nor we can really fathom the way one psyche is shattered or strengthened by life. We cannot psychoanalyze this mystery, and file it far, far away from us under the heading, "Kennedy."
This 28-year-old was not finally a troubled son, a member of a clan, a victim of a curse. He was a soul who got lost. And that seems like an occasion to offer less analysis and more comfort.