Lately, Jerry Savell has been taking a ribbing from his VFW friends about the Kennedy heir living in his spare bedroom. “My buddies tell me I’ve got the ‘Savell Compound’ here,” the retired schoolteacher says as his wife, Leni, prepares a chicken-and-broccoli dinner in the kitchen of their Absecon, N.J., home for themselves, daughter Amy Petitgout, and her live-in fiance, Patrick Kennedy. “Oh, he’s just like any of my other sons,” Leni chimes in, “very nice, very thoughtful. And he’s always hungry.”
How did former eight-term Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who, as a son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, enjoyed summers at the legendary compound in Hyannis Port, Mass., wind up here, living in his future in-laws’ wood-shingled colonial in the Atlantic City suburbs?
“Yeah, it’s a big, big transition,” says Kennedy, 44, sitting on a pollen-dusted lawn chair in his new family’s backyard. With his father’s death from brain cancer in August 2009, Patrick reassessed his life: He was a popular if troubled politician who had represented Rhode Island for 16 years and likely could have held his seat. But he was also a man who suffered from depression, addiction, bipolar II disorder and a belief that he had failed to live up to his family name. “I had the great fortune to serve with my father-my hero and the person I was always seeking to get approval from,” he says. “The thing that made the most difference in our relationship is that my dad wanted me around at the end.” He resolved that “I’m not going to miss the chance to have a family of my own.”
After five prior stints in rehab, he says he at last committed to sobriety. And then the longtime bachelor fell in love with Petitgout, 32, a sixth-grade teacher he met at a charity dinner. In 2010 he decided not to run for reelection, and in March the couple announced their engagement. Kennedy moved in with Petitgout, her parents and her 3-year-old daughter Harper from a previous marriage. While they will move out when the home they are building in nearby Brigantine is complete, he is happy being surrounded by family. “It’s therapeutic,” says Kennedy. “I’ll always need medical help with something as fatal as this illness. But the best treatment is as simple as love.”
Long known in the press as “the un-Kennedy” because he lacked the dynasty’s quintessential confidence, athleticism and charm, Patrick is also the first in this troubled political clan to open up about his personal struggles with addiction. He is speaking candidly about the darker days of his past as a way of launching his next act, an ambitious 10-year plan called One Mind for Research (moonshot.org), to improve neuroscience research and treatment for everything from autism to chemical dependencies. It is a natural follow-up to his work in Congress passing the 2008 Mental Health Parity Act, which requires insurers to cover mental illness as they do other diseases. While his father admired how he built a coalition for the bill, says Kennedy, “he was old-school. This was not the kind of thing you talk about in public.”
But Kennedy’s struggles were very public. In 2006 he notoriously crashed his car into a Capitol barricade around 3 a.m. after, he explained then, taking Ambien. And even during his 2008 legislative victory he admits he was only “sober enough to function.” Says an aide from that time: “I was constantly impressed with Patrick’s ability to manage his stress and his illness.”
Kennedy was first hospitalized for psychiatric care at 15, after his parents divorced. He says he suffered depression growing up and as a result, “I felt like I was just a loser in a family of winners. I couldn’t seem to get it together.” He had used cocaine and alcohol in high school, and after surgery to remove a benign tumor from his spine in college, took to narcotic painkillers. Making things worse, his father-himself a drinker-didn’t recognize his son’s problems as a sickness. “My brother once told me that my dad said, ‘Patrick just needs a swift kick in the ass,'” Kennedy says, adding quietly, “I remember that.” As a result, his problem only worsened. “I did it all,” he says now, adding that he will take an occasional Tylenol PM these days, but doesn’t dare do anything stronger. “Give me a bottle of narcotic painkillers and they’d be gone in five minutes.” He explains the pull toward drugs as a way of numbing “this gnawing sense of inadequacy. I was an accomplished man in Congress to some but still not hitting it on all cylinders when you’re trying to put yourself up against this family legacy that I have.” While he never attempted suicide, he says, “clearly alcoholism and addiction is slowly killing yourself.”
Because of his personal history, “his words mean more” in their fight for better research and treatment, says One Mind cofounder Garen Stagelin. Adds family biographer Laurence Leamer, “This takes courage. This isn’t Kennedy-esque; this is Patrick.”
Without any handlers, Kennedy speaks for an unfiltered three hours-playing out the tug-of-war between his natural candor and his political instinct to keep the focus on the mental health campaign he’s trying to build now. At the same time, he is sharply aware that his life cannot be filled only by work, no matter how meaningful. “None of my father’s legislative victories could keep him company when he was sitting on the porch facing the end of his days,” he says. “I’m not going to miss my chance to have a family.”
Petitgout and Kennedy met in March of last year. She was healing from divorce when her father urged her to take his ticket to an Association of Retarded Citizens dinner, where Kennedy was speaking. “He had so much to say that was very compassionate,” she recalls. She fell in love watching him read The Berenstain Bears to Harper and said yes when he proposed in the apple orchard of the home he keeps in Portsmouth, R.I., should he ever want to get back into elective politics. “I don’t have a guarantee that he’ll always be perfect or be able to maintain his health,” Petitgout says, “but I know he is such a supportive and loving partner that I’m willing to be in this with him.”
They’ll have a family-only wedding July 15 hosted by his stepmother, Vicki Reggie Kennedy, at his father’s Hyannis Port home. Mom Joan, 74, is “doing well,” he says, and he tries to support her own recovery from alcoholism “by being as much of a loving son as I can.” Because Petitgout, a practicing Catholic like Kennedy, is divorced and Kennedy has feuded with his local bishop over abortion rights, Supreme Court Justice Steven Breyer, a family friend, will officiate.
Today, Kennedy goes to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings every day-even on a recent Paris vacation with Petitgout-and checks himself into in-patient treatment once or twice a year. “I have a chronic illness; never won’t be in treatment.” He’s eager for children of his own to hug and play with, though worry about passing on his disease looms: “If they get more of my genes than Amy’s, they’ll be kids I have to worry about.” For now, he’s happy in the role of stepdad and finds serenity in reciting with Harper the favorite childhood prayer, “Angel of God,” that his father taught him. And as he travels the country to promote One Mind, he feels his famous name as less of burden. “If I can use it to help advance progress in mental health,” he says, “then that’s the best value I bring to my name.”