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Liz McNeil
May 29, 2015 12:50 PM

It’s been a long road for the three children of Tatum O’Neal and John McEnroe, whose explosive marriage was marred by her addiction battles, his famous temper and their long, drawn-out custody battle. Today, their three children, Kevin, 29, Sean, 28, and Emily, 24, say they have found a new understanding of their experiences growing up in one of Hollywood’s most famously troubled families.

In an interview in this week’s PEOPLE, Kevin McEnroe says that while he was growing up he was often hesitant to tell people his last name. “I wanted to not always be Tatum O’Neal’s or John McEnroe’s son,” he says. “It changed the way people viewed you and I was always dying to be my own person.”

Now with his new novel Our Town, a heartbreaking fictionalized account of the life of Tatum’s mother, Joanna Moore, who was briefly married to Tatum’s dad, Ryan O’Neal, Kevin is making a name for himself.

In writing the book, which traces his family’s struggle with addiction back to Moore, an alcoholic who became hooked on pain pills, Kevin came to believe that his family’s true curse is not addiction or alcoholism but self-doubt. “I think what was passed down was what Joanna had – not believing in yourself,” he says. “Addiction comes secondary to the belief you are a f—up and never going to make it.”

He never felt it more strongly than after his drug arrest last July. “Once I got arrested, I was just McEnroe’s son, McEnroe’s dopey son essentially,” he says. “It didn’t even say Kevin [in the New York Post story]. My name is ‘McEnroe’s son’. It was such a bad reflection on my family. I was very ashamed because I never wanted to do anything to him or my mom. I was too stupid to realize how big of a deal it really was.”

Tatum O'Neal at the graduation of son Kevin McEnroe (left) in 2008, with Emily (second from left) and Sean
Courtesy Emily McEnroe

Growing up in privilege on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, he admits his name came with expectations. “I hated the way it changed how people treated you,” says Kevin. “I spent a lot of time hiding from it. When I was playing tennis in high school, I used to say I was Kevin King.”

“In a lot of ways it was great,” adds his younger sister, Emily. “But it was also hard. There was an expectation that I would be really good at playing sports. We would talk about, ‘Should we just go by O’Neal for tennis?’

“When I was growing up, I used to think, ‘I have to get my Oscar before my mom,’ and then I passed that age quickly,” she says with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Well, that’s absolutely not going to happen.’ My parents have been the best at their careers. My dad was number one at tennis and my mom won an Oscar so that put enormous pressure on us. I think it also gives my siblings and me a huge drive to blaze our own trail.”

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There were also memorable moments, she notes. Among Emily’s favorites was accompanying her mom to the 2003 Oscars when she was 11 years old. “I was just a year older than she was when she won for Paper Moon, says Emily. “It was hard for me to fully grasp what it meant to be the youngest person ever to win an Oscar. But the beauty of the night was that it allowed me to celebrate her and understand more deeply all she had accomplished.”

All three children are very close to their mom. “My mom is all heart,” says Sean, a fine art photographer. “She’s had an extremely difficult life but she is such a loving person.”

While demanding, their father, John McEnroe, was a solid presence in their lives. “He has always been there for me,” says Kevin. “There’s something about fathers and sons – it’s almost impossible to get the approval you want. I had to grapple with him for approval. I respect his work ethic and he is proud of me.”

“When I was in rehab he said, ‘We always knew you were going to be a success,’ and that meant a lot to me. It took me a lot of ups and downs to figure that out.”

McEnroe’s rep tells PEOPLE, “He loves Kevin. He read the book and thinks it’s great.”

Kevin is also close with McEnroe’s second wife, Patty Smyth, with whom he had two kids, Anna, 19, and Ava, 16, and a stepdaughter, Ruby, 29. “I think it’s been hard for her to feel as though she wasn’t actually our mother but also to be there for us and be a mother to us when our mother wasn’t able to do so,” he says. “They’re very different women but she was consistently there for us. There were moments that were hard because her and my mom – that was probably the most contentious of the relationships, which is sort of understandable but I think she tried to make the best out of a very difficult situation.”

After all they’ve been through, he and his siblings have found healing in his new novel. “I’ve always thought that Kevin’s writing is incredible,” says Sean. “His writing about my grandmother is so deep and sensitive it makes me want to cry.”

“It cuts to your core,” says Emily. “It’s not easy reading about stories based on real life but he did it in a way that is so unbelievably touching and so eloquent.”

For the full interview with Kevin McEnroe and Tatum O’Neal pick up a copy of this week’s PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

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