A memoir called “A Common Struggle,” released Tuesday by former Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy, bares all about his family’s health and alleged addictions.
The portrait of his father, the late U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, and his mother Joan, breaks what he calls a “conspiracy of silence” about how alcoholism poisoned the family. Others are disputing the account, including his older brother, Ted Kennedy Jr., a Connecticut state senator.
Those inner-family disputes are not uncommon, according to Robert Ackerman, an expert on alcoholism and family life. Siblings can have different experiences with a parent’s addiction, he says, and in some cases, one sibling may not recognize the problem at all.
Here & Now‘s Robin Young speaks with Ackerman about alcoholism and the many ways that it impacts family and children.
How common is it for one child to say something and another to stay silent?
“It’s very common. Several years ago I was amazed when I met adult children of alcoholics whose siblings did not consider themselves to be adult children of alcoholics. There’s a lot of different reasons for it – it runs all the way from your perception, your age, your gender can have a lot to do with it. Daughters of alcoholics talked about their experience very differently than sons talked about their experience. Let me give you an example. Daughters of alcoholic fathers, which is the most common in 60 percent of cases, talked about their dads almost from a defensive point of view, but daughters of alcoholic mothers talked about their moms almost from an attacking point of view. A man can get inebriated and make a fool out of himself in public, but by our cultural standards, he’s still permitted to feel masculine. But it’s very difficult for a woman to do the same thing.”
Can someone really deny that a family member is alcoholic?
“If you’re living in an alcoholic family, addiction takes hostages. It puts a whole lid on what you can and can’t say in your family.”
“Well yes, we would think after all these years we’d have a handle on the concept of denial. One way of looking at it is what’s really in it for the person who really does deny. Men coming out of alcoholic families – boy if it’s your mom, we will deny for a much longer time if mom had a drinking problem than if dad had a drinking problem. I denied and protected my dad for years, and finally when I was older I thought about what’s in it for me, and I thought, as long as I deny that he was alcoholic, I got to deny that it really hurt me. If I wasn’t hurt then I didn’t have to do anything about it. And I found out later that that’s just not true, it had a huge impact on me. One classic case I saw was one time people came to hear me speak and there were sisters asking all kinds of questions, and the father was alcoholic but had quit drinking, but the older sister went on and on, and the younger sister said, ‘we never realized you were impacted by this’ and this really quiet mother spoke up and said, ‘you weren’t affected, none of you were affected’ just like that. And you know, mom spent her life trying to protect her children and if her kids were affected, then mom thought maybe she had failed.”
On the disastrous nature of anonymity for children of alcoholic parents
“You mentioned Patrick Kennedy and his ‘conspiracy of silence’. I’ve always talked about, if you’re living in an alcoholic family, addiction takes hostages. It puts a whole lid on what you can and can’t say in your family, and it starts to put a lid on yourself and pretty soon you find yourself going out of your way to cover up what you live with every day. The stuff that really stands out the most is that it really has an impact in normal human development. Those things you and I should work on as we grow up – the development of trust, the development of intimacy with other people, a great sense of creativity, a sense of self accomplishment. When you’re second or third to a bottle or to OxyContin, it’s very painful. I was aware of this as a kid and I never said anything to anybody but I never felt that I was as good as the other children, like ‘wow they must have come from a really good home’ and I just was not about to share my home. And it’s not just about what’s happening to you – I believe the greatest impact, especially on children, it’s not what happened, it’s about what they’re missing.”
“People and members of an alcoholic family quite simply have a right to recovery. It’s as simple as that.”
On the terrifying moment of intervention
“We have absolutely no idea how that parent is going to take it. I wound up with the same thing, I finally got enough nerve to say something to my father when I was a young man and my dad sort of politely told me where to go. The number one thing is, and I believe this more than anything else, that is people and members of an alcoholic family quite simply have a right to recovery. It’s as simple as that, whether that person is five or 55 years old. And that right does not depend on whether that alcoholic gets sober, it depends on whether or not you take enough interest in yourself or your children to get help. You can’t sit around and wait for somebody who’s drug-affected to make a rational decision.”
- Robert Ackerman, co-founder of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics and professor emeritus at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He’s author of “Perfect Daughters: Adult Daughters of Alcoholics” and “Silent Sons: A Book For and About Men.”