What I remember best about John F. Kennedy’s assassination is the looping image of the president’s little son, “John-John,” saluting. In 1963, I was eight, and we lived in South Bend, Indiana, where the winters were fierce and long. I was hunkered down in the basement, with the heat blasting and unending coverage of the memorial and the national tragedy on TV non-stop. That image of John-John must have replayed a million times – or maybe it is the distortion of my young memory and my profound identification with the grief-stricken child. I don’t remember much else about John Kennedy Junior through the rest of my life, but I never forgot when he was, I guess, three. What happened to him?
The Kennedys were iconized, as tragedy and martyrdom often are, and it was years before I knew some of the unsavory politics and aspects of JFK. I was surprised a few days ago when I heard a story memorializing his sister Rosemary Kennedy on the 18th anniversary of her death. I did not know there was a Kennedy sibling who had been lobotomized for being “slow.” It got me thinking about the neglect, even seeming annihilation, that often comes with political or other kinds of “greatness,” large and small.
Our dad was not a major celebrity or famous, but in his way as a religious and community leader, he was a figurehead or centerpiece of sorts. I remember when we were growing up, sometimes when we met someone new, someone he knew, or someone noteworthy perhaps, he would say, “Do they know who you are?” The emphasis on “are” meant, “Do they know you are my daughter? The cantor’s daughter?” Evidently, that was all that I was. There was no me.
When our mom died, we each had a list of people to call and notify, and one of the people on my list was the teacher of Dad’s autobiography writing group. He had been in that group for perhaps five years, writing and sharing his memoir. Everyone loved him. Apparently, the group format was that participants would read aloud and comment on each other’s work, so they knew each other quite well after that long. When I identified myself to the teacher, she said, “Oh! I didn’t know he had a daughter.” Rather shocked, but not really, I said, “Yes. He has three.” As ever, my existence was an ongoing question. In this case, it was all three of us, I guess.
I remember early on feeling I had to justify my existence somehow, earn my right to occupy a patch of ground to stand on, on this earth. Much of the time, I felt like a puff of smoke or shadow that was perhaps punctuation in his screenplay. Or a prop or extra in his movie. Perhaps that is why I excised the word “deserve” from my personal lexicon, and to this day, I bristle when I hear it. There really is no such thing in this world as “deserving,” or perhaps more accurately, getting what one “deserves” – so I believed.
In the mind of the neglected child, existence is a mystery, or it was to me. Worthiness, merit, privilege, specialness, responsibility, “luck,” – how do they all fit together? How is it determined who gets what? And why me? Or why not me? And what on earth to do about it? I remember early in my exploration and study of neglect, I could spot a child of neglect quickly by the signature shrug, deep as the ocean, of “I don’t know what to do!” Or, “There is nothing I can do!”
In the mind of the neglected child, existence is a mystery, or it was to me. Worthiness, merit, privilege, specialness, responsibility, “luck,” – how do they all fit together?
Nelson Mandela was quoted as saying, “I have often wondered whether a person is justified in neglecting his own family for opportunities to fight for others.” Mandela’s daughter, Maki, much as she admires her father, recounts painful memories from long before her father was in hiding or imprisoned, of not knowing if he loved her or not. She is torn by grief and bitterness about her devastating neglect, tugging against profound feelings of admiration, respect and pride. “I had a father who was not there – which was how I saw it through the eyes of a child – who chose politics over me or even my brothers, my family.” I heard similar sentiments expressed by her brother in an interview some years ago, but I can’t seem to find it now.
Fidel Castro’s oldest son, also named Fidel, a prominent physicist and accomplished researcher, died by suicide at the age of 68. I don’t know the details. What are the unique costs and conflicts of being the child of “greatness?” Of being eclipsed by the world’s suffering? How does a child make sense of, or peace with that, through their lifespan?
Our dad did much good in his own particular sphere. On weekends, I wished he would come home, but he was often running to the hospital to visit congregants. It is a “mitzvah,” a good deed, to visit the sick. And indeed, a noble and generous act of charity, so to speak. I honored and respected, even learned from that. But I, guiltily, hated it. Like Mandela, he was “never around.” And, of course, I could not begin to compete with the sick, dying and grieving multitudes. But shame on me for feeling that!
I sometimes wonder, is the price of heroism, martyrdom, or “goodness” the sacrifice of one’s kids?
Neglect is fraught with searing, seemingly irreconcilable ambivalences. The mixed feelings of jealousy versus guilt, rage and resentment versus social and political responsibility, grief versus gratitude, love versus bitterness, self-care versus greater good, gratitude versus tail-chasing confusion. I am still flummoxed about the balance between my commitment to the larger world and looking out for my little and aging self. Oy vey. Admittedly that is part of what keeps me awake at night. My feelings about our dad are in a similarly vacillating both/and. He perhaps hurt me more than anyone, but he also bequeathed to me all of my most cherished traits, qualities and many skills. How do I resolve that? How do I make sense of it? What do I call it? That, of course, complicated my feelings further as his life drew to a close, now almost three years ago. But thankfully, I do not suffer about it anymore – it is more a contemplation.
I sometimes wonder, is the price of heroism, martyrdom, or “goodness” the sacrifice of one’s kids? As ever, kids have no say, no voice. Are they/we part of the deal? Sadly, it is on the unconsenting child to “figure it out,” to deal with the fallout of the neglect. Perhaps the conundrum that plagues a lifetime?
I was always puzzled by the Bible story where God instructs Abraham to sacrifice his son as a show of faith. Dylan eloquently expressed my sentiments in his timeless missive, Highway 61: “Abe said God, you must be puttin’ me on!” I didn’t get it. How is that a good thing? I don’t know. I have had a similar conflict with an occasional client who had a famous parent whom I had always iconized and admired, until being jarred by a back story, a casualty that I had not known about before; or a memoir by the child of a hero figure who may have caused devastating harm. Steve Jobs’ first daughter Lisa, asked, “Was I named after the computer or was the computer named after me?!” I don’t know if she ever resolved it. And I still struggle with the ongoing choice between my own interests and the “larger good.” Perhaps it will always be one of those chicken-and-egg scenarios…
My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.