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North and South: The Memoirs of Ted Kennedy

PUBLISHED: September 28, 2009

Ted KennedyI should like Ted Kennedy. He was a prolific legislator, and I like nothing better than having as many active writing projects as I can fit into my life. He spent decades in a public service job, and working for the public good is a value I cherish. He championed health care legislation and brought health care issues to the forefront of public attention, and I’m less than 8 months away from graduating from medical school. On a more poignant front, he watched two children struggle with cancer and eventually lost his own battle with a brain tumor, and I’m planning to be an oncologist.

Yet despite all these things, there’s something about walking past a display lined with copies of his posthumously released memoir that strikes a sour chord. True Compass is the title of the hefty hardcover, and it is clear, from the packaging of the memoir down to its release date following the Senator’s passing, that the goal of sharing his life stories is a reframing of their telling. Redemption is not a new concept in the lexicon of human behavior. The story of humanity is one of accepting the flaws that often go along with the greatest gifts, an acceptance that is made far easier by staring into the mirror and recognizing the same things within ourselves. The problem is that there’s something about this story that doesn’t work for me, try as I might to share the sentiments of those who have already lionized Senator Kennedy as an icon. Maybe he is, and maybe the depth of his accomplishments is something that history will judge, not a young woman from nowhere special without family connections of any significance. That’s my problem, even if it is one that so many others are willing to overlook. I’m 28 years old right now, the same age as Mary Jo Kopechne when she died. Try as I might—and I have—I can’t see past a life that looks a lot like mine and that apparently didn’t matter at all, to anyone involved, when I look at the stories of True Compass. How is it possible to frame a life in the language of north and south when the compass needle was so terribly bent at the very beginning? Can “remorse,” Kennedy’s own word for his thoughts on the matter, really mean anything in such a context?

I’ve read lots of memoirs of historical figures who were responsible for far greater numbers of deaths and much more human suffering than Ted Kennedy. At times, I’ve been willing to go along with some of their “I’ve-changed-and-I’m sorry” stories. Yet even in cases where I have vehemently disagreed with political decisions and pulled out my soapbox from time to time (more often that that, if you ask those close to me), I have rarely found myself taking such a personal dislike to an individual, particularly someone who so many others see as such an inspiration. If George W. Bush ever writes a memoir, I will undoubtedly make a similar face when I walk past my neighborhood Borders, but despite the intensity of my response—and I can feel my blood pressure rising now, just thinking about the possibility—I know that situation won’t be nearly as personal as this one. There’s just something about Ted Kennedy that strikes a nerve I didn’t know I had. The only conclusion I can draw is that seeing echoes of oneself in a victim of injustice unearths different emotions than the frustration and anger associated with a situation that is too big for any one person to control.

As someone who was drawn to medicine and then the research world because of a need to make a difference for people at the most difficult times in their lives, I feel deeply for the family and friends Kennedy left behind, as well as the pain of leaving them that must have filled his last days. I have seen people die of cancer. It is a horrible thing, and the loss is one that his loved ones will carry for the rest of their lives. This, too, is a personal side that I recognize all too well, and I understand the mourning of those who miss the man who was their father, friend, husband, and colleague, whatever else his life may have been, for good or for ill. It is reconciling these two sides of the same person that gives me such internal fits. 

In the end, I think all I can do is recognize both sides of the man. If Ted Kennedy wanted to title his memoirs True Compass, alluding to one of the most intractable black-and-white realities in human experience—the poles of a magnet for which there are no shades of gray—then I will give him both. He was a man who in his personal life worked hard, was loved deeply, and is sorely missed. He was also an individual who built the professional life for which he is so acclaimed on a foundation of lies and an absolute disregard for the life of a fellow human being. And whether right or wrong, I can’t forget her life when I look at his. Maybe that’s not quite what he wanted. But if redemption happens at all, it has to start at the beginning.


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