Five decades after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, author Barbara Leaming makes the case that former First Lady Jackie Kennedy may have suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
By David Cummings
Barbara Leaming is not a doctor. She’s a writer, and through meticulous research and personal stories from some of Jackie Kennedy’s closest friends, Leaming believes Jackie O’s story could provide much needed exposure to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the mental illness that touches over 40 million Americans.
In her 2015 biograpny, Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Untold Story, Leaming strongly suggests Jackie O may have suffered from PTSD for three decades. Her theory is based on the fact that Jackie O experienced several traumatic events in her life, climaxing with her close proximity to her husband’s head being blown apart. Mrs. Kennedy’s trigger wasn’t a single horrific event like the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut or the Las Vegas attack on fans attending a concert. Leaming lays out a series of disappointments and heartbreaking, traumatic episodes that piece-by-piece together frayed the former First Lady’s mental health. “Jackie Kennedy puts a name and face to PTSD,” said Leaming. “She is someone everyone knows, or at least they think they know her.”
Researching an earlier book she wrote on President Kennedy, Leaming thought she had a good understanding of Mrs. Kennedy. She admits several subjects told her stories of Jackie O’s disturbing actions following the assassination. Mrs. Kennedy openly and willingly went into graphic detail about her husband’s head being blown apart inches away from her, her clothes swamped in his blood while she held his split-opened skull in her hands. “People were telling me things that were obviously important, and they were not things I had heard before about her,” Leaming said. She never investigated because she was focused on writing about President Kennedy. Also, PTSD wasn’t even heard of back then. Leaming started making the connection that Mrs. Kennedy may have suffered from PTSD after listening and watching media reports describe the conditions of soldiers returning from war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Leaming, who considered Jackie O to be a mythological figure in her own life as the heroine of Camelot, started assembling her reporting from her research for her original book on the 35th President. She lost a child, Arabella, who was stillborn in 1956. Three months before President Kennedy was assassinated, their first son, Patrick, died two days after birth. Five years after losing her husband to an assassin’s bullet, Mrs. Kennedy’s brother-in-law, Robert, was slain in Los Angeles. Robert Kennedy was an anchor for his sister-in-law after his brother was killed. Bereaving her husband’s brother only added to Mrs. Kennedy’s trauma.
Hearing the string of points Leaming made in her book about Jackie O’, Dr. Mark Hammel of the Hudson Valley Psychologist Associates in New York, gave a guarded response. The series of tragedies Kennedy went through as a wife, mother, First Lady, and sister-in-law add up to a pretty strong case to support PTSD. “Does it seem reasonable Mrs. Kennedy suffered from PTSD? It is absolutely within the realm of possibility,” he said. “J.F.K., may he rest in peace, was murdered. She was the closest person to the horrific event. She was a victim. As much of a victim as J.F.K. As much as she may not have been physically injured, it is highly likely she may have suffered from PTSD.”
Leaming’s connection was made stronger when she remembered discovering Mrs. Kennedy’s undisclosed correspondence with former British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan following the assassination. Leaming recalled a batch of letters between Mrs. Kennedy and MacMillan during research for the J.F.K. book. A librarian at Oxford University alerted her to their existence. Leaming, whose career of biographies includes Marilyn Monroe, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Winston Churchill, and Orson Welles, said that was her “Aha” moment.
“I read a letter from MacMillan, and at that time, I didn’t understand it,” Leaming said. “It seemed to me to be a very strange letter. It was written right after the assassination and was basically a condolence letter. But in that letter, he kept comparing what happened to Jackie in Dallas to what happens to soldiers in war. And specifically, MacMillan himself had been severely wounded in the First World War.”
Leaming recalled many references to God and how God makes things happen for a reason. She started reading Mrs. Kennedy’s letters back to MacMillan. Her responses consisted of heartfelt prose that seemed to be a relief valve of all the pressure Mrs. Kennedy was under. “She wrote to MacMillan that this is the most important letter of my life,” Leaming said. “This is the letter that saved my life.” Leaming said Mrs. Kennedy mentioned how she frequently thought she was drowning and was going to die, and whenever she felt that way, she would think of MacMillan’s letters and feel better. The letters were not the only characteristics of PTSD shown by Mrs. Kennedy. “Over time, some people came to the conclusion that when she talked about that day, she was actually in that moment,” Leaming said.
In an exclusive and now historic interview with Life Magazine writer Teddy White following the assassination, Mrs. Kennedy recalled her husband’s killing in graphic detail:
“His last expression was so neat. He had his hand out, I could see a piece of his skull coming off … and I can see this perfectly clean piece detaching itself from his head. Then he slumped in my lap. His blood and brains were in my lap. I kept saying: “Jack, Jack, Jack” and someone was yelling: “He’s dead, he’s dead.” All the ride to the hospital, I kept bending over him, saying: “Jack, Jack, can you hear me? I love you, Jack.” I kept holding the top of his head down, trying to keep the brains in.”
That interview was only a week after the assassination.
Five decades later, Mrs. Kennedy’s confidants would tell Leaming that their grief-stricken friend had shared similar stories with them. She recounted a specific story following one of her talks during her book tour. Leaming said a woman came up to her with tears in her eyes. She explained she had worked with Mrs. Kennedy in the publishing and thought she knew her well. But she said it was only after hearing about the numerous traumatic events Mrs. Kennedy lived through, that she finally understood things about her co-worker that she had observed but failed to comprehend.
It’s just another example of why Leaming’s theory, that Jackie Kennedy Onassis, the face of Camelot, can be the face of PTSD.