By David Cummings —
The assassination of John F. Kennedy is a dark day in American history. Television made it the first assassination witnessed live. Admirers in Dallas that day at the Grassy Knoll watching the Presidential motorcade saw Kennedy’s head violently shake back from a bullet piercing through his skin. The Zapruder film has kept the image alive over time, allowing Gen Xers, Gen Yers and Millennials to see the slaying, too, making the murder of the 35th President of the United States arguably the most viewed assassination ever.
Could that dark day turn out to be a shining light for present-day America?
That’s the hope of author Barbara Leaming, whose biography, Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Untold Story, strongly suggests Mrs. Kennedy Onassis suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for over 30 years. Leaming’s theory is several traumatic events, culminating with Kenndy’s close proximity to her husband’s head being blown apart, triggered PTSD, a disorder associated with modern horrific events like the movie theatre massacre in Aurora, Colorado, the Sandy Hook Elementary School killings in Connecticut and the Boston Marathon bombing.
“Jackie Kennedy puts a name and face to PTSD. She is someone everyone knows, or at least they think they know her,” said Leaming, who hopes her book drives attention to an affliction that impacts over 40 million Americans.
Jackie O, mythologized in her own lifetime as the heroine of Camelot, is a compelling figure to heighten awareness. Three months before her husband’s killing Mrs. Kennedy was dealing with the death of her first son, Patrick, who died two days after birth. Another child, Arabella, was stillborn in 1956. Losing her husband to an assassin’s bullet was only compounded five years later when her 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.
With the passing of time and the datum PTSD would not be recognized by the American Psychologist Association for another two decades, it is hard for any doctor to diagnose Mrs. Kennedy as a PTSD sufferer. Dr. Mark Hammel of Hudson Valley Psychologist Associates in New York was hesitant to put PTSD and Jackie Kennedy together. Hammel is troubled by talking heads on TV labeling someone associated with a traumatic event as suffering from PTSD. “I think it is unprofessional,” Dr. Hammel said. “A psychologist should never give or assign a diagnosis to someone who he or she is not directly evaluating.”
Asked to become one of those talking heads and give his opinion on whether Kennedy had PTSD, Hammel went silent for about 30 seconds. “I don’t want someone to say Dr. Mark Hammel said Jackie Kennedy had PTSD. It would be irresponsible for me to make such a claim. As a doctor who specializes in treating people with PTSD, I wouldn’t do that. That is my disclaimer.”
After listening to points Leaming makes in her book, Hammel gave a guarded response. The series of tragedies Kennedy went through as a wife, mother, First Lady and sister-in-law add up to make 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., and as much as she may not have been physically injured, it is highly likely that she may have suffered from PTSD.”
How Leaming made the connection intertwines President Kennedy’s time in the Oval Office, the Vietnam War and Mrs. Kennedy’s undisclosed correspondence with former British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan following the assassination. As Leaming worked on an earlier book about President Kennedy, Jack Kennedy: The Education of a Statesman, several subjects told Leaming stories of Jackie Kennedy’s actions following the assassination. At the time Leaming felt there was something weird about Mrs. Kennedy willingly going 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. Ironically, wars would spark Leaming to connect PTSD to Mrs. Kennedy. After hearing and watching media reports of soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq with PTSD, Leaming started to connect the dots.
She remembered 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 remembered. “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 she 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.
“They were seeing behavior,” Dr. Hammell said. “They could see that she was not in the here and now with them but rather was describing herself in a disassociated state. They were observing the symptom, or set of symptoms.”
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 was a week after the assassination.
Five decades later, Mrs. Kennedy’s close confidents would tell Leaming that their grief-stricken friend had shared similar stories with them. Can the most famous First Lady of all time be a catalyst to open up the discussion of PTSD? Jackie Kennedy Onassis, the face of Camelot, can still make an impact on society today as Jackie O, the Face of PTSD.