The following article is taken from U.S. News and World Report, written by Rachel Brody, featuring a newly released biography by Barbara Leaming.
Jackie Kennedy has long been a subject of fascination for the American public. But after the brutal and very public assassination of her husband President John F. Kennedy, the former first lady struggled to reclaim the life and normalcy she once had. In “Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Untold Story,” biographer Barbara Leaming details Kennedy’s life before and after her husband’s death. Looking at letters to friends and other behaviors, she theorizes that Jackie had undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. Leaming recently spoke with U.S. News about Kennedy’s struggles and what the country can learn from them.
What inspired you to write this book?
Jackie suffered from PTSD for 31 years, and no one had ever written that story. At a time when our veterans are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD, it’s important for us to really understand what it is to suffer from PTSD. Jackie Kennedy’s life story can help us to understand PTSD in a very unique way because it puts a name and a face to post-traumatic stress disorder. Jackie’s trauma was a national trauma – the assassination of John F. Kennedy was something that we all saw, either at the time or later.
What happened to Jackie after JFK’s assassination?
In the aftermath, she had intrusive flashbacks. A flashback for somebody who’s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder is not like a memory; she was actually reliving it. She was also going over and over the details of what had happened in that car in Dallas. She was constantly trying to come up with some way that she could’ve saved her husband. She suffered with something a lot of soldiers talked about, survivors’ guilt: “It should’ve been me instead of Jack.” She began to organize her whole life around trying to avoid triggers of flashbacks. She moved to New York, thinking that if she got away from Washington, she would get away from the assassination. And of course, the assassination [came] with her. She was living with all of the kinds of symptoms that someone who has post-traumatic stress disorder has. But her situation was in many ways worse, it’s beyond imagination because the [American Psychiatric Association didn’t recognize] post-traumatic stress disorder [as a disease] until 1980. That complicated her situation enormously.
How did you come to the conclusion that Jackie had undiagnosed PTSD?
I would never have found this story if it hadn’t been for a letter that I saw 15 years ago at the Bodleian Library at Oxford from the former Prime Minister [of the United Kingdom] Harold MacMillan. I read [a condolence letter] he wrote right after the assassination in early 1964 that bothered me. I thought, why is this man talking to her about soldiers in war? Why is he comparing what happened to her in Dallas with what happens to a soldier who is traumatized in battle? MacMillan had been severely wounded in the first World War, but the letter didn’t make sense to me. But Jackie said to MacMillan this is “the most important letter of my life. This is the letter which saved my life.” In addition to that, I had started to read very deeply into PTSD. Suddenly, the two things started to go together.
What was Jackie’s role as first lady?
She took her role enormously seriously. In 1980, somebody asked her what she believed to be her greatest accomplishment. What she said was, “I kept my sanity.” We need to give her credit for that. And to understand, for example, the [relationship] between Bobby Kennedy and LBJ, you must understand the role that Jackie played. They were both afraid of her and were using her. She was the living embodiment of the aura of JFK after he was dead, and she was being used by the people that loved her. The other relationship that’s enormously important for political history is her relationship with Robert MacNamara. The letters between them are not only important for understanding the evolution of the Vietnam War but for understanding MacNamara as the architect of the war.
How did Jackie influence JFK’s presidency?
I think she was an important asset. She made him seem like the man he wanted to be. Jack Kennedy had very serious aspirations. He wanted to do things that Winston Churchill, who was the great influence on his life, had not been able to do. Jackie believed in that. At the very end of his presidency, he took what he thought was the biggest political risk possible in signing the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. That was her greatest achievement as first lady: believing in the best of Jack.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
I hope that readers get a deeper understanding of just what it is to suffer from PTSD, just how serious it is and just how one person possibly finds a way to survive and build a life with it. If just one person’s life is made slightly easier by that kind of understanding, then I’ve done everything that I hoped I’d do.