As seen in Philly Mag
By: Stephen Fried
Two years ago, Patrick Kennedy, a troubled scion of America’s greatest political dynasty, walked into an Atlantic City ballroom and met a local schoolteacher who would become his wife. Now he’s reinventing himself—while living in his in-laws’ house in Absecon. An unconventional love story.
ON MARCH 31, 2010, PATRICK KENNEDY came to Atlantic City to give a speech.
In the previous nine months, he had buried both his father, Senator Edward Kennedy, and his aunt, Eunice Kennedy Shriver. While Ted had been his hero, it was his aunt’s stigma-busting work in children’s health and disability issues that had in part inspired his own powerful advocacy for mental health and addiction services, which he had personally relied upon. He had also just announced that after 16 years—most of his adult life—representing Rhode Island in Congress, he wouldn’t run for reelection. The Obama health-care plan, based on ideas Ted Kennedy had fought for throughout his career, had finally been passed. Patrick had gone to his father’s grave and left a handwritten note: “Dad, the unfinished business is done.”
Now, he had to figure out what to do next.
After the speech—the finale of a $125-a-plate fund-raiser at Caesars for the developmentally disabled—he was mobbed by folks wanting a Kennedy moment. Among them was a tall, beautiful 30-year-old junior-high-school history teacher from Absecon named Amy Petitgout. A recently single mom out for the first time since her separation, she was attending as a last-minute replacement for her father, a retired special-ed teacher and longtime local Democratic pol who had come down with a bad cold. She wanted an autograph for him.
As subtly as possible—which for Patrick isn’t very subtle at all—he hit on her. In the note to her father, he scribbled, “Sorry I missed you, but it was a pleasure meeting your beautiful daughter.” She beamed at him, then headed back into the throng of 250.
Patrick Kennedy is really bad at hiding his emotions. He’s tall, red-haired and freckled, with broody, distractible eyes and a smile that never quite turns all the way up, and his feelings are largely unmodulated and unfiltered. He lives on the brink of crying for joy or sadness, and being a Kennedy with a mood disorder, he usually has ample reason for both. So the 42-year-old lifelong bachelor did his best to appear placid as he carefully watched Amy Petitgout thread her way back to table 123.
“I had to play it cool,” he recalls, laughing. “I couldn’t beeline right over to her or they’d all say, ‘There goes that Kennedy, after the pretty girls.’ So I had to shake hands with all different kinds of people at different tables, trying not to make it too obvious.” When he finally reached her table, he diplomatically struck up a conversation with her mother first. But it was clear why he was there.
He told Amy that if she ever wanted to, you know, bring her class to Washington, he was still in Congress for a few more months and would be happy to show them around. As she was thinking that her school couldn’t afford anything like that, he handed her his card, relaying something that intrigued her.
“Please call me,” he said. “But pretend I called you first.”
NINE MONTHS LATER, PATRICK KENNEDY walked out of Congress, marking the first time in 47 years there was no Kennedy serving in Washington. What nobody knew was that he didn’t go home to Rhode Island. Instead, he came for Christmas 2010 to the home of Amy Petitgout’s parents in Absecon, where Amy and her daughter were living. When the holiday was over, Patrick just never left.
Today, he and Amy are married, with their first child due in April. Patrick bought them a $1.1 million home on Brigantine Bay, but after a year of slow renovations, they realized it was actually a teardown that now won’t be ready for move-in for at least another year. So the newlyweds are still living with Amy’s parents, in a two-story colonial in a tree-lined middle-class neighborhood not far from a Wawa, an American Legion Post, and the now-closed Rifici’s, a family pizzeria where Amy once waitressed. They sleep in her brother’s old bedroom, and share a bathroom with Amy’s adorable daughter, Harper, now four.
Patrick is periodically picked up by a town car to give a paid lecture (for fees of up to $50,000) or an advocacy talk about mental health or neuroscience (for expenses or for free). But all the heads of state, former congressional colleagues, military leaders and CEOs he talks to would probably be astonished to learn how many of their calls he takes not from an office, but sitting in a wingback chair in his in-laws’ living room.
The national press has tried to turn Patrick and Amy into a Cinderella story. But anybody who knows them realizes it’s more like Jerry Maguire meets A Beautiful Mind in the swamps of Jersey. “I just never kind of felt like I had enough of a safe harbor emotionally to protect myself,” Patrick admits. “I didn’t know where I was going home to. And now I do.”
His discovery of that safe harbor doesn’t just matter to Kennedy watchers and Shore folk desperate for a new local celebrity. Many consider Patrick Kennedy, even out of elected office, to be one of the country’s most politically resonant advocates for the future of research and treatment for mental illness, addictions and brain injuries—age-old problems now being seen in a new way, through the prism of returning war vets with traumatic brain injuries, PTSD and the highest suicide rates in history. “We need to think of our returning American heroes as prisoners of war injuries,” he declares. “And frankly, there’s not a family in this country without a loved one who is a prisoner to their own mind—with a concussion, depression, an addiction. This is the unifying cause of our time.”
We’re sitting in Patrick and Amy’s bedroom in Absecon as he packs for a lecture in Belgium. The unadorned 10-by-10 room is especially untidy, the floor barely visible through luggage and strewn clothes, the dresser covered with cold medicine, a couple of bananas, and a well-thumbed, jacketless copy of Ted Kennedy’s memoir, True Compass. Patrick’s mother-in-law, Leni Savell, says they endlessly beg him to clean up, but “when he does, he just grabs a bunch of stuff, takes it up to the attic, and drops it there.”
We hear the front door opening—it’s Amy coming home from school, after picking up Harper from the sitter. As we walk downstairs, Amy quickly realizes where we’ve been, and her face takes on a tortured look I know from my own wife—You let a guest upstairs in our messy bedroom? She catches herself, gives me a friendly hello, and takes Harper into the kitchen for a snack. She can throttle Patrick another time.
Later, I talk with the couple in the living room. Amy has long dark hair, big expressive eyes, and a lithe frame on which her pregnancy is just barely starting to show. She’s engaging without being melodramatic; I suspect she’s the teacher every sixth-grader at Northfield Community School is in love with. Her family has been living in the small towns around Atlantic City for generations. Some of them have been teachers (Amy attended the school where her own mother taught); one of her grandfathers was a commercial artist. Amy, who also paints, has a small collection of promotional pieces he did for Atlantic City, and sprinkled throughout the house are commemorative plates for Lucy the Elephant and other local favorites. A New England boy, Patrick is still trying to decipher all this Atlantic City arcana, learning a lot by reading to Harper from children’s books on local history.
Amy grew up surrounded by family, school, and the Shore as it’s known by its outdoorsy full-time residents. She swam for her school team, played field hockey, ran track and rowed crew, and taught swimming in the summer in Margate (her oldest brother, Paul, is the head crew coach at Drexel) while also waitressing everywhere from the high-roller Italian restaurant Girasole in Atlantic City to the Renault Winery in Egg Harbor City. In 1997 she enrolled at Penn State, expecting to major in anything but education. After deciding to be a teacher after all, she was offered a coveted job in the Northfield school district, near home.
In 2003, she married a guy she met at Penn State: Mark Petitgout, a high-school football star in southern Delaware who had enjoyed brief success as an invited walk-on at Penn State, where he played linebacker. (His older brother Luke played for Notre Dame and went on to be a starter for the New York Giants.) Amy and Mark settled into a house in Linwood. He started a tree-care business; the couple was married until early 2010.
“I had a baby, I went back to work, and then we just didn’t work out,” Amy says. “It’s very amicable now.” They agreed to joint custody of Harper; Amy continued teaching and, while she was spending more time with her parents, remained in the Linwood house until they could sell it.
And then one night she walked up to a Congressman from a famous family and asked for his autograph.
PATRICK KENNEDY IS ACCUSTOMED TO PEOPLE knowing his backstory before he meets them. He recalls being taken to psychotherapy at age 13 by his mother, Joan, during his parents’ high-profile split in the early ’80s, and feeling unsure he “could trust the psychiatrist to keep things private, so I would edit things out. Then one day I walked into a bookstore and browsed the Kennedy section and saw that two-thirds of the books had more of my family secrets than I thought I could tell my therapist. I thought, Why am I feeling so burdened by these secrets when everyone already knows them?”
Amy didn’t know much about the Kennedys, and she had no idea who Patrick was. “I know it’s strange, because I teach six classes a day of American history,” she jokes. “But the textbook covers so much time that you hope you get to World War II by the end of the year.”
About three weeks after they met, Amy called him. After a good long talk, they agreed to get together. He took the train from D.C. to Philadelphia, then had a car take him from 30th Street Station to Atlantic City, where he’d made reservations at the august Knife and Fork Inn. Because Amy was “really excited but a little nervous,” at the last minute she decided to turn it into a cozy dinner … for five. She showed up with one of her brothers—as well as her best friend and the friend’s husband. “It was, like, really innocent,” Amy recalls. In fact, so innocent that she then worried: Jeez, maybe he just came to be social.
He stayed at Caesars, she in Linwood, and the next night the two couples met for a prizefight at Harrah’s, where Patrick had arranged for ringside seats. “It was one of the bloodiest fights ever,” he remembers. Amy’s friend’s husband, who was wearing a white polo shirt, “got covered in blood.” He took it off, and they had the winning fighter sign it.
The trip a success, Patrick kept coming back—and because he wasn’t running for reelection, he could actually take weekends off. Only his close aides were aware of how often he was making the trek to the Shore. “Luckily,” he says, “nobody knows what I look like around here.”
The couple’s courtship felt as therapeutic as it was romantic. “He was tired,” Amy says, “and really emotional. Not a regular guy. He didn’t sleep well, and he talked a lot about his dad. It was a big departure for me, because—well, my last relationship was not very much about feelings. I liked that kind of openness.”
By this time she had, of course, googled him, and knew about the darker days of his life, his history with bipolar disorder and self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. He was two during Chappaquiddick; six when his older brother, Ted Jr., lost a leg to cancer; eight when he developed severe asthma; 15 when his parents finally divorced and his mother’s alcoholism became overtly public; 20 when he had surgery to remove a non-cancerous growth from his spine; 23 (and already more than two years into serving as a state rep in Rhode Island) when he was a little too close for comfort to the rape scandal involving his cousin William Kennedy Smith; 25 when he first publicly acknowledged his struggle with depression in a letter to constituents; 32 when he revealed even more while appearing with Tipper Gore at a Rhode Island senior center; and just about to turn 39 when a highly publicized D.C. auto accident led to his readmission for rehab at the Mayo Clinic and a DUI guilty plea.
Amy wasn’t scared off by any of this. None of it was new to her. She had been attending meetings of Al-Anon—the support group for those helping others deal with addiction—for some time before meeting Patrick. She prefers not to reveal whom she was there to support; it was a “family member,” she says, and not her ex-husband. “I had grown up around alcohol,” she admits. A friend had encouraged her to try Al-Anon as “a tool kit”; the meetings were in the same nearby church where Patrick now attends AA.
At that time, Patrick was still in his Capitol Hill AA group, was regularly seeing a psychiatrist, and, as had been true since his teenage years, was taking medication for his mood disorder. He has been diagnosed “bipolar II,” which means that while his moods swing, he is far more prone to full-blown depression than full-blown mania, and can sometimes sustain periods of highly productive hypomania. “I’ve had a lot of high-risk behavior and can be very manic in my approach to life,” he says. “But I’ve never had the classic manic spending or shopping.”
As they got more involved, he asked her to attend a few meetings on his condition. “I had my cousin Chris Lawford”—Lawford, the son of actor Peter Lawford and Ted’s sister Patricia, has written two best-sellers about addiction—“talk to us. I just wanted her to know what she was in for. I wanted truth in advertising.” He introduced her to his friends, to people who had supported him through it all. “I wanted her to see she wasn’t taking such a leap of faith,” he says. “I needed a couple of good validators.”
It was a young, long-distance relationship, and still a secret to a press corps increasingly focused on covering the official end of the Kennedy era in Washington. Patrick’s longtime Congressional friend Rob Andrews, who had invited him to speak at the dinner where he’d met Amy, was one of the few who knew. “Patrick came up to me on the floor of the House one day,” Andrews recalls, “and said, ‘You’re my yenta.’”
The couple would meet in Philly or New York for the weekend. But most of their time spent together was around Atlantic City, where he was getting to know Amy’s daughter and her family. He spent his first-ever Jersey Shore summer with the Savells, hanging out on the beach in Brigantine, eating “hard-core pizza” on the Boardwalk (“Boardwalks are totally foreign to me,” he laughs. “I had no idea”), taking Harper and Amy’s brother’s kids to pick blueberries or visit Storybook Land in Egg Harbor Township.
The biggest difference between Cape Cod, where he’d gone as a kid, and the Jersey Shore turned out to be how late in the season people swam. “Around here,” Amy says, “we mostly stop going in the water after August. Patrick stops in November. When he first started coming here [in the spring of 2010], we went on the beach one day and I thought he was trying to be tough, going in when it was freezing. But that’s what his family does.”
At the end of the summer, Patrick was feeling so well, so safe and supported, that he talked to his doctor about weaning himself off his meds, relying primarily on 12-step meetings, intense daily exercise and healthier living to control his symptoms. With his responsibilities in Congress soon to be over, he felt he could handle it.
“I’m not taking anything today,” he says. “And for the first time in many years, I’m putting my weight behind not only daily attendance at meetings but daily rigorous exercise. If I wasn’t exercising every day, I’d definitely have to be on antidepressants. If I go two days without working out, I literally can feel myself sink, in an inconsolable way.”
“He has doctors here as a fallback if he needs it,” Amy says. “But now we’re relying on AA and a totally different lifestyle, so he doesn’t feel as much need for all the things he was doing to manage the stress. And,” she smiles, “I’m nice to him all the time.”
THE COUPLE’S SITUATION FINALLY CHANGED due to real estate. The Linwood house sold, and in the fall of 2010, Amy and Harper temporarily moved in with her parents. And then Patrick announced he was buying a house in Brigantine. Amy’s first reaction was, “Whoa. We were serious, but … how can I explain this? We were still long-distance, and in the back of my head I was still imagining that maybe it wasn’t exclusive for him. We were still figuring out what we were going to do.”
Among other open issues, Patrick had recently agreed to write a tell-all memoir. Amy wasn’t sure how she felt about him touring and talking about his past when they were trying to focus on a new future. “So I dragged my feet about him buying that house,” she says. “I asked a lot of questions about whether he was taking care of himself. It’s not like I expected a guarantee, but I wanted to make sure he was planning to live here and be healthy in a way where he could be my partner. I finally just said, ‘Don’t waste your money unless you’re doing everything else you need to be doing.’”
But Patrick knew what he wanted. He quietly bought the house, a 2,500-square-foot fixer-upper on a sprawling 14,500-square-foot lot with a dock on Brigantine Bay, for $1.1 million. He took Amy home for the 2010 Kennedy family Thanksgiving in Cape Cod, then returned to Washington to close down his Congressional office. He made almost no plans for the future. Instead he headed to Amy’s parents’ house, where he wanted “to come and hang out and have Christmas with family and not run a million miles a minute.” He stayed with Amy, Harper and the Savells. And it all felt so comfortable, so safe. He stayed through New Year’s. When Amy had to start teaching again, Patrick just made himself at home.
“At first I thought, What are you going to do here?” Amy admits. “It’s a new town, you don’t know anyone, I’ll be at work all day long. I thought that would be depressing. But it was good we ended up with my parents. My mom does not let anyone alone. She was, like, ‘No, Patrick, you’re not gonna stay in bed.’”
It turned out Patrick actually had something to do. He had asked his cousin Caroline Kennedy if he could borrow the JFK Library in Boston for a conference to be held on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s famous “moon shot” speech. He was putting together a sort of Woodstock of the brain sciences, with the moon shot as metaphor for the amazing challenge of getting all the competing areas of brain science, technology and treatment to begin acting with “One Mind.” Then-Harvard provost and former National Institute of Mental Health chief Steven Hyman was enlisted to create an ambitious 10-year plan for the neurosciences; Patrick set up an LLC called “Next Chapter,” hired an assistant, and got to work using the Kennedy name to get anyone who was anyone to present at the conference.
In the meantime, he and Amy made some decisions. On March 28th, 2011, they announced their engagement from Rhode Island; the ring was a serious diamond with small pink sapphires on either side, because Amy and Harper both love pink.
In May there was an intimate New York engagement party at the Sutton Place apartment of his aunt, Jean Kennedy Smith. The guests included Patrick’s brother Ted Jr., his sister Kara, their mother Joan, and assorted Kennedy cousins; Amy’s family and her best friend, whose new baby sat comfortably parked in a car seat in a corner; and a smattering of political, brain-science and Manhattan luminaries, including Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation and the former president of Brown University; Jeffrey Lieberman, chairman of the psychiatry department at Columbia; Garen Staglin, the California winery millionaire who was Patrick’s “One Mind” partner; and Rob Andrews. “What I found delicious about the party,” Congressman Andrews recalls, “is that here we are on the Upper East Side in this magnificent apartment, surrounded with people walking out of a history book, and I’m from a normal South Jersey background—and so is Amy’s family—and everybody is so comfortable and right at home. I spent most of the night talking about crew with Amy’s brother, because my daughter rows for Penn. The incongruity of talking about Schuylkill River rowing surrounded by Kennedy icons—it was a little surreal.”
Patrick canceled his tell-all memoir. He did agree to a personal but considerably less revealing interview with CNN to publicize the One Mind conference, as well as a fluffy story in People magazine about him and Amy. The One Mind conference was a success, and afterward the organization received its first major gift—a $3 million grant from Johnson & Johnson.
Patrick kept moving forward. On the days he wasn’t home in Absecon, he was preparing for the teaching he had agreed to do at Brown as a visiting scholar (he now has a similar relationship with Rutgers, which has given him an office at its Atlantic City campus) and giving lectures. In July, he and Amy went to Paris for a week as a pre-honeymoon, then to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port for a week of festivities surrounding their intimate wedding. The ceremony was conducted by Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, a family friend who agreed to step in when Patrick realized that his long-standing feud with the bishop of Rhode Island (who once ordered that he be denied communion because of his pro-choice stand), coupled with the fact that Amy’s first marriage hadn’t been annulled, meant any attempt at a Catholic wedding would be “mired in controversy, and I wasn’t anxious to invite that kind of issue.” It was the last major family event at the storied retreat; the compound is being turned into a museum and research center, though Ted Kennedy left Patrick a garage apartment on the property.
Amy and Patrick wanted to have a family right away. In mid-September, they arranged to meet up for the weekend in Washington, where Patrick had some meetings, to visit his sister Kara. They wanted her to be the first to hear the good news that Amy was pregnant. Instead, early on Friday, September 16th, Patrick got a phone call with the stunning news that his 51-year-old sister had died of a presumed heart attack while working out at her gym. It was left to him to relay the terrible news to her teenaged children.
FOR PATRICK, THE LOSS OF HIS SISTER has only reinforced his decision to reinvent his life with Amy, on a new seashore. Life is short. Love and family are what matters. You find them wherever and however you can, and cling to them. “At the end of my dad’s life,” Patrick says, “it wasn’t his legacy or the laws he passed that kept him company when he was sitting at the end of the porch, looking out over the ocean. It was his kids. And that was seared into me.”
He tears up easily when talking about his father. One afternoon we sit in the near-empty Pirate’s Den, a cozy restaurant a block from the north end of Brigantine, where the windswept streets give way to two miles of sand.
For most of Ted Kennedy’s life, he didn’t understand his son’s need to speak publicly about his depression and addiction. “I grew up in a real ‘snap out of it’ family,” Patrick says. “You pull yourself up by the bootstraps and don’t do anything shameful. I got the message early on: You don’t want it to be ‘Oh, we need to take care of Patrick’ the way people said about my mom, ‘Oh, we need to take care of Joan.’ If I needed help, it wasn’t that I needed help, but that it was a public-relations crisis.”
It was only when Patrick’s work in Congress to support mental health parity began to gain traction that his dad, he says, “got it.” Ted had “a political awakening that I was onto something really big politically in my own right, and he started looking at me differently.” That’s why the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, the last legislation Patrick and his dad accomplished together in Washington, is so important to him. It’s also why he is now becoming so vocal about how few of the protections the bill guaranteed have actually been put into place, because of health insurance politics.
He says he has no interest in ever returning to elected office, though some in New Jersey wish he would. “If he wants to be in politics, he’ll be a force wherever he is,” says Rob Andrews. “But I think he is finding a new definition of success in his life.”
As he gains more distance from his father’s life and death, it’s the nonpolitical things that stay with Patrick Kennedy. The only major possession he has with him in New Jersey is hidden under a tarp. It’s a metallic green 1972 Pontiac GTO convertible with a white top, which he bought during his wedding reception. In the early ’70s, California Senator John Tunney and Ted Kennedy, best friends, bought twin GTOs; Teddy’s was blue and is long gone, but Tunney gave his to his son, Mark, who told Patrick he could no longer drive such a car and was going to sell it on Craigslist. Patrick immediately offered to buy it.
When it’s warm out—and sometimes even when it’s not—he likes to drive it around, alone or with Amy. It reminds him of his dad, and his early life in Cape Cod, when Ted’s GTO was always parked in the front driveway and he would jump into it and drive away. It’s also perfect for Patrick’s new persona—a Jersey muscle car, like something out of a Springsteen song. “When I drive it around,” he laughs, “people don’t care it’s me. They look at the car, yell, ‘All right!,’ and give me the big thumbs-up.”