Jersey’s Kennedy: An Ex-Congressman Finds Home

A famous former congressman finds a new family,
a new sense of purpose and a safe haven at the Shore

Patrick Kennedy wed Absecon native Amy Petitgrout in 2011. They are building a home in Brigantine and expecting their second child together around Thanksgiving. They were photographed on a favorite path to the ocean in Brigantine.
Photo by Chris Crisman

Patrick Kennedy sits contentedly on the second-floor deck of the home he is renting in the quiet Shore town of Brigantine. “Here,” he says, “I feel liberated.”

At 46, the former Rhode Island congressman, son of a senator and nephew of a President, is enjoying a second act as a mental-health advocate and, perhaps most importantly, a newly minted husband and father. Happily transplanted to South Jersey, the Massachusetts native, a recovering substance abuser, is rebuilding his life one piece at a time, much as the New England-style stone-and-shake mansion his growing family will occupy is taking shape on the Brigantine bayfront just north of Atlantic City.

Patrick Joseph Kennedy II’s new world revolves around a wife, a stepdaughter and a toddler son—all South Jersey natives. The Kennedys are expecting a third child—a daughter—around Thanksgiving.

Kennedy is now a registered New Jersey voter, with no interest in running for office again. He has been clean and sober for more than 2½ years. The anniversary of his sobriety is February 22, the birthday of his late father, Senator Ted Kennedy. Patrick’s recovery from drug and alcohol dependency includes daily 12-step meetings, regular exercise and a commitment to his growing family. These measures, he says, keep his bipolar disorder—a condition characterized by extreme mood swings—and his related penchant for addictive behavior, at bay without medication.

Since leaving the House of Representatives in 2011, Kennedy has advocated tirelessly for more mental illness research and treatment. His current project—the Kennedy Forum on Community Mental Health, to be held October 23 and 24 in Boston—commemorates the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Community Mental Health Act by President John F. Kennedy on October 31, 1963. It was the final piece of legislation signed by the President—Patrick’s uncle—before he was assassinated in Dallas on November 22 that year.

The tall, ginger-haired, heavily freckled Kennedy has found a comfort zone in Brigantine. “I love the ocean, the small town,” he says. On this day, his wife of two years, the former Amy Petitgout, 35, and stepdaughter, Harper Petitgout, 5, from Amy’s first marriage, are out running errands. His 1½-year-old son, Owen, orbits his dad like a smiling moon, the two clearly in each other’s gravitational fields.

Had he not met Amy, a junior high school history teacher, Kennedy likely would still be living in Rhode Island—with all the reminders of his past. “I’d still be a very public person,” he says. “Going to a supermarket, a gas station, a coffee shop, there’d be those uncomfortable silences: ‘He’s a former big-shot.’ Here I have a new life. I’ve been in a few press articles. There’s some recognition, but it is not the same. There’s no news coverage of my steps—and missteps.”

Kennedy served in the Rhode Island legislature for two terms beginning when he was 21, followed by 16 years in Congress. In 2006, while a congressman, he crashed his car into a security barrier at the Capitol at 2:45 am. He subsequently pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of prescription drugs and was ordered into a rehab program. In interviews these days, Kennedy himself brings up his mental health and addiction issues. He says it’s an important part of his recovery.

Equally important is coming to grips with his past, including his relationship with his father, who died of brain cancer in August 2009. “I never felt like I measured up,” he says.

That changed when the two worked together on the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008—Patrick in the House, his father in the Senate. The collaboration led to “a new kind of relationship,” he says.

The Parity Act is designed to assure levels of benefits for mental health treatment comparable to those provided for medical care and surgical procedures. Once he got behind the bill, Ted pushed his son to expand the scope of the act as much as possible in the House. That, he figured, would make the Senate version strike conservatives as reasonable by comparison. He could tell fellow lawmakers, “look what that crazy kid is asking for—the moon,” says Patrick.

“My father looked for the real politics,” he adds. “He understood the political end game. He was consummate at that.”

Discussing the proposed law with all comers proved “cathartic” for the son. It was a subject “no one wanted to talk about,” including his own family. “It was stigmatized. For me, it was policy—and it was personal.”

Mental illness and substance abuse have bedeviled the Kennedy clan for decades. One of Ted’s eight siblings, Rosemary Kennedy, was deemed mentally deficient as a child and at 23 underwent a prefrontal lobotomy that left her incapacitated for life. Ted himself suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by the assassinations of his older brothers, President Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, says Patrick, whose mother, Joan Kennedy, has a long history of depression and alcoholism.

Ultimately, the Parity Act passed without debate or even a direct vote. Ted Kennedy, leveraging his stature in the Senate, had it inserted as a provision in the Troubled Asset Relief Program, where he knew it would get little scrutiny in the throes of the financial crisis. For Patrick, the deft maneuver exemplifies his dad’s keen political instincts.

Successfully tag teaming with Ted on the Parity Act was a game changer. “I’d fallen short of acceptance from my father before,” Patrick says, “but that was acceptance.” Indeed, the bill became the younger man’s legislative legacy.

Having achieved that goal, and concerned for his own mental well-being, Kennedy decided to leave Congress at the end of 2010. But first he accepted an invitation that March to speak at a South Jersey forum for the developmentally disabled, a cause championed by his aunt, the late Eunice Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics. That’s where he met Petitgout. Pretty and petite, she had come in place of her father, a special ed teacher and longtime Democrat, who was ill. Amy asked Kennedy for an autograph for her dad. He not only obliged, he penned a note complimenting him on his “beautiful daughter.” Before the night was over, he gave Petitgout his card and asked her to call him.

“How did I end up in New Jersey? I met a Jersey girl! And I’m a big fan of Bruce Springsteen,” Kennedy jokes loudly and reflexively—as a politician might.

Then sotto voce and seriously, he adds, “I came in part because I was leaving Congress and I had the time. Also, because of my aunt, Eunice Shriver. Did you know New Jersey is hosting the Special Olympics [USA] next year? It is fantastic how things fall into place! It was a divine plan. Timing is everything. Boom! The rest is history. It was me letting life happen, rather than making life happen.”

When they met, Amy knew little about Kennedy, despite his famous family. She decided to find out more, online and in person.

“Patrick had already made a change by the time he came to New Jersey,” she says. They began to date. “He was so good with my daughter,” Amy recalls. “That set the tone. Family was a priority for him.”

A zealous suitor, Kennedy bought the land on the bay, where their home is being built, even before they became engaged. (After running into problems renovating the existing house, Kennedy had it torn down and started over.) The place has special meaning for Amy, who grew up in Absecon, a small town across the bay, and whose family went to the beach in Brigantine each summer when she was a girl. Her brother lives in Brigantine, just a few blocks away.

Departing Congress, Kennedy moved in with Amy and her daughter at her parents’ home in Absecon. Reflecting on her husband’s new contentment, Amy says, “He’s a much easier person to be with, with his depression and bipolar under control. We are his safe harbor.”

Secure in his new family’s embrace, Kennedy can share himself, which furthers his recovery. “Amy’s family knows,” he says. “All of our friends know. Everyone knows.” Adds Amy: “I find him to be very consistent, loving and caring. The only thing I notice is that his energy level can change, but not his demeanor.”

Kennedy becomes energized as he discusses plans for this month’s Kennedy Forum on Community Mental Health. The event—which will include a professional conference, a live national webcast and a gala at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library—also aims to bring attention to One Mind for Research, a non-profit founded by Kennedy to unite disparate fields of brain research under one umbrella.

Kennedy sees the forum as a platform to remind the public of his family’s commitment to the issue of mental health.

“I want to use my unique position, not only as the sponsor of the parity bill but as the nephew of the President, as leverage, to bring together a larger agenda,” he says. “We need coordinated care. We are so isolated in our little communities we fail to the see the commonalities [and] set an agenda everyone benefits from.

“Each of us knows someone with a brain illness—it affects us all,” he concludes. “We need a moonshot for inner space, the mind and the neurosciences.”

Kevin C. Shelly wrote NJM’s story on Gay Talese leaving Ocean City after 44 years.

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