Book Review: Well-Behaved? Let's Assume Not.

Barbara Leaming's new biography makes the case that Jackie O suffered from PTSD

Well-Behaved? Let's Assume Not.

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Untold Story

by Barbara Leaming
Thomas Dunne Books, 368pp., $27.99

Anyone old enough to remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy 51 years ago this month also recalls the calm, quiet strength that the newly widowed first lady exhibited during the hours, days, and years that followed.

Hold that thought.

This long-held public image of the first lady's classy forbearance is incorrect, Barbara Leaming tells us in Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Untold Story.

Indeed, Leaming lifts the veil of this perfect picture of stoicism and reveals an altogether different portrait – one of a popular fashion icon who was left emotionally paralyzed for decades after witnessing her husband's murder that November day in Dallas.

This is Leaming's third Kennedy-related book, the first since 2001's Mrs. Kennedy: The Missing History of the Kennedy Years, which critics faulted for its unfounded assumptions. In The Untold Story, however, Leaming drills deeper, drawing on letters, diary entries, and other documents to conclude that Kennedy presented all the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Kennedy's condition went undiagnosed for years; it was, after all, before PTSD was recognized as a medical condition, before its symptoms – sleepnessness, fear, anger, suicidal thoughts, and any number of "triggers" that provoke unpredictable behavior – were seen in soldiers returning from Vietnam. And PTSD wasn't officially identified as a psychiatric disorder until 1980.

The early part of Leaming's book fails to impress as the author rehashes Jacqueline Bouvier's early years, her ambitions, and her ambiguous courtship with a rising political star, whose skirt-chasing habits Jackie believed she could change. Only when the president and his wife are in Dallas do the pages begin to turn more vigorously. That's when we start to comprehend the psychological toll the murder took on the first lady. Sitting next to her husband in the back of a limousine, surely she must have heard the "loud thump, like a melon exploding on a pavement," when the third shot ripped into her husband's head, causing "... brain and bone matter [to rain] on Jackie's hair, face, and clothes." From there, we glean new details about the PTSD survivor's long, tormented life: the self-medicating with vodka; the sudden, inexplicable outbursts; her thoughts of suicide; and the idea that her children would be better off without her.

Notably missing from this account are the enormous effects Jackie's PTSD must have had on her two children, but perhaps Leaming is saving those details for her next Kennedy book.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 36 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Arts Reviews
There There
There There
The Big Oakland Powwow provides a window into modern Native American life in Tommy Orange's searing debut novel

Rosalind Faires, Oct. 26, 2018

Little Fires Everywhere
Little Fires Everywhere
Celeste Ng's second novel offers rich portrayals of motherhood in the suburbs

Rosalind Faires, Oct. 26, 2018

More by Amy Smith
Section 8 Reopens
Section 8 Reopens
Hurry up ... and wait!

Oct. 3, 2014

How to Build Neighborhoods
How to Build Neighborhoods
District 9 candidates differ most sharply on best principles of land use

Sept. 5, 2014

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Jacqueline Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, Kennedy assasination, Barbara Leaming

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle