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'Symptoms of Withdrawal' by Christopher Kennedy Lawford

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SYMPTOMS OF WITHDRAWAL A Memoir of Snapshots and Redemption

By Christopher Kennedy Lawford 389 pages. $25.95. William Morrow. Reviewed by Janet Maslin


When Christopher Kennedy Lawford and his cousins made plans to visit the family's Hyannis Port summer retreat, they spoke of going to Cape Cod. But Lawford grew up understanding what a difference it could make to use the words "the compound" with outsiders. It impressed girls. It underscored his Kennedy lineage. It gave him the kind of status that he has been seeking for 50 years, despite the fact that he supposedly had it from the start.

As the son of the actor Peter Lawford and President John F. Kennedy's sister Patricia, he grew up with a pedigree that could have opened many doors. Instead, for reasons he is now ready to describe in embarrassing detail, he wound up addicted to drugs, reduced to crimes like purse-snatching and consigned to a string of minor acting roles. Now that he finds it convenient to reclaim his middle name, Lawford has taken on his Kennedy heritage with both scrappiness and introspection. "Symptoms of Withdrawal: A Memoir of Snapshots and Redemption" has this message: "I'm here to tell you the most interesting part of my story is not what happened in the dark alley but what has happened in the sunlit room."

Sunlit or otherwise, Lawford is a recovering train wreck. He has dealt with drugs, alcoholism, a police record, double divorce (his parents' and his own), professional failure, acute celebrityitis (he admits to trying to get himself photographed amid "a sea of big- teethed Kennedys" as a pallbearer at his Aunt Jackie's funeral) and the addiction-related deaths of those closest to him, his father and his cousin David.

Despite slights he reprints the telegram signed "The Kennedy Family" that formally invited him to a requiem for his own Uncle Bobby and perhaps as much to his own surprise as to anyone else's, Lawford has a great big ace up his sleeve. As Norman Mailer puts it on this book's back cover, not one of the Kennedys has been a good writer. Not until this one gave it a try. "Symptoms of Withdrawal" is as revealing in tone as it is in detail. Lawford writes with the same recklessness that so often got him into trouble, and with the boastful mixture of hubris and humiliation that colors so many addiction stories. Want to know how badly he behaved? As badly as anyone in either of his families. And the bar for that was set impossibly high.

"I've heard it said that God invented alcohol to keep the Irish from ruling the world," he begins. "My family almost proved Him wrong." If he means Kennedy when he speaks of family, that one- sidedness is accurate: his father was not on the scene. The older Lawford had as much to do with Uncle Frank (Sinatra) as he did with Christopher (who has three sisters) and had plenty of his own problems not least of which was the fact that the author's English grandmother, Lady May Lawford, titled her autobiography "Bitch!" and dressed Peter as a girl until he was 11. "Maybe this was one of my dad's chief contributions to my formative years," Christopher observes.

He spent his earliest, happiest times in Santa Monica. (The little blond boy who was his best friend in California grew up to be Paris Hilton's father.) Then the Lawfords divorced bitterly. ("Dear Pat: You forgot to drain the swimming pool," his father wrote after the author's mother moved East, sending a truckload of water jugs to Manhattan.) And their son was left to flounder. The older Lawford wound up spending a lot of time at the Playboy Mansion, where he ultimately sequestered himself and spent time talking to squirrels. On the way to oblivion, he found time to teach his son a lot about drugs.

"Symptoms of Withdrawal" brings disarming self-mockery to the author's own depths of drug abuse, as he argued with dealers "trying to beat me out of my hard-inherited money" and lost his stash for a trip to Venezuela "before you could say stupid gringo." But if he ruffles feathers by describing the roles of other Kennedy cousins in these exploits, he also gives credit where it is due. The book describes his Uncle Teddy's heroic efforts to keep a passel of fatherless teenage boys in line and to help them as much as he could.

"My uncle stuck to whatever it is that he does," Lawford writes, about the string-pulling that got Christopher into Boston College Law School. "It usually works, especially in Massachusetts." Among its more piquant details are the fact that at one point the book actually misspells the name of that state, and that Lawford proudly describes watching Oliver Stone's film about the Cuban missile crisis sitting next to Fidel Castro, "the man my uncles tried to kill."

Lawford packs so much material into one book that a Kennedy- parasite biographer could find a career's worth of stories here. But "Symptoms of Withdrawal," for all its tales told out of school, has poignant legitimacy.

Lawford may have had to exploit his relatives to get his story published, but he has found a way to step out of their long shadow. His book is sunlit in this way too.

(C) 2005 International Herald Tribune. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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