In his book How Children Succeed, Paul Tough mentions that both John and Robert Kennedy attended Riverdale Country School in the Bronx as he introduces the reader to the character initiative of the Riverdale’s headmaster Dominic Randolph. I remembered that Senator Edward M. Kennedy also attended Riverdale and was drawn to re-read the account of his time there in his memoir True Compass. In 1941 when Ted Kennedy was nine
years old, he and other classmates were subjected to a particularly twisted form of abuse by a dorm master he calls “R.” His account of the sexual abuse he and others suffered at Riverdale hit me particularly hard on the second reading.
Unlike his other three brothers who were day students, Ted Kennedy was a border — he lived in residence with ‘R.’ By his account, ‘R.’ “violated every trust that our parents had placed in him. He specialized in terror and humiliation.” Kennedy describes a word game played in ‘R.’s’ room where mistakes were punished by requiring an article of clothing to be removed. He describes the scene:
“Since the boys were in pajamas, they didn’t have too many articles of clothing to take off. Soon they were naked and subjected to ‘R.’s’ ‘inspection.’ No boy was spared the humiliation.”
He recalls many terror-filled nights hiding under his bunk in fear that he would be rounded up and taken to ‘R.’s’ quarters, a fate, it was rumored, suffered by those in whom ‘R.’ had a special interest. He told himself that his brothers had survived boarding school and he would too. “It’s going to be okay. I told myself. I had to believe that.”
He describes the vivid and lasting memory of what he saw on the Riverdale grounds: a little boy with a teddy bear and a suitcase running from ‘R.’ who catches up to him, rips the teddy bear away, glares with “one of the most evil expressions I have ever seen” while the suitcase empties on the ground. He then dragged the sobbing boy back to the dorm.
Kennedy recalls that one of the things that saved him was whooping cough. After a break from Riverdale, he went back and the terror began all over again. He describes the physical toll the situation took on him: “Perhaps it was the stress, but I got sick, very sick, with pneumonia and whooping cough. And again, I was able to return to the safe and loving arms of my mother.” He never told her about the abuse. The dorm master was eventually fired but the parents were never told.
The stories of Michael Reagan, son of President Reagan and Jane Wyman, and Ted Kennedy dramatically illustrate that abuse occurs regardless of money and status, and that the effects of abuse last a lifetime. And telling your story and being an advocate for children are part of the healing process. Even though these cases go back decades, the memories of the likes of Penn State and Horace Mann School are fresh, and remind us that even one case of child abuse or neglect is too many.