Contemplating and Confronting Chappaquiddick on Chappaquiddick

Chappaquiddick (2017)

I’d never taken the Martha’s Vineyard ferry at night before. The darkness is absolute, the sky enveloping you as you step out onto the fourth floor deck, eerie and blinding. The coastal lights all around you seem like stage sets, not real harbours with hundreds of people whose lives depend on the now quiet water. I’m already basically sleepwalking, having left Queens more than 12 hours earlier, and walking unsteadily on the boat in freezing temperatures does little to steady me. I haven’t been on this ferry in years, and I’m used to the thing being full, if subdued. Maybe it was nerves, but the assortment of families and friends always seemed to be holding in their excitement until they arrived on the island. The women were always in pastel sweatshirts with vertically styled hair, eyes hidden behind sunglasses, never looking too carefully after their children as they frolicked on the beaches. The men were firefighters, hobbyists, summer boat people, their once taut pink faces now sea whipped and sallow, frozen hams defrosting in the afternoon heat. My dad loved this place, took us as often as we could afford to go. It’s winter now and the island’s deserted. Some 20 years after my first visit I feel like I have the place to myself. If I’d never seen it before today I’d have told you it was the loneliest place on earth.

I watch the water throwing itself on the edge of the boat for as long as I can stand the cold, spying red signal lights like flickering candles in the black waves. The water’s lit by sickly fluorescent light that makes it look like dirty stained glass. I go in and wander around the mess hall on the third floor, quiet but for the low hum of a baseball game on TV. The elderly man behind the drink counter tries to explain the local beers on tap, and I eventually go for something malty and bittersweet. Wandering slowly around the third floor of the boat I see mostly comatose travellers. The women behind me in line for the boat, who’d been so drunk they were loudly contemplating having sex right there in the line to stay other to stay warm, were now passed out in booths that look like old diner seats. The sleeping cargo, the night sky, the dull roar of the engines. The effect is odd indeed. I feel like Peter O’Toole in Foxtrot, heading towards an uncharted island to wait out World War 2 and escape his responsibilities to his country. All we have to do is survive the hour wait in the frigid Massachusetts night and then 45 minutes at sea. Out here no one can touch us.

Chappaquiddick (2017)

That impression, I imagine, starts with the Kennedys. Teddy on that morning in July 1968, lying to the police and the press after his car had wound up in the pond with Mary Jo Kopechne’s body in it. How, after that, could you ever feel like the cops were going to hold you accountable for anything? I’m on the island of Martha’s Vineyard because my mother is housesitting for a counsellor and public servant who owns a house here. She helps people with domestic abuse and drug and alcohol addiction, which quietly ravages the community. Not so’s you’d know it, of course. The substance abuse and domestic violence is the island’s best kept secret, even more than the several dozen famous people with houses out here, but it’s hardly the only one. Visas are frequently denied to workers on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, according to a local radio broadcast I catch during one of our drives around the island. Cruising around you wouldn’t know where people could hide anything bigger than a drinking problem. The houses are bare and ornate and quite purposely visible, turkeys crawl on empty lawns, every bar is empty until the weekend. The vineyard winter is a stranger time than I could have anticipated for all the times I’d been here during the summer. Peter and Bobby Farrelly capture a little of the odd quiet that falls when the snows hit in the movie Stuck on You, but the film makes it look almost like a truck stop and less like a retreat for the 1%. Just getting to the island with your car costs an arm and a leg.

The footage of crowds getting off the boats in Jaws (1975), filmed here in the early 70s, remains an accurate portrait of the population boom that happens every May. It fills with families and college students looking to let off steam in a place that still feels quaint. Edgartown, with its white picket fences, old fashioned ice cream parlours and homemade fudge shoppes, antique taverns, and sea views, seems like it’s stuck in the 50s. The charmingly dingy harbours in Vineyard Haven are right out of the early 19th century, but for the slick and bright shopping district a few hundred yards from the water. Oak Bluffs’ Victorian residences and crowded downtown feel like a decades old movie set. I’m here for a very specific reason: to see the movie Chappaquiddick (2017) after re-visiting the island of Chappaquiddick. I wanted to see for myself what the movie might fail to divine, what the Vineyard itself had been trying to tell me for years that I wasn’t able to hear.

We were staying near Vineyard Haven where the ferry comes in. The passengers, so loud while waiting in the line for the boat at Woods Hole, disembarked without a word to a mostly empty town. The bookstore had almost burned to the ground and re-opened with a smaller inventory, bars were finally allowed to serve drinks with dinner but they still close at 11. The cold streets were untouched by foot traffic and once the cars had disembarked from the belly of the ship and made their way inland, the town was dreamily quiet. The following morning we’d drive around the island while I’d tried to see things I’d recognized from childhood, and the dead trees looked increasingly like skeletal fingers reaching out from under the ground, claiming some unknown and ancient bounty. Holding the place tightly in the past. The video rental place was gone, the old couple who owned the Scottish bakehouse had sold the place and now gluten-free and vegan items were on the menu. A hip and shiny bowling alley had opened up in Oak Bluffs, sleek and red and black just about 13 steps from the pastel gingerbread cottages built by Methodists half an eternity ago. That juxtaposition alone made the long trip worth it.

I’m here to take advantage of a very specific and fortuitous if macabre happenstance. I was here the week that John Curran’s movie Chappaquiddick, starring Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy, opened at the Edgartown theatre, just a boat ride away from the island of Chappaquiddick. Depending on the tide, Chappaquiddick is either an island or a peninsula, offering the most seclusion in all of Martha’s Vineyard. We vacationed there once when I was a kid. I wanted to see the place again before seeing how it looked in the film. I wanted to know what was left of Ted Kennedy’s Martha’s Vineyard, so to speak. My mother has a picture of the bridge in the 60s around the time of the accident. The cool, deep blue of the water stands apart from the dusty orange bank. The bridge itself is like an old dog’s spine, arched gently in the misty sky, rope hooking the flimsy posts on each side. More to tell people where the thing ends than to protect them.

Chappaquiddick (2017)

The film wastes no time getting us to the island. After an interview about the space program, started by his late brother Jack (he only had late brothers by 1969), Ted heads to the small island of Chappaquiddick by way of the Edgartown Ferry. Clarke makes a decent Ted, but his face isn’t as tight and he never looks as pleased with his life as Ted did. That bronze smile, rippling his face like the wake of the ferry, made him look more than simply human. Ted and his chauffeur (unnamed in the movie, but based on John Crimmins) drive down the dirt road to the beach where he catches up with Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara). Mara’s a little too model pretty to quite pass, but she’s been chosen for a reason: to suggest an abstract but strong female presence. The movie will not get to know her, so her intense stare and dark eyes will linger instead. Kopechne worked for Bobby Kennedy’s campaign and was close with the whole of the Kennedy organization. There’s a conversation between Kopechne and one of the other Boiler Room Girls, Bobby’s campaign team, the fictitious composite Rachel (Olivia Thirlby) where Mary Jo laments that working for Ted will not be the same thing as working for Bobby. Ted was a playboy compared to the humanitarian Bobby and working for the latter was like public service, not politics.

The point is clear: Ted was no one’s favourite. Even his wife Joan (Andria Blackman) detests him, her derision making for one of the best and funniest moments in the uneven but frequently hilarious movie. In his book The Last Brother, author Joe McGinniss makes a point of mentioning how ashen faced, how lost, how sad and tired Ted looked the week after the car accident when he was seen in public. The implication being that he usually looked untouchably jovial and pleased with himself. The sailor, stressed only by sun, waves and smile lines. In Dawn Porter’s Netflix documentary series Bobby Kennedy for President (2018) William Arnone, one of the presidential hopeful’s aides, recalls meeting Bobby and being uninspired. Grey complexion, limp handshake, high-pitched voice. He wasn’t charismatic Jack. He had to work hard to put on that folksy everyman charm. His famous statement when running for Senate, “I want to serve,” spoke louder than anything else. Bobby was well-read, modest and obviously cared about people; he wasn’t a born politician. Rarely do we let people like that rise to the top of the political soup. Barack Obama was our country’s horrified and angry response to the Bush years and the public narrative started very early. I can’t remember a time that I knew his name and didn’t know in the back of my mind that he’d be running for president. Occasionally America gives itself the gift of an imagined idealist, though our system is so fundamentally corrupt that even if Bobby had become president, he too may have ended up bombing nations and the starving children he’d once travelled miles to see with his own eyes.

Bobby Kennedy for President (2018)

There’s a terrific montage in the second chapter of Bobby Kennedy for President where Bobby’s driving around meeting people which the filmmakers juxtapose with images of civil rights landmarks and lows, all set to gently psychedelic percussion. We watch as he spies Teddy driving up to work and he jogs over to shake his hand and you can see Bobby putting on a kind of at ease brotherly charm. Teddy is a natural on camera. He looks right down the lens “You bringing your own press now?” He’s cool in front of the camera and he makes Bobby look stiff and false. Even Bobby’s walk is uncertain. Once again I think of O’Toole, pretending to be English again after having been violated by the Turks in Lawrence of Arabia, his arms almost behind his back as he walks, like he only just learned how. Ted doesn’t even fully smile and he’s commandeered the shot. Bobby’s wandering gaze and haunted eyes still beguile. Jack’s death aged him. Overnight the skin near his eyes cracked and creased, almost like tattoos of the tears he’d shed for his brother, whose White House he’d helped run. His smile would never again reach those lost eyes. Ted never looked like any of it phased him until Kopechne’s death. It was a reckoning. Suddenly every terrible thing that had happened to his family was written all over his once perfect face.

Kopechne took a lot of things with her when she died, including Ted’s chances for a Presidential run, the last coat of varnish on the Kennedy legacy, and the sprightly boat-racing, beer-swilling pretty boy image Ted wore as a Senator while his brothers were fixing the country. Ted kept his head down and toed the party line for the rest of his life, which he improbably spent in elected office. It was almost as if he were pinioned there as penance for what he did to his cold-hearted father’s plan for the Kennedy dynasty. The footage of Bobby campaigning is still kind of shocking, to watch hundreds of people crowd around just to shake the little man’s hands, touch some part of him, to bask in his humble reflection. The people literally help him up and made him big. No one would ever travel a hundred miles to touch Ted Kennedy’s arm. He would never be anyone’s first call when a civil right’s leader died, as Bobby had been for Martin Luther King. Looking at Ted’s face as he delivers his address, hugs his dying father, ignores his better angels, I started mentally reciting the final passage from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford: “There would be no eulogies for Bob, no photographs of his body would be sold in sundries stores, no people would crowd the streets in the rain to see his funeral cortege, no biographies would be written about him, no children named after him, no one would ever pay twenty-five cents to stand in the rooms he grew up in.” Ted would occasionally be good, be the lion they made him out to be, but he’d never be Bobby or Jack. Treat Williams plays him in Confirmation, and his gathering up backbone like a pile of firewood just long enough to defend Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings is deeply moving. He remembers who he was, what his name once meant. The sight of him standing up for women on TV would have looked strange indeed but he swallowed what pittance of pride he had kept for himself and told his colleagues in the Senate to focus up and give Hill her dignity.

If you go on YouTube, you can watch the address he made to the country after pleading guilty to leaving the scene of the car crash that claimed Kopechne’s life. Ted goes on for ten minutes trying to get ahead of what we already knew. He wouldn’t be punished, so he asks the people to do it for him, to ease the guilt he couldn’t admit. He comes across like Coleman Francis-regular Harold Saunders in the grainy video. His voice half-heartedly falls out of him in low, crispy monotone, sputtering like a bad engine It’s an odd thing to watch. He’s lying, we just don’t know how completely.

Chappaquiddick (2017)

Ted decided he needed to be the victim (as men so often do), which Joe Gargan (Ed Helms), his adopted brother and moral compass, warns him against trying a dozen times throughout the clean-up period. Gargan distanced himself from the Kennedys after the televised appeal. The section of the film that details the real-time process of fixing up the mess Ted had created is where Chappaquiddick works best. Watching the men in suits like Bob McNamara (a delightfully wolfish Clancy Brown) and Sargent Shriver (David De Beck), who’d just gotten Mitt Romney out of similar manslaughter trouble the year before, try to outmanoeuvre the press is terrifically funny and appropriately grim. “The bay of pigs was a better run operation,” grumbles McNamara after the chief of police releases Ted’s obviously fabricated statement to the press. The script’s authors can actually let their claws out and pick a point of view during these scenes. Co-writers Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan never decided a coherent identity for Teddy, who’s sometimes a child in a suit, sometimes a shrewd operator, sometimes loving, sometimes hateful, sometimes smart, sometimes stupid. Not to say Teddy couldn’t have been all those things, but for a 106 minute movie, it’s better to know what function he’s meant to serve. There’s no movement in the character, which is realistic, but unsatisfying. If he was always a creep with no moral compass, a little evidence up front would make the ending sting a little more. He was meant to be held accountable, and his cousin, Gargan, the angel on his shoulder, keeps giving him opportunities to do so himself and he keeps dropping the ball. The question is why should we be surprised or hurt by this the way Gargan is? Was he always like this or did Kopechne’s death bring out a monstrousness that had been lurking in his belly all his life?

The biggest problem with the movie is the absence of any sense of Kopechne. The movie isn’t about her, but the movie can’t come to a satisfying conclusion about Ted’s actions without first telling us what his relationship with Mary Jo was like. If there was motivation for killing her or letting her die, the film doesn’t let on, and it neglects to mention that there was blood all over her clothing when they fished her out of the pond. She’s a complete cypher, but she’s only a little less clear as a character as Ted, who keeps his emotions and motivations close to the vest at all times. His actions after Kopechne drowned in the car speak of either callousness, fear, or botched cunning. He may not have meant to kill her but he didn’t do anything to help her. He didn’t even know how to spell her last name. Her life didn’t mean anything to him. The movie decides to follow his lead. She’s little more than a striking face. My mother called my grandmother, now 93, after the movie and asked her what she remembered of the incident. “I thought he was a coward, letting her drown, not trying to save her.” That was about the only thing that was certain and the film never attempts to dig deeper.

Jaws (1975)

The medical examiner on Martha’s Vineyard was busy the day Kopechne’s body was recovered. Robert Nevin would be informed of all the commotion long afterwards. Edmund Dinis, the district attorney tasked with investigating the incident, tried to have Kopechne’s body exhumed so he could have an autopsy performed after Ted’s people had her body flown to Philadelphia without one. Nevin gently supported Dinis’ campaign. A few years later Nevin would appear as himself in Jaws, helping Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) cover up the death of a young woman to save the island’s tourist season. On the ferry to Chappaquiddick he tells Roy Scheider’s nervous police chief Brody that the girl, who’d been eaten by a shark, could possibly have been killed in a boating accident. The implication’s tough to miss: Nevin was willing to play the part of himself, a medical examiner involved in a cover-up. He’ll be in the room at the next act break when Richard Dreyfuss’ hot-headed oceanographer Matt Hooper practically shouts “This was no boating accident!” one of the iconic lines in the film, and he’ll say nothing in protest. Nevin would have to have been in even more powerful denial than Kennedy to not see how his participation in those two scenes looked. Seems like she was still on his mind

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014)

Jaws is one of a few films shot on the Vineyard. Salim Akil’s Jumping The Broom (2011) and Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014) find their way here, hinting at the island’s history of housing black men and women without the trouble they’d experience from the less tolerant parts of the state. No film has yet shown the native population and the island’s drug, violence, and alcohol abuse problems are probably news to mainlanders, the summer vacation set. They come out here to get away from it all, not solve more problems. The natives really only control small sections of the island, and the apparently inescapable parking tickets from their police contingent say they’re still being cheated. They have to get money somehow, and no one ever parks where they’re meant to on vacation. Everyone thinks they’re a Kennedy. The money spent maintaining the gigantic houses dotting the interior of the island could easily be funnelled into helping the migrant workers – the maids, busboys and line cooks – who suffer from addiction while keeping the island a fully functioning escape for the wealthier visitors. In Sidney Pollack’s remake of Sabrina, Harrison Ford’s industrialist tries to make himself look more compassionate to Julia Ormond’s young ingenue by pointing to a building his family owns in Vineyard Haven and claiming that it’s a homeless men’s shelter. It’s a throwaway gag that speaks perfectly to the disconnect between some property owners and the lowest men on the totem pole of the Vineyard economy. This is a place they could change with their money, if only they chose to.

Jaws (1975)

The films shot out here tend to be about masculinity, the way its manicured and hidden and catered to. Sabrina’s businessmen lying about his humanitarian tendencies to impress a woman, Jaws‘ mayor trying to keep money in his pocket at the expense of blood on his shores, Stuck On You’s Janus-like twins whose lives revolve around feeding and soothing their egos. Jaws is on the TV when we sit down to dinner in a restaurant that was someone’s residence a couple of years ago. After Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss wash ashore, they put on The Blues Brothers, featuring permanent island resident John Belushi, who was buried near Aquinnah after his death from an overdose in the 80s. Somewhere there’s a picture of me next to Belushi’s grave. I was about 11 and didn’t have any idea who he was. The menu offers something called a 100 Dollar Steak, and the bleak irony of such bizarre opulence while the vineyard’s most famous corpse vamps on the screen makes me want to order a drink, but the cocktails are both small and expensive. This is one of the few places on the island with a coherent vegetarian menu. I’m still thinking about Chappaquiddick, the island and the movie, both of which we’d taken in that afternoon. We waited in line for the ferry for almost a half an hour as the two car boat loaded and unloaded in the rainy afternoon grey. I stuck my head out the car window to look at the mansions sticking out from the coastline, observing the little piece of land away from the rest of the Vineyard. Its name means “separate island.” It used to be home to Wampanoag natives, but now it’s all vacation houses and a few permanent residences. A few miles into the lonely drive toward the centre of the island lays a dirty bank of mailboxes with crudely scrawled names. The only store on the island looks to have been picked clean and abandoned. There’s trash and auto parts in the overgrown lawn, rendering the “Closed” sign on the door redundant. In this dreary extended winter season we’re enjoying, the place seems faintly haunted. It’d be a little more alarming if it hadn’t been defined by a tragic negligent death. The island is her graveyard more than the cemetery in Pennsylvania in which she was buried.

You can’t miss the turn from Chappaquiddick road onto Dike Road, it turns from pavement to dirt. Ted had taken the route earlier in the day to get to the beach, driven by chauffeur John Crimmins. According to McGinnis’s book, Crimmins was miserable that day. He didn’t want to be at the whim of the Boiler Room Girls, Bobby’s former secretaries who’d been gathered for the party on Chappaquiddick the night of the accident. As we drive down Dike Road, I wondered why no one interviewed Crimmins. He’s barely a character in the film. He was 63 and ornery, he likely wouldn’t have his guard up about the incident and might have known what Teddy’s actions really were between the car going off the Dike Bridge and his return to Edgartown in the middle of the night. He died only a few years after the accident, but his testimony could have cleared a few things up. He’d driven the .7 miles down Dike Road to the bridge that day. That’s 3696 feet. Teddy and Mary Jo were alone driving and likely drinking when they were spotted by an off-duty policeman, and then sped off into the night. There are conflicting reports about the time of the accident. Teddy could have walked to any number of clearly occupied residences on the way back up Dike Road to the cottage Crimmins had rented for him, and asked for help. There was a fire station on the island. Something more could have been done. The sloppiness of the cover-up says it wasn’t premeditated. This was a long way from the calm and competently orchestrated Kennedy narrative.

Chappaquiddick (2017)

Teddy’s made dozens of slip-ups and they’re dramatized in the movie: his being spotted at his hotel room in the middle of the night, the way he socialized with other hotel guests before going to the police, the way his statement was so clearly made on the fly, attempting to strike a balance between confusion and innocence, the medical examiners report, the press cutting off the fixers at every turn, the fake neck brace he wore at Mary Jo’s funeral, etc. etc. And through it all, I thought about Jackie Kennedy. Standing over Theodore White’s shoulder in a drawing room at the same Hyannis compound Teddy would hide out in during the Kopechne investigation. It’s easy to picture as most of this had been dramatized a few years ago in Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, starring Natalie Portman, playing a more exacting and bitter Jackie than we’re used to seeing. Jackie listened to every word White read to his editors carefully and put her foot down when they baulked at the Camelot metaphor. White’s editors thought it was hackneyed and heavy-handed, but Jackie knew what she was doing. We still use her phrasing 55 years later. Teddy’s instincts, the way he handled a transformative tragedy, were the opposite of Jackie’s ironclad sense of decorum.

His statement had holes, his plea was sweaty and hollow, he appeared pitiful and odious. Worst of all, neither Ted nor anyone involved in the incident one could conjure much of an image of Mary Jo after she died. Her mother was shocked to learn that she drank and had casual sex with men she would never meet. Ted painted her as saintly, which got rid of the onus of having to relive his specific memories of her after having led her to her death. Teddy and his prospective presidential campaign were a consolation prize to the girls who wanted Bobby in the oval office. Ted’s actions must have seemed like the final nail in the coffin of the humanity and empathy Bobby represented. They wouldn’t even get one last presidential campaign on which to work, one last chance to make a difference. Maybe it’s true, as Clarke’s Ted says in the movie, that he didn’t want to be president. Maybe he knew Mary Jo would be the sacrifice necessary to keep him from the office. That sounds farfetched but no one can tell me anything about Mary Jo so my mind begins to wander. Who was she to Ted? Who was Ted to her? I just can’t square what happened that night with the accident it seems to have been.

Dike Road was nicknamed Cemetery Road by the locals long before Teddy walked it, sopping wet, on July 18th. In the winter it feels like you’re heading nowhere, even though you pass the Mytoi Japanese Garden and the Ranger station. The houses thin and eventually it’s just you, the bridge and the swamp. The beach is over a crested hill about a half mile from the bridge, after Dike becomes Cape Pogue road. You can only see the sandy hill, not the surf on the other side. I remember something from my childhood, a piece of art that hung on our wall when I was a kid. My parents had eclectic taste in art. We had a black and white drawing of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the wall of our dining room for years. When I was a child I thought it was a picture of my dad – most bearded men look alike when you’re 4 years old. I don’t know whether the idea was to acquaint us with a measure of justice when we were young or if they just liked the portrait. We also had a print of N.C. Wyeth’s The Giant in our basement. I’d look at it and remember our trips to the Vineyard, imagining which of the kids I most resembled, staring up at the man whose body merged with the clouds. Looking at the beach on Chappaquiddick I imagined that was how the Kennedys must have seemed to the people on the island. Giants. Gods. Men who only touched down on the ground to walk, whose lives we could never imagine.

They rebuilt the bridge on Cemetery Road with functioning guard rails in order to prevent another accident a few years later. Ted lied in his report to say that he took the road by accident, which would be basically impossible, especially considering how well he knew the island. I hadn’t been to Martha’s Vineyard in ten years and I could still get you anywhere you wanted to go. Teddy raced in the Edgartown regatta basically every year, though he missed it the year Bobby was killed. He had to know the place better than I do. I stood there, taking pictures of the bridge, of the thick black water, stood there watching the heavy tide churn under the bridge. These same waters had claimed John F. Kennedy Jr almost two decades ago. The handsome attorney had crashed a plane he was flying, carrying his wife Carolyn Bessette and her sister Lauren off the coast of Aquinnah. Martha’s Vineyard had inadvertently mangled the Kennedy family, doing what their political opponents couldn’t do. The island time and again made the Kennedys appear mortal. I look at the grey sand under the dull April sky at the unforgiving black water. I dropped a rock in to try to get a sense of how deep it is. The car was visible under the water from the bridge, spotted by fishermen the morning after the accident. How could the driver get out when the passenger couldn’t? The facts of Mary Jo’s death are inconclusive and disconcerting. Her blood alcohol level was sky high and there was no medical proof she drowned. The Kennedy fixers ensured no autopsy would ever be conducted. Her body position suggests she was gasping for the last bit of air in the car as it filled up with water.

Chappaquiddick (2017)

Seeing the film in Edgartown was surreal, having just walked those streets and seen the bridge for myself. Even weirder: the old man in the audience in a wheelchair who couldn’t speak, the spitting image of Joe Kennedy, played by Bruce Dern. I wondered what this man remembered of the incident. He took the small elevator in the tiny and cute Edgartown cinema after the film was over. I stared maybe a little longer than I should have as he was wheeled down the hallway. History has a way of keeping its grip on this place. A few hours earlier I’d stood on the bridge, the angry wind whipping against my coat. It had been a sunny day with no wind the day she died. That afternoon, the regatta was delayed a few hours until some kicked up. The wind was churning the water below me into an ugly, angry dark swell, rushing under the bridge, carrying the stone I dropped with it out to the sound. I had almost drowned in Vineyard waters myself once, underestimating the distance between two points on a hooked beach a friend was vacationing near. The people around me wouldn’t have let me, of course, so I never felt like I was in real danger. I wonder what Mary Jo felt, trapped by the glove compartment, not knowing which breath would be her last. The Kennedys had given her purpose and just as easily taken it away.

Throughout the movie, I kept asking where Mary Jo had gone, from their focus, from the movie. We don’t even get a token flashback. She was right there, still, though she was buried in Pennsylvania in St. Vincent’s cemetery, as remote as she was that day on that island, miles from a ferry, from the mainland in Woods Hole, from her family, from the people she wanted to help. In McGinnis’ book, her father Joe Kopechne remembered the hullaballoo surrounding the funeral. “I could understand the people and the crowds outside hanging on the fences. This is the hard core of the mining district. These people have never been distracted before. The Kennedys were coming, and that’s a big thing. I understand that. Nothing that big has happened around here since 34 settlers were killed by the Indians, and that was before the Revolutionary War.” The accidental symmetry scratched at my brain. Natives like those in Joe Kopechne’s recollection named the island Chappaquiddick and now its name is Mary Jo Kopechne’s epitaph. She would be forever shorthand for the death of the Kennedy political dynasty, the strapping young men who were going to change this country for the better, or at least look very much like they were primed to. Mary Jo’s personality can’t be found in the film Chappaquiddick, in Kate Mara’s portrayal of her, of any of the eulogies delivered in her wake. She was a complicated woman, an ordinary woman, one of us. Driven by the desire to do good and make a difference. She worked for a better future for her country and now she’s under that bridge forever, proof that her country didn’t care about her’s. She’s gone, and she’s right there.

This Essay article was published in June 2018