I clearly recall an evening 43 years ago. It was the summer of 1969, and I sat in the downstairs lunch room at the Tulsa World munching a sandwich and marveling at the extraordinary times I was witnessing.
I had just seen Apollo 11 landing on the moon. Two days before that a presidential hopeful, Ted Kennedy, drove his car off a bridge on a small island in the Atlantic called Chappaquiddick, drowning the young passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, in Poucha Pond.
The accident at Chappaquiddick killed something else. Any hopes Kennedy had of becoming president ended that night. There he was, an older married man, driving off to a probable romantic night with the 28-year-old Kopechne. And he made no attempt to dive down into the water to save her. He was branded forever as a man with questionable judgment. Massachusetts may’ve still loved him. He was re-elected the state’s senator seven more times after the tragedy. But I saw something else.
For me, it was an open and shut case. Kennedy was totally at fault, and Kopechne was the naive victim. Then I recently read the short Joyce Carol Oates novel, “Black Water,” first published in 1992.
Oates disguised names and the setting. Kennedy is just “the Senator,” and Kopechne is “Kelly Kelleher.” The accident occurs on an island in Maine, not on Chappaquiddick. But it is clear to what the subject matter pertains.
The entire story is seen through the eyes of Kelly Kelleher as she drowns in the “black water.” Trapped, she struggles to stay alive in hopes “the Senator” will swim down to save her. As Kelly fights futily and the water engulfs her, her mind flashes back to the party she just left and the circumstances that led her to this moment. She remembers her family and other important events in her young life as the clock runs out.
“Black Water” was published 23 years after Chappaquiddick. In the interlude, we are told, Oates continued to gather string about the incident and let her thoughts find their weight. Her thoughtful novel provided a much-needed insight into the psychology of “Kelleher” and the tragedy.
In the end, I found my views of Kopechne’s death changed, more open to her own responsibility in the accident. I think a quick read of this 154-page book would do the same for almost anyone else.
Often it is fiction that instructs more than so-called factual accounts.