Chappaquiddick, The Story




About a month ago, I began to see advertisements for the film Chappaquiddick. Being familiar with the subject–Ted Kennedy’s involvement in the death of a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne–there was no question in my mind about whether I would go to the film or not.

My parents were Catholic sweethearts still in their twenties when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June, 1968. One of my early memories is of my mother watching his funeral on our small black and white television. Just a little over a year later, two weeks after I turned seven, Mary Jo Kopechne died, suffocated in a car submerged in the dark water just off the Dike bridge near Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts. Senator Ted Kennedy, who was positioned to run for president in 1972, was driving the car when it went into the water. He didn’t report the accident until ten hours later. He pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and was given a two-month, suspended jail sentence.

I’m not sure when I truly became aware of this terrifying story. While the adults around me spoke pretty freely at the time, I’m certain no one mentioned the details of the accident right after it happened. Given my visceral reaction every time I think about it, I must have first heard about it when I was a young teenager. What imaginative child doesn’t spend at least some time thinking about drowning? Worse, I had a fear of both water and bridges. We often traveled across the Ohio River, and my sisters and I tried to hold our breath as long as the car was on the bridge. It was a great distraction.

This blog really isn’t about the Chappaquiddick film. No, I won’t be going to see it. I know the story, and have read all sorts of accounts and theories about it. I won’t offer my opinion on it here. But it would be interesting to know what viewers unfamiliar with the event think after seeing the film.

This blog is about a book.

In 1993, I read Joyce Carol Oates’ novella, Black Water. Oates has boldly fictionalized real-life situations and characters in several novels: Blonde, about Marilyn Monroe; Sacrifice, about the Tawana Brawley case; and My Sister, My Love, about JonBenet Ramsey’s death. There are many, many true crime books, and novelized historical fiction is very hot right now. Oates’ writing is always intensel, and delves deeply into the psychology of her characters. So I guess it’s no surprise that I found myself profoundly affected by Black Water. It nails two of my darkest fears, and throws in the always-timely subject of young people (often young women) betrayed by powerful figures (often older men).

This 1992 Washington Post article reports that Oates says, “The Senator in “Black Water” shouldn’t be mistaken for Ted Kennedy, Kelly Kelleher isn’t a pseudonym for Mary Jo Kopechne, and this brief tale isn’t about Chappaquiddick at all.” (Reporter’s quote, not Oates’ actual words.) But it is a story about a party, a senator, a girl, a car accident, a death in the water, and a betrayal. It’s all there.

Black Water is written in Oates’ unique close third voice–a voice which also hints at the existence of a rather arch and wise narrator. Kelly Kelleher is her own memoirist, judge, jury, cheerleader, critic, and inner child. As she waits for the senator to come back to save her, she fights desperately to live. She’s flooded (no pun intended) with memories, and  tells herself stories about what’s happening in the outside world. She clings to her optimism.

I’m told by someone who spoke casually with Oates about the novella that she means for it to be read in one sitting of two hours–the same amount of time the authorities believe Kopechne lived after the car went into the water. That notion leaves me breathless. This will sound ridiculously theatrical, but I almost wish that this fact were written on the page facing the ending of the novella.

The true horror of this story lies in those two hours. Forget the party. Forget Kelly’s romantic thoughts. Forget the way the senator kicks at her as he propels himself away from the sunken car. Forget the alcohol and rumors of infidelity. All you need to know about is those two endless, infinite hours. At the end of those two hours, she is dead, but the reader has visited her entire life just as Kelly relived it–In bright and dark patches of emotion, wonder, and terror.

Why would I want to see the film? After reading extensively about the Chappaquiddick incident, I’ve come to my own conclusions. I’m not particularly interested in hearing more theories. The story has always been about those two hours for me.

This is the power of the book. Don’t get me wrong. I watch at least a couple films a week. But film viewing is mostly passive, even when the film is well done. I’m not saying that films don’t inspire or teach, horrify or amaze. It’s only that prose fiction engages imagination and emotion in a unique way. I want more of that. Always.

Okay, TKZers. How do you feel about the novelization of history? Are there any books you believe truly capture the spirit and heart of a real-life story?


This entry was posted in Writing and tagged , , by Laura Benedict. Bookmark the permalink.

About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at

36 thoughts on “Chappaquiddick, The Story

  1. Offhand, no comments about novelizing history. (Although I do have a thriller coming out that speculates about whatever happened to the Jane Roe baby of Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision fame, a woman who would now be in her late forties.) I just wanted to weigh in on this comment: “… she means for it to be read in one sitting of two hours–the same amount of time the authorities believe Kopechne lived after the car went into the water. That notion leaves me breathless.” And it chilled me to read it. Wow. Well done. It earned a share of this column on my writers group Facebook page.

  2. My favorite fictionalization of history is the film “Take the Lead.” So it’s not novelization per se.
    I have novelized my late father’s story, how he searched for the family he lost as a toddler during the second world war.
    I very much like this idea of novelizing history and basing novels on true events. This makes the past alive, and we can better understand it.
    If we take “Take the Lead,” the filmmakers have changed the age of students. The real dance teacher, Mr. Dulaine, was teaching ballroom dancing to middle-grade students. The fictional Mr. Dulaine (played by Antonio Banderas), taught high school students. Bringing teenage challenges into the story brought tension. I loved how the real Mr. Dulaine said how he learned from hip-hop dancers during the filming process of the movie. But in general, the movie has reinforced what the real Mr. Dulaine tries to do, is to show how art can make an incredibly positive impact on our lives, especially at young age.
    Writing the book about my father brought me and my mother, who acted as my consultant when I had questions about my father (who died when I was ten), closer together.
    I think we can feel the history better if we novelize it. And we can grow while both writing and reading novelized history.

  3. I was a Catholic girl in my mid-twenties so vividly remember that accident because my life was similar to Mary Jo’s. It was a horrible accident and I don’t want to either read the book or see the movie. Once was sufficient. I felt so sorry for her parents who bore the brunt of the loss and hurt. As I remember she was their only child. Their future life dreams and hopes died with her. I imagine the Kennedys paid a hefty price as compensation to them for their loss but you can never pay enough to truly compensate for causing the careless loss of someone’s child. It’s a parent’s worse nightmare. —- Suzanne

    • As a parent, I can’t even imagine those moments of torment that stretched into decades. Heartbreaking. I don’t blame you for not wanting to revisit it. Thanks, Suzanne

    • There are two thrillers with that title, but they’re unrelated. There’s also a Manga that was made into a horror film of a different title. But I couldn’t find anything on IMDB that looks like the book. I highly recommend the Manga, though!

      Do read JCO’s book. You won’t regret it, though it might make you very angry. xx

  4. “Allegience” by Kermit Roosevelt (2015), historical legal thriller about the debate within the US government (specifically the Supreme Court) surrounding the imprisonment of thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II. The fictional protagonist serves as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. I think the book is well written and interesting, but disclose that I’m a lawyer and ancient alumni of University of Pennsylvania Law School where the author teaches.

    • My son is doing a presentation on this case. I’ll point him to this book after he’s done. Another subject that’s painful to read about.

      • It’s painful to read about this dark episode in our history and it’s not difficult to imagine the sense of injustice, betrayal, helplessness and anger those imprisoned must have felt.

        If your son’s presentation is publicly available or accessible, I would appreciate having a reference or link. Thank you.

  5. Follow the River by James Alexander Thom, it’s about Mary Draper Ingles. She was taken prisoner by Shawnee Indians in the late 1700s. I learned more from the book about that time in our country than I did in any history class.

    • Follow the River has been on my TBR list for years. There’s a lot written about what happened to her. An aside: the Ingles family owns (or did own) the Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, VA.

  6. What Ted Kennedy did was drive drunk and a person died as a direct result. That is called Negligent Homicide. To save his own ass he left her there to die when he might have saved her. That’s called cowardice. He wore a phony neck brace later for sympathy. That’s a coverup.
    He should have served a long prison sentence just like you or I would have. Think about how this would have played out if Mary Jo had survived and Kennedy had drown.
    It is not enough that his family suffered. He should have become the Lion of Sing Sing not the Lion of the Senate.
    This incident and Jane Fonda’s visit to North Vietnam while American troops were there in combat changed how I view legends. These people prove that the rich and famous have there own standard of law and that is our fault for letting them get away with it.

  7. I’m a recovering reporter and have dislike fictionalizing history. I want to know what REALLY happened. Just the facts, thank you, not fake words in real people’s mouths.

  8. I truly enjoy the novelization of history. One of my favorite authors, a man who does it right, is Nelson DeMille.

    Rather, though, than telling the story from the POV of participants in historical events, he seems to tell the story from outside the event. Though in one memorable book, he has a character, a noble and loyal character to the protagonist, killed in the horror of 911–the character actually being in the Top of the World when the airliner hit. I had to go out and calm down after that one.

    In my own druthers, Bell, DeMille, Lustbader.

    • Working through an outside character is a great device, and gives readers a chance to imagine themselves in the role. Terrific list of authors, btw.

  9. Allan Eckert’s THE FRONTIERSMAN ~ I believe it was the basis for the Robert Redford movie, Jeremiah Johnson. I got 2-books credit for a high school history class that required book reports on 4 books during the term~ AND I enjoyed reading it, to boot~

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