The life and times of Robert F. Kennedy have been well documented. But it's his wife Ethel who has always been the backbone of the family — raising 11 children and carrying on a tradition of activism. Now her youngest child, Rory Kennedy, has made a documentary, "Ethel," telling this lesser-known story. It's an intimate view of a family that lived through (and sometimes created) historic moments. The film premieres on HBO on Oct. 18. Rory Kennedy talked with WGBH's Bob Seay about the experience.
Bob Seay: Your mother was a Skakel from Connecticut.
Rory Kennedy: Initially my grandfather on the Skakel side was actually very poor and uneducated but … he grew to become one of the wealthiest men in America at the time. But very conservative, very Republican background. So there were some differences, clearly, between the Skakels and the Kennedys in that respect. But they both came from very large Irish Catholic families, they both had a great sense of fun and adventure.
It's interesting to see this woman or this young girl who grew up with no exposure to politics, no real sense of giving back to society — and then meeting my father, falling in love with him and being pulled into politics working on Jack's first campaign and just loving it … it's an interesting arc that she goes through.
Seay: Your sister Kathleen Kennedy Townsend talks in the film about how your mom deals with death. Her parents were killed in a plane crash, her husband was killed, his brother was killed, two of your siblings. Your sister says your mother went to Mass every day but didn't really talk about her emotions — and that she liked to have a lot of people around.
Kennedy: I think that made a huge difference in her life. She, obviously, had 11 children and she has a high tolerance for chaos and within that she creates a lot of structure. But I think that my mother has a real joy of life and looks at things through a very positive lens. She also is deeply, deeply religious and she has a great sense of faith and belief. She absolutely believes that my father is with my Uncle Jack and Uncle Teddy and all of her family. I think there is great reassurance in that for her that helps her navigate through the difficult times.
Seay: It seems like after your father's death, she took on more of a leadership role, it said at one point in the documentary. She takes on more causes, she works with you as children to connect you with the world.
Kennedy: She and my father came on this mission together when he was alive and she internalized that. It really became who she was. She became her own activist and role model in and of herself and really rose up to that kind of leadership level which I witnessed throughout my childhood and continue to today. She's really a remarkable woman who continues at the age of 84 to go on protest [marches] and to make calls to dictators to free human rights activists. … It's kind of in her blood at this point, I think, to stand up to injustice. And she has a knack for it. It comes very naturally to her, it seems.
Seay: Has your mother seen the film? What does she think?
Kennedy: She has seen the film. I think her initial response, she was a little anxious. I think there was some anxiety about how different moments were going to be handled — but I think also it's just a very human response to feel like, 'Oh my gosh, why did I say that, and what was I wearing, and that haircut's ridiculous.' And I think that for her to see all of this archival footage that she probably hasn’t seen maybe in 40 years or some of it ever, was going back in history for her and bringing up some of those moments in time. But I think that she also has come to appreciate [those moments]. And she was very positive after the first screening. … [The film has] been received really well and very positively and I think that she's been able to feel that.