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The Return of the Princess: The Mythic Dimension of the Caroline Kennedy Story

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Twice before I've written about Caroline Kennedy's effort to gain appointment to the Senate seat to be vacated by Hillary Clinton. Both of those pieces were about politics and were expressions of advocacy. This one is not about politics or advocacy. It is, rather, about a mythic dimension I see in this turn in Caroline Kennedy's life story.

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In myths and fairy tales, there's a motif that might be called "The Return of the Princess" (or, sometimes, of the prince). The child is born into favored circumstances, but some combination of tragedy and malevolence drives the child into some sort of figurative wilderness or isolation.

The variants of the "Return of the Princess" motif include such stories as Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Rapunzel. A girl is born into a loving situation, and then something --the curse of an affronted fairy, the replacement of a mother who died with a wicked stepmother, the removal of the baby by an angry enchantress-- the girl is taken away into isolation and/or a death-like sleep. And then finally there is a return to the lost world of happy family/royalty.

(With the stories of the princess, perhaps for cultural reasons that have diminished over time, the restoration of the young woman to life/happiness/royal-status is generally accomplished through a male rescuer rather than through her own successful agency in quest of her own redemption.)

An example of such a story with a male child is the original STAR WARS sage, in which Luke Skywalker turns out to have been born --a twin with Princess Leia-- as royalty, to be brought up in some out-of-the-way, fringe place, eventually to return as the Jedi hero who destroys the Death Star.

It is a story of life's blessing overtaken by some great danger or evil with a final successful redemptive return to some version of the world lost.

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Americans first met Caroline Kennedy when she was a child of three ensconced in what appeared to be a happy --and most public, most prominent, most royal-- family situation. Her father had just been elected President of the United States. Her poised and attractive mother was a media obsession across the world (much like Princess Diana would be decades later).

Then, three years later, her father was murdered in full view of the world. To the nation, the assassination of the young and glamorous president was the greatest shock and grief of kind since that of Lincoln almost a century before. What the loss meant to Caroline, who can tell? But from the pictures, there would seem to have been a very positive bond between father and daughter. And for any six-year-old girl, the murder of her father must almost inevitably be a profound and traumatic loss.

Caroline's mother, sitting next to her husband at the moment of the murder, splattered by his blood and brains, suffered her own trauma. Soon she had departed from the public stage and from thence forward she did everything she could to protect her children from the world --political and media-- in which that trauma had been suffered.

Of all the Kennedy children of her generation, Caroline was the most cloistered. Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.

She grew into an adulthood that appears to have been successful in terms of family and career. At the same time, she eschewed the public stage.

Then came the candidacy of Barack Obama, and this brought her forward onto the stage for a few important moments: the endorsement, the vice presidential search, the speech at the convention. And now she has declared her desire to become a U.S. Senator, replacing the woman she helped Barack Obama to defeat.

The arrival onto the scene of this new president, whom she compared in her endorsement statement with her own now mythologized and "iconic" father, has caused a basic shift in Caroline Kennedy's stance toward the world. She is now emerging fully out of that cloister --through which her mother sought to protect her by separating her from the dangers of her father's world-- into that arena into which, because of her father's karmic role, she had first encountered the world.

The Princess returns.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
 

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