goggles and a hefty oxygen tank, and swam over a wonderful glowing ridge of fiery coral only to see a great black car submerged and a drowned woman with her face pressed against the window glass. I was so shocked I began to gulp water and had to flounder up to the surface. When I looked back down into the water I could see the glowing coral and white sands but not the submerged vehicle.
I wonder how many other woman of my generation had similar images come into their conscious or unconscious thoughts yesterday. It isn’t really about whether Ted Kennedy paid his dues to society or spent a few final hours at the grave of Mary Jo Kopechne as a belated tribute or whether he suffered torment and guilt through 40 years. None of us know and like Syd I believe in forgiveness and redemption.
But there is an aspect of that unresolved Chappaquiddick incident that will stay with us as long as we care about what happens to vulnerable young women in dangerous situations, so long as we continue to fight against rape and sexual violence and place equal value on the lives of unknown women as much as those of powerful charismatic men.
What really happened that night and why did nobody tell the truth? I think of the decades of tight-lipped silence from the Boiler Room Girls, those other young single women who happily went off to an overnight party with a group of married men on a remote island. The silence from the men present that night. The silence of the outraged Kopechne family. The silence from politicians. The unanswered questions.
I first read up on this case when I was in my 30s and looking at issues around legal reporting. The inconsistencies and contradictions of the news reports bothered me so much I could not believe what I was reading. Why would a young woman who may or may not have been drunk climb into a car heading back to her hotel on the mainland without taking her purse or the key to her hotel room? Why were there bloodstains on her blouse? Why was her underwear missing? Why was another woman’s handbag found in that car? Why did the deputy-sheriff report seeing the Oldsmobile two or three hours later than the times given by others?
Why was this terrible accident not reported to the police for nine hours although three people knew that young woman was trapped in an overturned car underwater?
When we stand up in a court of law and swear to tell ‘the whole truth and nothing but the truth’, it is because the truth has a liberating and healing power we all recognise and need. The fullness of truth may be terrible to hear and have unpleasant consequences, but knowing the truth brings closure and enables us to move on. We learn from the revealed truth: legislation can be amended, justice served, reconciliation reached.
We are able to look back at tragedy as through a transparent pane of glass and feel we know what really happened and hope it never happens again. The truth revealed puts an end to conspiracy theories and skeletons in the attic and rumourmongering. It is akin to that tremendous moment when we speak up at a meeting and say “My name is Mary and I am an alcoholic.’ We acknowledge that we need help, there is something badly wrong and we want to recover. We tell the truth against ourselves and put an end to the muddle and lies and cover-ups.
Forty years ago a young woman who mixed in volatile and hedonistic political circles was left to die in an overturned car at the bottom of a tidal pond. She may have stayed alive in an airpocket for as long as three or four hours. While those who knew she was trapped in a watery grave were primarily concerned about alibis and reputations and the question of the US presidency. This is an incident that should never be brushed aside or forgotten and even as the efforts and acheievements of a great senator are applauded, women all over the world will think of 28-year Mary Jo Kopechne and wonder if something like that could happen today.
Thinking too of feminist poets like Adrienne Rich who charted that long journey each of us as women undertake towards autonomy and full moral agency.
Diving Into The Wreck
First having read the book of myths, and loaded the camera, and checked the edge of the knife-blade, I put on the body-armor of black rubber the absurd flippers the grave and awkward mask. I am having to do this not like Cousteau with his assiduous team aboard the sun-flooded schooner but here alone. There is a ladder. The ladder is always there hanging innocently close to the side of the schooner. We know what it is for, we who have used it. Otherwise it is a piece of maritime floss some sundry equipment. I go down. Rung after rung and still the oxygen immerses me the blue light the clear atoms of our human air. I go down. My flippers cripple me, I crawl like an insect down the ladder and there is no one to tell me when the ocean will begin. First the air is blue and then it is bluer and then green and then black I am blacking out and yet my mask is powerful it pumps my blood with power the sea is another story the sea is not a question of power I have to learn alone to turn my body without force in the deep element. And now: it is easy to forget what I came for among so many who have always lived here swaying their crenellated fans between the reefs and besides you breathe differently down here. I came to explore the wreck. The words are purposes. The words are maps. I came to see the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail. I stroke the beam of my lamp slowly along the flank of something more permanent than fish or weed the thing I came for: the wreck and not the story of the wreck the thing itself and not the myth the drowned face always staring toward the sun the evidence of damage worn by salt and away into this threadbare beauty the ribs of the disaster curving their assertion among the tentative haunters. This is the place. And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair streams black, the merman in his armored body. We circle silently about the wreck we dive into the hold. I am she: I am he whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes whose breasts still bear the stress whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies obscurely inside barrels half-wedged and left to rot we are the half-destroyed instruments that once held to a course the water-eaten log the fouled compass We are, I am, you are by cowardice or courage the one who find our way back to this scene carrying a knife, a camera a book of myths in which our names do not appear.