Kitty Dukakis Biography

Activist, Children's Activist, Philanthropist, Journalist(1936–)
Author and social worker Kitty Dukakis, wife of Michael Dukakis, is best known for her activism as well as her struggles with addiction and depression.

Synopsis

Kitty Dukakis was born on December 26, 1936 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1963 she married Michael Dukakis. In 1975, she became the first lady of Massachusetts when her husband became governor. She became a national public figure in the late 1980s when her husband ran for president for the Democratic Party. During the campaign, she revealed that she was addicted to diet pills. Her addictions worsened after her husband lost the election. Despite battling her personal demons, she made many contributions to society as an advocate for addiction help and mental health issues and as a champion to fight homelessness.

Early Life & Marriage to Michael Dukakis

Author, social worker, wife of former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, Kitty Dukakis was born as Katharine Dickson on December 26, 1936, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Long a part of the political scene as the wife of a Massachusetts governor, Kitty Dukakis is best known for her activism as well as her struggles with addiction and depression. In her later memoir, she indicated that part of her problems could be related to her difficult relationship with her mother whom she found overcritical and concerned with social status. She also grew up in the shadow of her father, Harry Ellis Dickson, a famous musician, musical director, and conductor.

To escape her mother, 20 year-old Dukakis married boyfriend, John Chaffetz. They had one child together, John, but their union did not last. The couple divorced after four years of marriage. She graduated from Lesley College in 1963 and that same year married lawyer Michael Dukakis, then a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. They made an unlikely pair. From a Jewish background, she has described herself as “impetuous and volatile,” whereas her new Greek Orthodox husband was known for being more restrained and reserved. Despite their differences, the couple formed a strong bond that has survived many ups and downs. They eventually had two daughters together, and Kitty Dukakis quickly settled into the life of a politician’s wife.

In 1975, Dukakis became the first lady of Massachusetts when her husband was sworn in as governor. He had defeated Governor Francis Sargent with his promises of reducing government spending and not increasing taxes. Unfortunately, he could not keep his tax promise and lost his bid for re-election in 1978. But, in 1982, Michael Dukakis returned to the state’s top post after defeating his replacement, Governor Edward King. That same year, Kitty Dukakis earned a master’s degree from Boston University School of Communication. She also worked on a number of projects, including establishing an emergency homeless shelter for men and women then called the Friends of the Shattuck Shelter (now Hope Found).

Political Wife

Dukakis became a national public figure in the late 1980s when her husband decided to run for president. Her life was a whirlwind of activity as she traveled extensively in support of him. Beating out Dick Gephardt, Al Gore, and Jesse Jackson, Michael Dukakis was officially chosen as the Democratic presidential nominee at the party’s convention in July 1988. He selected Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate.

On the outside, Kitty Dukakis appeared to be vibrant and energetic. A good public speaker, she won over crowds on the campaign trail and lobbied vigorously for important causes as homelessness. Dukakis also had a touch of glamour, always looking well-coifed and stylish wherever she went on the campaign trail.

Depression and Addiction

During the campaign, Kitty Dukakis revealed that she had suffered from a 26-year addiction to diet pills. She had kicked the habit in 1982 after a stay at Hazelden, a treatment center in Minnesota. Some wondered whether her confession may have been politically motivated, perhaps to garner sympathy. Whatever the case, her addiction issues worsened after her husband lost the election. Instead of pills, Dukakis turned to alcohol. In 1989, she was rushed to a Boston-area emergency room after drinking too much rubbing alcohol. Her 1990 book, Now You Know, revealed the depths to which she sank while struggling with her addiction and depression.

Despite battling her personal demons, Dukakis was still able to make contributions to society. She was appointed to serve on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council in 1989 and had previously participated in the President’s Commission on the Holocaust. Dukakis served on the board of the Refugee Policy Group and the Task Force on Cambodian Children. In the 1990s, she studied to become a social worker and joined the staff at the International Institute of Boston to help immigrants and refugees.

While she worked to help others, Dukakis also struggled with an annual depression for years. During these dark periods, she would retreat from her family and friends. At her wit’s end in 2001, she agreed to try electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). The controversial treatment calls for the patient to receive mild electrical shocks, with possible side effects including brain damage and memory loss. 

Helping Others

Despite the apparent hazards, Dukakis has found ECT helpful in treating her chronic depression. She wrote in the Boston Globe in 2006 that the treatment “opened a new reality for me. . . . It had given me a sense of control, of hope.” Dukakis has received several rounds of ECT over the years and wrote about her experiences with the treatment in the 2006 book, Shock: The Healing Power of Electroconvulsive Therapy, written with Larry Tye. In support of the book, she traveled around the country, giving talks, attending events, and doing interviews.

In 2007, the Kitty Dukakis Treatment Center for Women was established in her honor at the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital. The facility bears her name because of her advocacy work on addiction and mental health.

Kitty and Michael reside in Massachusetts. 

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