While Joe Kennedy was grooming his sons for political careers, his daughter Eunice, fifth of the nine Kennedy children, was dreaming up a civil rights movement on behalf of persons with cognitive/developmental disabilities.
Author Eileen McNamara makes the case that Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s passion for this cause created a more lasting legacy on our nation than those of any of her siblings, including the U.S. President, the U.S. Attorney General and the U.S. Senator.
Eunice was headstrong and determined. As an adult, instead of joining the ladies for social gossip after dinner, she would often light up a cigar and talk politics with the men. McNamara contends had Eunice been a man she would have pursued a career as a legislator. But since that was nearly impossible in her time and circumstances, this ambitious woman directed her powerful energies to advocating for those with developmental disabilities.
She grew up angry with her parents because of the way they treated her cognitively impaired sister, Rosemary who had been forced by her ruthless father to undergo a prefrontal lobotomy; the operation was botched. Embarrassed by their “damaged” daughter, Joseph and Rose Kennedy had Rosemary put away in various asylums in order to protect the legendary Kennedy family image. . “Mental retardation was like syphilis,” Eunice recalls. “No one mentioned it in polite society.”
After Eunice’s death in 2009, her family provided McNamara with entrée to 33 boxes of private papers that opened “a window into every period of Eunice Shriver’s life.” Each chapter of this book highlights some aspect of Eunice’s efforts to help people with intellectual disabilities.
Eunice was an indomitable crusader, and refused to take “no” for an answer as she campaigned for millions of dollars to fund research for “mental retardation,” the term used in her day. In 1962, she established Shriver Camp. Ten years later she was introduced to physical education teacher Ann Burke of the Chicago Parks Department that annually held a summer program for mentally challenged children. The relationship between these two women led to the merger of their programs and the establishment of the Special Olympics in 1968.
When JFK became president, Eunice convinced him to urge Congress to pass legislation that would improve the treatment of the intellectually disabled and the bill passed Congress in 1963, shortly before JFK’s death.
Eunice was a devout Catholic. She almost became a nun and rebuffed the advances of her persistent suitor, Sargent Shriver, for seven years before finally consenting to marry him in 1953. Her ardent faith sustained her dedication to her cause and through numerous family tragedies, including the death of her oldest brother, Joe, Jr., in war, the assassination of brothers Jack and Bobby and the loss of her older sister, Kathleen, in a plane crash. McNamara describes many of the family dynamics that came into play during and after these devastating heartbreaks.
Eunice was a dedicated but undemonstrative person. Her five children turned to their father for tender, loving care. “They definitely had their gender roles mixed up,” said their daughter Maria. As a taskmaster, Eunice went through 21 administrative assistants in four years. “She was a working addict, people would say today,” according to her son, Bobby.
President Reagan awarded Eunice the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984. He summarized her accomplishments by saying: “With enormous conviction and unrelenting effort, Eunice Kennedy Shriver has labored on behalf of America’s least powerful people…. Her decency and goodness have touched the lives of many, and deserves America’s praise, gratitude, and love.”
“Eunice” chronicles a fascinating and overlooked saga in the Kennedy narrative and is an exemplary biography of a remarkable woman. McNamara is a talented storyteller and has painted a definitive portrait of this formidable agent of change. Those interested in the Kennedy Family will want to read this book. Those with a family member who has special needs will find it encouraging and inspirational.
Eileen McNamara spent nearly 30 years as a journalist at the Boston Globe, where she won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. She now is the director of the journalism program at Brandeis University. Simon & Schuster is the publisher of this 383-page book, which contains two folios of family pictures.