A Heartrending But Inspirational Read

One of America’s most prominent and renowned 20th century families harbored a tightly held secret for many decades. Rose Marie “Rosemary” Kennedy was the first daughter born to Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. As she grew it soon became apparent that Rosemary had intellectual disabilities. This information was hush-hushed by the family due to the stigma attached to such incapacities in the early 1900s.

After Rosemary’s death in 2005, her diaries and correspondence, as well as letters from her school and doctors, were released and her long-concealed medical records were made available to the public. This new historical data, plus interviews with some of her caregivers, reveal details about the nature of Rosemary’s developmental disabilities and the family’s response to this child who was a family embarrassment.

September 13, 1918 Rose Kennedy went into labor at the family’s home in Brookhaven, Massachusetts. Only a nurse was there to assist her. The obstetrician called to help with the delivery ran late, so the nurse encouraged Mrs. Kennedy to delay the birth by keeping her legs tightly together and to refrain from pushing. When this approach was not successful, the nurse physically held the baby’s head inside the birth canal for two hours until the doctor arrived. These actions may have deprived the baby of oxygen and resulted in permanent brain damage.

The Kennedys’ strikingly beautiful first daughter was given many of the same opportunities as her eight siblings. She attended exclusive schools, was presented as a debutante to English royalty during her father’s service as the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom, and traveled the world. Yet Rosemary was always protected from the public because of her intellectual limitations. These were a secret fiercely guarded by her powerful and high profile family.

Rosemary was placid and easy-going as a child and teenager, but became increasingly assertive and rebellious in her late teens. Subject to violent mood swings, her erratic behavior frustrated her parents who expected all of their children to behave appropriately and to be highly motivated toward success. Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. was especially worried his daughter’s behavior would bring shame upon his prestigious and glamorous family and possibly damage his political career.

Without the consent of his wife or other family members, in November, 1941, Joseph had Rosemary lobotomized. The doctors had convinced him that this new neurological procedure would calm his daughter’s mood swings and stop her violent outbursts, however, it quickly became evident that the medical procedure was unsuccessful. Rosemary’s mental abilities were reduced immediately to those of a two-year- old. She could no longer walk or speak well.

Immediately after the botched lobotomy, Rosemary was sent to a far-away institution. She lived out her life there, isolated from and virtually forgotten by her sisters and brothers. Then, nearly 20 years later, when brother Jack was campaigning in Wisconsin, he stopped in for a visit with her. Rosemary had recovered enough to communicate with him. Jack’s visit led to other siblings traveling to see and call on her. Eventually, arrangements were made for occasional visits to the family in Massachusetts before Rosemary died January 7, 2005 at the “St. Coletta Institute for Backward Youth” in Jefferson, Wisconsin.

Her sister Eunice became especially interested in Rosemary’s welfare. It is conjectured, that the inspirational relationship that developed between the two of them, inspired Eunice Kennedy Shriver, to establish the Special Olympics.

“Rosemary” is a well-researched and illuminating biography. It is a poignant, heartbreaking account of Rosemary’s loneliness at boarding school and her anxiety over parental standards she could never attain. Larson writes with compassion about her struggles and places Rosemary’s plight in the context of American culture and world events. This book held my attention through all 304 pages.

Author Kate Clifford Larson is a consultant and interpretive specialist for numerous museums. She lives in Winchester, Massachusetts. Her historical focus is on the lives and contributions of women in shaping America’s identity. Larson also has written biographies on Harriet Tubman and Mary Surratt.

“Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter” is a heartrending, but also an inspirational read. It is a welcome addition to the canon of Kennedy Family stories. The publisher of this life story is Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.