Author: Kate Clifford Larson
APA Style Citation
Larson, K.C. (2015). Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter. New York, New York; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co.
Kate Larson recounts the life of Rosemary Kennedy, the least known member of one of America’s most well-known families. The Kennedy family attempted to find help for their daughter Rosemary in an era when individuals with intellectual disabilities had few options for educational placement and treatment. During this time, individuals with intellectual disabilities were often treated as social pariahs rather than being placed in facilities that offered educational and therapeutic programming. This was true for even for the wealthiest of Americans like the Kennedys. Few options were available for Rosemary’s education even with access to the best educational outlets and tutors in the world.
Rosemary Kennedy was the third child of Joseph and Rose Kennedy Kennedy and the first girl born after Joseph Jr. and future president John F. Kennedy. Her mother, Rose Kennedy had planned a home birth for Rosemary as she had done with her two sons. When the time came, Dr. Good who was scheduled to deliver the baby was busy taking care of those afflicted by the Spanish flu which had devastated the Boston area at the time. The nurse attending to Rose was not allowed to deliver the baby despite her training in the most up-to-date medial techniques. Rose attempted to wait for the doctor to arrive, but the baby continued to come and the nurse held the baby in the birth canal for two hours until the doctor arrived which may in part be responsible for the challenges Rosemary would later face.
Initially, Rosemary seemed to be a healthy baby, she cried less than her two older brothers but otherwise seemed to develop normally. In addition to her mother, young Rosemary was attended to by nurses and other household staff who served the Kennedy family. Joseph Kennedy Sr. was often away building fortune and fame for the family, first in the stock market and later in Hollywood and the political arena. Rosemary’s father had become one of the wealthiest men in America, he had overcome the challenges of discrimination posed by his Irish and Catholic heritage. Rose Kennedy also came from a well-known family, her father “Honey Fitz” had served as the mayor of Boston and she was used to socializing in political circles. These two fast paced, hard driving individuals expected much from their children and did not accept failure.
Eventually, the Kennedy’s had six more children (nine in all). By the age of three, it was evident that Rosemary was not progressing as quickly as her siblings. As her younger siblings surpassed her intellectual and physical abilities, it became obvious that something was wrong with Rosemary, although the extent of her disability was not yet known. Rose noticed that Rosemary had trouble holding her spoon and feeding herself. Additionally, she crawled, stood, and took her first steps later than her older brothers and her younger siblings began to overtake her in their abilities.
Rose and Joseph Kennedy expected excellence from their children, in education, sports, manners, and appearance. Rose kept precise medical records for each child and constantly chided her children about their weight. Even in kindergarten, Rosemary was labeled as “deficient” and had to repeat both kindergarten and first grade. Rose attempted to supplement Rosemary’s education herself. When Rosemary was six or seven, she took the Otis Intelligence test which indicated that her mental age was lower than other children her age. Rosemary often wrote in mirror writing (backward and upside down) and even when she grew older her writing never progressed beyond that of a third or fourth-grade level. She often misspelled words, left words out. and wrote on a severe angle.
At the time, there was rarely a distinction made between those who were mentally ill and those were cognitively disabled. The words, “idiot”, “imbecile” or “moron” were frequently used to describe individuals with a low IQ. Christian beliefs to which the Kennedy family strongly adhered often blamed parents for their children’s deficits. Rosemary frequently moved between schools when she did not make progress or when the school decided that she was not the right “fit” for their services. Rose and Joseph Kennedy often did not describe Rosemary’s true ability level prior to her arrival and the instructors and head masters found that they had more to deal with than they initially anticipated. Rosemary did receive the benefit of one-on-one tutoring and the patience of some of the instructors allowed Rosemary to make some progress. She especially loved her time in London at the Assumption House in the English countryside with nuns who employed the new Montessori techniques. Rosemary seemed to do better when academic work was broken up with arts and crafts and other hands-on activities. At the time, her father was the ambassador to Great Britain and appearances such as Rosemary’s introduction to the King were highly regulated affairs so not to embarrass the Kennedy family. Rosemary stayed on at the Assumption House after the departure of her family from London, but eventually had to come back to the United States because of the bombings of England during the WWII.
Medications and supplements were used, as were special diets and exercise but little seemed to help. By her late teens, it was apparent that Rosemary’s condition was not improving and perhaps even regressing, she became more and more belligerent and often angry. It is unclear if this was the result of so much change in her life, her siblings passing her up and living independent lives, or of a change in her condition. Regardless, this made dealing with Rosemary a considerable challenge. By 1941, Rosemary’s behavior was cause for concern. Despite her sister’s Kathleen’s (Kick) recommendation against the lobotomy procedure which she had investigated for her parents, (conducted by Doctors Freeman and Watts), Joseph Kennedy ordered a lobotomy for his daughter hoping that it would cure her of her “illness” or, at least, calm her increasingly frequent outbursts.
During the surgery, Watts drilled “burr holes” into Rosemary’s skull as she was strapped to a gurney. She would have felt the leucotome, which was a specially designed tool for the use of lobotomies. Rosemary was asked to sing, count, and tell stories during the surgery to distract her but also to guide Watt’s work to make sure that her senses were intact. During the last of four cuts, she became incoherent which prompted Freeman and Watts to end the surgery. It was immediately evident that the surgery had gone badly. Rosemary would need years of physical and occupational therapy to regain speech and movement. Rosemary was twenty-three at the time of the surgery.
Nearly all of those who received lobotomies were women (82%). The lobotomy was used as a treatment for illnesses such as schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, and depression, but was also prescribed for other individuals who exhibited heightened sexual interest, habitual criminal behavior, or violence. Rose Kennedy did not initially know the surgery had taken place on her daughter (although there are conflicting reports regarding just what she knew) and she did not see her daughter for another twenty years. Many attributed this lack of contact to the embarrassment that Rosemary was not living up to the expectations of a Kennedy, others have said that seeing Rosemary in this state would have simply been too painful for her mother. Throughout the remainder of her life, Rosemary would have daily support and therapy from the nuns who looked out for her. She would eventually regain the partial use of her arm, but had to be dressed and fed each day. She was able to swim and slowly regained her ability to walk and speak a few basic words. Freeman went on to report good results from the lobotomies despite many cases like Rosemary’s in which people basically lived in a vegetative state after the surgery, he went on to perform over 3,000 even after Watts refused to continue as his partner because of the many complication the surgery caused.
Rosemary was eventually moved to Jefferson, Wisconsin to live at Saint Coletta School where she had her own cottage and was cared for by the nuns who ran the school. While her story is tragic, the Kennedy’s faced many other family tragedies. The death of her eldest brother Joe Jr. during WWII, the death of Kick (Rosemary’s older sister) in a place crash in Europe, the assassinations of her brothers Jack and Bobby (both of which Rosemary found out about by watching television) shook the family. Eunice Shriver (Rosemary’s younger sister) seemed to be the most touched by Rosemary’s situation and began the Special Olympics with her husband Sargent Shriver in Chicago. This event is now an annual event in 200 countries around the world (with 4 million athletes participating). As president, John F. Kennedy founded the Committee on Mental Retardation and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. He delivered a special message on mental illness and mental retardation in the months before his assassination. Camp Shriver was created as a summer camp for the intellectually disabled. Anthony Shriver (Eunice’s son) began Best Buddies which provides employment and leadership opportunities for the intellectually disabled and his brother took over the running of the Special Olympics in 2003. Rosemary’s younger brother Senator Teddy Kennedy sponsored the American with Disabilities Act and the Handicapped Children Act in Congress
Later in Rosemary’s life, her sister Eunice became responsible for overseeing her care and visited her often. When her mother came to visit, Rosemary became agitated although it is unclear if she blamed Rose for the years of neglect or the surgery itself. Joseph Kennedy never saw his daughter again and became incapacitated by a stroke later in life. He provided financially for his daughter and wrote frequent letters to inquire about her well-being, but he was otherwise absent from her life.
Despite Rosemary’s long absence from the Kennedy family record, she may well have done more to influence the work of the Kennedy family and help them understand and promote research and opportunities for the cognitively and physically disabled than any other member of the family. Rosemary was a “big personality” as those around her at all points of her life indicate. Her legacy will live on the help others who face similar challenges. Rosemary Kennedy died in 2005 at the age of 86 in Wisconsin.
Other Related Resources
The Tragic Life of JFK’s Sister
L.A. Times: Rosemary’s diaries: Her life before the lobotomy
Brief 1995 article discussing the teenage diaries of Rosemary Kennedy
The Daily Mail: Before and After Pictures of Rosemary Kennedy
Rosemary Kennedy’s inconvenient illness
Information on Cognitive Deficits
Eunice Kennedy Shriver: The Special Olympics
History of the Special Olympics
Psychological Figures and Concepts