Good Reads: Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson

They were the most prominent American family of the twentieth century. The daughter they secreted away made all the difference. Joe and Rose Kennedy’s strikingly beautiful daughter Rosemary attended exclusive schools, was presented as a debutante to the Queen of England, and traveled the world with her high-spirited sisters. And yet, Rosemary was intellectually disabled — a secret fiercely guarded by her powerful and glamorous family.  Major new sources — Rose Kennedy’s diaries and correspondence, school and doctors' letters, and exclusive family interviews — bring Rosemary alive as a girl adored but left far behind by her competitive siblings. Kate Larson reveals both the sensitive care Rose and Joe gave to Rosemary and then — as the family’s standing reached an apex — the often desperate and duplicitous arrangements the Kennedys made to keep her away from home as she became increasingly intractable in her early twenties. Finally, Larson illuminates Joe’s decision to have Rosemary lobotomized at age twenty-three, and the family's complicity in keeping the secret.

My Thoughts:

This is a heartbreaking story of parents who expected nothing less than perfection from their children and who cared about the family image above anything else and put their desires above everyone else's.

Rosemary was born into the world as the third Kennedy child and first daughter after a horrific labor. Rose Kennedy was made to squeeze her legs closed by the nurse on duty during her home birth to delay the arrival of her baby while waiting for the doctor to show up, and when that didn't work, the nurse held Rosemary's head and forced her back in the birth canal for two hours. The only word I can use to describe Rosemary's life from the start and until her death in 2005 is tragic.

After realizing their daughter was intellectually disabled, Joe, Sr. and Rose had her in and out of boarding schools from early childhood and in to early adulthood to keep her being institutionalized  (which was common practice for mentally challenged and low IQ individuals at this time). Rose would often not disclose the true nature of Rosemary's limitations, such as low self esteem, problems with writing and reading, and aggressive mood swings prior to Rosemary's acceptances in these schools which ultimately set her daughter up for failure. In the 1920s and 30s treatment for people with disabilities and mental illnesses was limited as the medical and educational communities were profoundly ignorant.

Although almost everyone was ignorant about the disabilities Rosemary presented with, I was disgusted by her parents' actions. First, the denial that anything was wrong, and second, the lies to get her in to schools that were not equipped to accommodate her needs. I was enraged how they hid her in these boarding schools as to not disrupt her father's political aspirations, her mother's social climbing, and the family's position in both American and international society. Rose's extended vacations (6-8 weeks away from the family) showed a lack of concern for all of her children and Joe's womanizing and Nazi sympathizing doesn't say much about his parenting. The theme of Rosemary wanting to please her family was found throughout the book. It was so sad for me that the people she wanted to love her the most were the ones who hurt and disappointed her the most.

Ultimately, after Joe Kennedy, Sr. felt all other options were exhausted, he opted for Rosemary to undergo a brand new medical procedure called a prefrontal lobotomy. It was Joe Sr.'s sole decision, with very meager research on the procedure and without consulting his wife, that led to the end of Rosemary's livelihood at just 23 years old. Rosemary emerged from the lobotomy almost completely disabled. It erased years of emotional, physical, and intellectual development. Although with therapy Rosemary was able to regain some abilities (such as walking and minimal talking), for the remainder of her life she required constant care. She lived out the rest of her life, over 60 years, at St. Coletta, an institution in Wisconsin.

This was a well researched, straight forward book that is a must read for anyone who is interested in American history, especially those interested those who are interested in learning more about the Kennedy family past JFK, RFK, and Jackie. Although it was sometimes sad and a sometimes enraging read, it did make me thankful for how far our country has come in the treatment of those with mental illness and the intellectually disabled.

1 comment

  1. Such a sad story! I'm not sure I could read this book!