Kate Clifford Larson

Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter

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Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter Summary

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American historian Kate Clifford Larson’s biography Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter (2015) chronicles the tragic life of Rosemary Kennedy, daughter of politician Joseph P. Kennedy and sister to President John F. Kennedy. Perceived to have fewer intellectual gifts than her siblings, Rosemary was isolated for much of her youth until, at the age of twenty-three, her father arranged for a surgeon to perform a prefrontal lobotomy on his daughter, which left her permanently incapacitated.

Born in 1918 in Brookline, Massachusetts, Rosemary was Joseph and Rose Kennedy’s third child and first daughter. When Rose went into labor, a doctor was not presently available, and a nurse mistakenly advised her to keep her legs closed and the baby inside until a physician arrived. This resulted in Rosemary’s head becoming lodged in the birth canal for two hours, depriving her brain of oxygen. Over time, it became clear to her parents that Rosemary’s development was stunted. At the age of two, for example, Rosemary still could not walk and struggled to sit up and crawl.

The Kennedys were a very wealthy and well-connected family, and Rosemary’s disability was considered a point of shame. Rose told nobody outside of the immediate family and various health professionals and tutors, that her daughter was not developing at a normal rate. As Rosemary grew into adolescence, she struggled to learn how to read and write, and at the age of eleven, her parents sent her to Pennsylvania to attend a school for intellectually disabled children.

For high school, Rosemary’s parents enrolled her at the Sacred Heart Convent in Rhode Island. To ensure she received the proper attention—but also to keep her disability a secret from prying eyes—Rosemary was educated in a separate room, isolated from the other students. The nuns estimated that she could read, write, and do math at a fourth-grade level. In return for making so many allowances for their family, the Kennedys donated money to the school to build a tennis court. A school dance approached and Rose, wanting to dampen suspicions about her daughter’s intellectual capacities, arranged for her son, John, to escort Rosemary to the event to ensure that his sister looked and behaved like a “normal” girl.

By the 1930s, Joseph’s political ambitions had grown, as he joined the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the head of the newly-established Securities and Exchange Commission. As his public profile increased, so, too, did Joseph’s desire to maintain the illusion that Rosemary was not intellectually disabled. Because it wouldn’t be normal for Rosemary merely to be hidden or locked away, Joseph arranged for her life to be filled with public outings. In 1938, when Joseph served as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, the family “debuted” Rosemary at Buckingham Palace in front of Queen Elizabeth and King George VI. In advance of the presentation, Rosemary worked laboriously at practicing her royal curtsy. At one point during the event, Rosemary nearly fell, but nobody outside of the immediate Kennedy family seemed to notice, and Rose deemed the trip a success.

By 1940, however, Rosemary’s mental and physical condition worsened. At the age of twenty-two, Rosemary began to suffer violent seizures and convulsions that occasionally caused injury to herself or others. The family sent Rosemary to a convent school in Washington, D.C., but she was asked to leave because she frequently snuck out at night and the nuns worried she would bring sexually-transmitted diseases into the convent. Meanwhile, Joseph had become increasingly anxious that Rosemary would jeopardize his own political career and the careers he had planned for this sons, John, Robert, and Ted.

In late 1941, Joseph brought Rosemary to Dr. Walter Freeman who at that time specialized in an experimental form of brain surgery known as a prefrontal lobotomy. In theory, the procedure was designed to cure a range of mental ailments and disorders, but the results were usually ineffective at best and devastating at worst. In Rosemary’s case, the procedure failed horribly, leaving her unintelligible, incontinent, and with the intellectual capacity of a two-year-old. Joseph did not inform his wife of the planned procedure until after it was conducted, and the lobotomy was kept a secret from the rest of the family for twenty years.

Rosemary was institutionalized in upstate New York and later in Wisconsin. Leading up to his death in 1969, Joseph never once visited her. John learned what happened in 1958 when he was campaigning for President of the United States. The experience of finally meeting her post-lobotomy had a profound effect on the politician, who would go on as president to sign the Maternal and Child Health and Mental Retardation Planning Amendment to the Social Security Act, the first major piece of legislation aimed at addressing mental health in America.

In the decades following Joseph’s death, Rosemary was gradually reintegrated into the family, though she would require full-time care for the rest of her life. Although she learned to walk again, she never regained her ability to speak intelligibly. In 2005, at the age of eighty-six, Rosemary passed away from natural causes.