There is usually good to be found in the worst of situations, and that is the lesson of “Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter,” Kate Clifford Larson’s biography of Rosemary, one of the few Kennedy’s who hasn’t been the subject—for better or worse—of much attention.
It’s a shocking story that ends with an interesting thesis by Larson, though the book as a whole feels over researched and too long. There’s only enough information for a long magazine article, not a full-length book. After all, it is about a woman who spent most of her life in a sanitarium thanks to a botched lobotomy.
That’s no spoiler, anyone with passing knowledge of the Kennedy clan knows the broad outlines of Rosemary’s story. The daughter, born with some form of mental deficiency, hidden away, the shame of the family. Larson explores that aspect, but rounds it out. As in most stories, it’s not as simple as that.
The book opens with the awful story of Rosemary’s birth: Born in 1918, in the middle of the Spanish Flu epidemic, there was no doctor readily available to tend to Rose Kennedy when she went into labor with her third child. An obstetric nurse—fully trained to deliver babies, but not allowed to for reasons that aren’t entirely clear—told Rose to cross her legs, thus keeping the baby from coming naturally. When things progressed too far and still no doctor, the nurse shoved the baby back up so the doctor could deliver her.
No one knows whether that horrifying birth was the sole cause of Rosemary’s issues or whether they exacerbated them, but there was cause for concern when Rosemary did not develop like her two older brothers. Indeed, her younger sisters surpassed her developmental milestones before anyone realized there was something not quite right with Rosemary.
Much of the book is devoted to Rose’s search for the right school for this developmentally disabled daughter, as she also strives to keep her and her disability hidden as they rose in society. The details of these negotiations with schools—only one of which actually seemed to do any good for Rosemary—are not terribly interesting, and repetitive, as Rose transfers her daughter from one to another, never being fully honest with the school about the extent of Rosemary’s disabilities.
Larson depicts Rose and Joe as parents who are concerned for their daughter, of course, but it’s never clear what the overriding issue is: Rosemary’s mental development, or their embarrassment. Rosemary was watched constantly because there didn’t appear to be anything wrong with her, but when she spoke for any length of time, people could tell. They couldn’t take that chance in an era where a daughter like her reflected on the parents.
As she grew older, she began to rebel and became violent, upset that her her younger sisters were able to do things she wasn’t allowed to do. Her frustration may also have come from other pressures put on her by her parents (their obsession with the weight of all their kids is frightening) may also have been a contributing factor. Whatever it was, as she grew older and less manageable, Joe approved a modern treatment he was told showed great results.
Larson puts the lobotomy decision in context with the medical thinking of the day. Rose and Joe discussed, but Joe gave the final OK, according to Larson. In fact, Rose said later that she never even knew it was done until many years later, though that’s hard to believe.
The Rosemary that emerged from the operating room was much worse than the one who went in and she was shuffled off to a sanatarium where she lived for another 60 years, visited only occasionally by her family.
So, where does Larson find good in this story? She finds it in Eunice Shriver, Rosemary’s little sister who dedicated herself to helping mentally handicapped people, and founded the Special Olympics. She finds it in Teddy Kennedy, the youngest child, who introduced and fought for laws his entire legislative career that aid the most vulnerable in our society. She says the Kennedys found a purpose for their wealth and power—quite late, however—by helping people like Rosemary.
What I couldn’t stop thinking about was that this family—flawed as it was—had more resources, money and education than most people of the era. They had everything they needed to address Rosemary’s problems, and still this happened. How did regular people cope when they couldn’t hide their family’s “defectives?” That’s the question that made me shake my head the whole time I was reading this book. And it wasn’t until well into the 1960s that anything significant was done to help this population.
That, to me, is the biggest tragedy of this story of Rosemary Kennedy.