Friday, June 23, 2017

Review: Catalyzing life of a hidden Kennedy daughter

Review of: Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter
Author: Kate Clifford Larson
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Source: Dallas Public Library
Grade: A

I’d heard that there was a mentally-disabled daughter of Joe and Rose Kennedy. But in the midst of such a large, turbulent, often brilliant, often tragic family, that single daughter who never appeared in public, never ran for office, never made a speech, sank all too easily from view. But as the Kennedy family fades from the news, a few biographies of this very private member have begun to appear, among them Kate Clifford Larson’s Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter.

This lost daughter would become the catalyst for an awakening of awareness of the mentally and physically disabled, inspiring legislation by her politician brothers Jack and Ted Kennedy, a family foundation dedicated to researching human development, and numerous institutions, including Special Olympics.

In the words of Rosemary’s nephew Anthony Shriver (son of sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver), “the interest (Rosemary) sparked in my family toward people with special needs will one day go down as the greatest accomplishment that any Kennedy has made on a global basis.”

Rosemary was born in 1918, the third child, and first daughter of Joseph Kennedy and his wife, Rose, daughter of Boston politician John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald.  Although the year of Rosemary’s birth coincided with the viral pandemic then known as the Spanish influenza, the Kennedy family had escaped the devastation. Rose had delivered two healthy sons, Joe Jr. and Jack, at home, and planned another home birth for her third child, aided by her personal obstetrician and trained obstetrical nurse.

But the influx of flu patients had overwhelmed Boston’s medical personnel, including Rose’s doctor. Hour after hour passed, but no doctor arrived. Although it was already well known that preventing a baby’s movement through the birth canal could result in a disability-inducing lack of oxygen, Rose’s obstetrical nurse made the seemingly bizarre decision to push the baby forcibly back into the birth canal for two excruciating hours until Rose’s doctor arrived.

Not until more than a year later did Rose Kennedy begin to wonder at the differences in physical and intellectual development between her Rosemary and her other children.

Nearly a century after Rosemary’s birth, it’s hard to imagine the difficulties facing the parents of a disabled child. With six more Kennedy children following in quick succession (there would be nine siblings in all), Rose was overwhelmed. The family resisted the temptation to place Rosemary in an institution, some of which were little more than bedlams. They could afford the best care, but there were few educational resources available for the intellectually disabled. No family counseling, little medical help. Worse, the Kennedys feared the social stigmas of the day would interfere with Joe’s increasing political ambitions.

They managed to conceal most of Rosemary’s limitations through her childhood and adolescence. In private, though, she vented her frustration in increasingly frequent and violent tantrums. And as she matured sexually, her parents became increasingly worried about possible kidnapping, adverse media coverage, even rape.

In 1941, apparently without consulting his wife, Joe Kennedy took the risky and drastic step of authorizing a frontal lobotomy on Rosemary. Within a few minutes of the operation, during which Rosemary was conscious, she lost the ability to speak or move. Despite later partial recovery, she would remain under institutional care, chiefly by an order of nuns, until her death in 2005.


The story of how her plight, alleviated primarily by the aid of sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, occupies the latter part of Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter. While the Kennedys gradually lifted the curtains concealing Rosemary, while medical, social and education resources developed that might have prevented or alleviated her own tragedy, she remained supremely unaware. 

I listened to this book first on audio, then checked out the hardcover version, to find not only such wonderful pictures of Rosemary Kennedy as the one in which she awaits presentation to the king and queen of Great Britain, but a touching author's note in which Larson mentions her own family's struggle to help a schizophrenic son, an experience which strengthened her empathy for the trials of Rosemary's family.