Hidden Daughter: New Biography of Rosemary Kennedy

by Dan Stout and Kayna Stout

Kate Clifford Larson, biographer of Harriet Tubman, and Mary Surratt, collaborator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, fills gaps in the elusive story, Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter. The third Kennedy sibling born after Joe Jr. and Jack, she was the oldest daughter of the nine children. Rosemary was mentally challenged, functioning below Kennedy expectations. Never referred to as retarded or handicapped, parents Joe Sr. and Rose called her developmentally delayed, watching her fall behind in maturation milestones. Rosemary was the anomaly in America’s most powerful family, and, according to Larson, deliberately hidden from the public eye.

Based on reams of notes, letters, and records, this nuanced book uncovers surprising embarrassment about Rosemary bookmental illness, and a 1940’s psychology fraught with dubious treatment and unchecked medical practices. Enigmatically, Joe Sr. adored Rosemary; she was the first girl, very pretty. Yet he had the lowest of thresholds for public tantrums and refusals to reason with family members. Rose sent her to private school, hoping this would elevate her abilities. Within a year, the institution expelled her.

Convinced a cure existed, Joe Sr. ordered a lobotomy for his difficult daughter.  Without consulting his wife Rose, he left Rosemary in the hands of Drs. Walter Freeman and James Watts, frontal lobotomy specialists; they were confident she would improve. The outcome was disastrous: her speech was impaired, and considerable movement in both legs and one arm was lost.

The parents purchased excellent care at various facilities before Rosemary settled permanently in Wisconsin continuing daily physical therapy; she regained limited speech. Joe Sr. communicated mainly through his secretaries. “She is feeling quite well” he wrote to family members. By 1944, Rosemary dropped out of Rose’s family letters, a situation that lasted 20 years.

Tragedy after tragedy struck the family, from Joe Jr.’s death in World War II to the assassinations of Jack and Robert. Sister Eunice, however, continued to visit Rosemary, maintaining at least one regular family tie. In a 1980’s interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin, Rose claimed Rosemary taught the family many lessons of life, yet this occurred at a distance. Goodwin, according to the author, was the first outside the family to learn that Rosemary had a lobotomy.

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Rosemary uncovers a number of cultural and historical insights. The field of pre-war neurosurgery reveals a blind modernist belief in scientific progress to the point of peril. Little consensus, few trials, and no reference to peer-reviewed studies led to a miracle cure mentality. This, coupled with gender inequity, (80% of lobotomies were performed on women despite over 60% of the institutionalized were male) permanently altered Rosemary’s life and destiny.

The rays of sunshine in this otherwise grey story is Jack’s support of the mentally challenged while president, and particularly, Eunice’s summer camps that eventually became the Special Olympics. Ted Kennedy took up the cause as a U.S. Senator, and today, several grandchildren keep Rosemary’s story alive through writing and volunteerism.

Larson’s book is a lamentation on society’s forgotten, and an emphatic warning that culture is only as strong as our love for those saddled with harsh adversity.

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