Heritage

The Tragic Story of the Forgotten Kennedy Sister Who Was Hidden from the Public

The sister of President John F. Kennedy underwent a lobotomy.
IMAGE RICHARD SEARS IN THE JOHN F. KENNEDY PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM, BOSTON/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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In the world’s eyes, the members of the Kennedy clan are considered overachievers. That’s how Timothy Shriver, grandson of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, sees his family too. But what Shriver knows that most of the world does not was that there was one Kennedy that didn’t fall in the same league as the others.

Before Shriver's aunt, Rosemary Kennedy, died in 2005, she used to visit Shriver and his family. He recalled in a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey on SuperSoul Sunday, “I can remember thinking to myself, ‘She comes here unlike everybody else… Everybody else was a senator, or a TV star, or a CEO, or a Nobel Prize winner. [My family] was very competitive.”

His Aunt Rosemary, however, had a different story. “She walked in the house and she didn’t have to do anything. Everybody loved her,” he told the talk show host.

Since she was hidden away at the age of 23, much of the world never truly knew who the eldest Kennedy daughter was. She suffered from a mental disability that kept her away from the spotlight and life of accomplishment that her siblings enjoyed. Before she died in 2005, her disability unknowingly paved a way for a legacy still evident today.

Rose Marie Kennedy, also known plainly as "Rosemary."

Born on September 13, 1918, Rosemary Kennedy’s birthday fell on Friday the 13th, a day pop culture commonly associates with misfortune. Her mother and namesake, Rose, began experiencing contractions at home, according to Kate Clifford Larson in her book Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter. But her first two children, Joe Jr. and Jack, had been welcomed via homebirth with the same doctor, so Rose expected a smooth delivery for her third child.

But the obstetrician Dr. Frederick L. Good did not arrive on time, as he was tending to the Spanish influenza epidemic prevalent at that time. The nurse opted to wait for the doctor and delayed the delivery. She urged Rose not to push, so when the baby began crowning, the nurse told Rose to hold her legs together. The prevention of the birth could have deprived baby Rosemary of oxygen, which is known to lead to physical defects and brain damage. When the doctor arrived two hours later, and the baby was finally delivered, all initially seemed well for both mother and child.

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As the child grew, her mother Rose noticed lapses in development compared to Joe Jr. and Jack. A biography on the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum website notes that Rosemary was “slower to crawl, slower to walk, and to speak than her brothers.”

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From left to right: Edward, Jean, Robert, Patricia, Eunice, Kathleen, Rosemary, John, Rose, and Joseph Kennedy Sr.

Eventually, her mental conditions set her back at school. She could no longer keep up with the others, even with private tutors at her aid. Her parents thought it best to send her to a separate school at the age of 11. Shriver later explained in his book Fully Alive that his grandparents had sent Rosemary to an “experimental boarding school in Pennsylvania, which was designed for the education of the ‘feeble-minded.’”

She shifted from school to school, plausibly because her parents thought the change of scenery would help with her disability and rapid mood swings, The New York Times reported. Larson’s biography contains letters written by its subject, from which the Times remarks that at age 15, Rosemary “had the writing skill of a 10-year-old."

People during her time had little understanding and patience for the mentally ill, and Rosemary’s parents did everything in their power to remedy what her father called “backwardness.” She was the subject of experimental injections and treatments at a young age.

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Growing into adolescence, Rosemary blossomed. She engaged with others during family activities and when her father was appointed United States Ambassador to Britain in 1938, the family traded New York for London. She and her younger sister Kathleen were even presented to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

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Rose Kennedy (center) waiting to be presented at court with her daughters Kathleen (right) and Rosemary.

But when war broke in 1939, the Kennedys returned to Bronxville, New York. While there, Rosemary regressed. Her sister Eunice, who Timothy Shriver’s mother, wrote, “At 22, she was becoming increasingly irritable and difficult.”

Their mother Rose also wrote of her daughter’s unrest, “She was upset easily and unpredictable. Some of these upsets became tantrums, during which she broke things or hit out at people. Since she was quite strong, her blows were hard.”

Shriver says that it was only Joseph, also known as Joe Sr., who authorized his daughter’s lobotomy without Rose’s knowledge, while other platforms write that it was a joint decision made by both parents.

Regardless, Rosemary underwent an experimental prefrontal lobotomy at the age of 23. The procedure promised to calm irate patients by drilling holes in the skull. Quite new in the U.S., the procedure was far from safe. Dr. Walter Freeman presided over the operation with a colleague. Rosemary was awake and on a mild tranquilizer, The Guardian writes. The lobotomy rendered Rosemary quiet and less violent, but also worsened her mental capabilities and impeded her speech.

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Worse off than before, Rosemary was taken to St. Coletta’s School for Exceptional Children in Wisconsin, where she lived out her remaining years. Her family members have defended this decision, insisting that it was for Rosemary’s own good. Eunice Kennedy Shriver wrote an article that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1962 and later re-released by The Guardian that said, “My mother found an excellent Catholic institution that specialized in the care of retarded children and adults. Rosemary is there now. She has found peace in a new home where there is no need for “keeping up,” or for brooding over why she can’t join in activities others do. This, coupled with the understanding of the sisters in charge, makes life agreeable for her.”

Over 30 years after the failed lobotomy, Rosemary was allowed occasional visits back to her family. She died in 2005, at the age of 86, with her siblings Eunice, Jean, Pat, and Ted by her side.

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Rosemary (center) with her sister Jean and brother Jack.

Because of Rosemary’s poor treatment, Eunice decided to spend her life as an advocate for those with disabilities and eventually went on to co-found the Special Olympics. Before this endeavor, Eunice championed mental retardation through the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development and character development through the Community of Caring.

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Eunice Kennedy Shriver

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About The Author
Hannah Lazatin
Senior Staff Writer
Hannah is a communications graduate from Ateneo de Manila University. She’s originally from Pampanga and from a big, close-knit family who likes to find a reason to get together at the dinner table. Experiences inspire her. “Once, at a restaurant, I received an interpretation of my second name ‘Celina,’ and it meant 'someone who tries everything once' and that is me through and through,” she says. As for the job, she wants her “readers to be inspired by the stories of the people we feature and to move them to reach for greater things.”
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