Rosemary: The Forgotten Kennedy Daughter

Larson, Kate

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Annotated by:
Lerner, Barron
  • Date of entry: Feb-11-2016
  • Last revised: Feb-16-2016


Perhaps no topic in the history of medicine has been explored as much as the lobotomy.  Psychiatrists, historians and journalists have weighed in on this controversial topic, and the procedure has been featured in a number of Hollywood films.

Yet there is nothing like a narrative of a specific lobotomy patient to draw us into the subject anew.  And that is why Kate Clifford Larson’s new book, Rosemary: The Forgotten Kennedy Daughter, is so compelling—even if we already know the sad outcome of Rosemary Kennedy’s life.

Originally devised in 1935 by the Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz, the lobotomy involved drilling holes in the skull and using a blade to sever nerve fibers running from the frontal lobes to the rest of the brain.  Moniz believed that psychiatric symptoms were caused by longstanding faulty nerve connections.  Severing them, and allowing new connections to form, he postulated, would help treat patients with intractable mental illness, such as schizophrenia and its paranoid delusions.

America’s chief proponent of lobotomy was Washington, D.C. neurologist Walter J. Freeman who, working with neurosurgeon James W. Watts, reported in 1937 that 13 of 20 patients undergoing the operation had improved.  Freeman would later devise his own procedure, the transorbital lobotomy, in which he actually used a mallet to pound an ice pick through the patient’s eye socket into the brain, then moved the pick around blindly to cut the nerve fibers.

Among the first histories of lobotomy was psychologist Elliot S. Valenstein’s  Great and Desperate Cures (1986), which strongly criticized Freeman and his contemporaries as overzealous physicians who did far more harm than good, creating docile and apathetic individuals no longer capable of caring for themselves.  Physician-historian Joel Braslow’s Mental Ills and Bodily Cures (1997) argued convincingly that a main motivation for the popularity of lobotomies—roughly 40,000 would be performed in the United States by the 1960s—was to enable staff members to maintain order in crowded, understaffed institutions.   In Last Resort (1998), historian Jack D. Pressman made the provocative claim that lobotomy represented the best science of the day and that, at least in some cases, it allowed patients to return home with fewer psychiatric symptoms.

Rosemary Kennedy was born in 1918, the third of what would eventually be nine children of Joseph and Rose Kennedy.  Joe was a successful businessman and investor who later entered politics, first as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission from 1932 to 1935 and then as U.S. Ambassador to Britain from 1938 to 1940.  At an early age, it was clear that Rosemary was not as mentally sharp as her two older brothers, Joe Jr. and John.  Larson hypothesizes that Rosemary’s “intellectual disability” occurred at birth, when a nurse forcibly kept her in her mother’s womb—perhaps without adequate oxygenation—while waiting for the doctor to arrive.

It was Rosemary’s blessing and curse to be born into the high-powered and prominent Kennedy family.  Her parents left no stone unturned in trying to help their daughter, sending her to special schools and programs around the world.  But they simply could not tolerate her lack of improvement.  Rosemary was a terrible speller and writer, socially awkward and at times unruly.  Joe Sr., in particular, worried about the negative ramifications to his sons’ possible political careers if word got out about their “retarded” sister.

Reading about Rosemary’s first two decades, and knowing that her lobotomy is approaching, is truly heartbreaking.  Writing letters home from her various placements, she was so eager to please.  “I would do anything to make you happy,” she told her father in 1934 at the age of 16.  “I hate to Disppoint [sic] you in anyway.”

When the Kennedys first arrived in England in 1938, Rosemary, her mother Rose and her younger sister Kathleen were presented to the king and queen.  For once, the circumstances tilted in Rosemary’s favor.  The event was smashing.  Photographs show Rosemary, who had become a very attractive young woman, resplendent in a “picture dress of white tulle.”  She felt, she said, like Cinderella.

But when the family returned to the United States in 1940, with war approaching in Europe, the situation was no different than it had always been.  Plus, now in her early twenties, Rosemary’s moodiness and emotional outbursts were becoming more frequent.

Lobotomy had gotten a lot of press in 1941, particularly in a May article in the Saturday Evening Post that highlighted the work of Freeman and Watts.  And while this piece warned about the dangers of the procedure, it mostly praised its ability to make people with mental illness into “useful members of society.”  At some point, Joe Kennedy met with Freeman and decided that Rosemary should undergo the operation.  Larson does not unearth exactly how the decision was reached—or what Rosemary was told.  But it seems to mostly have been Joe’s doing.

The problem, of course, was that lobotomy was not meant for what Rosemary had—essentially a low IQ.  But Joseph Kennedy, in conjunction with her doctors, had convinced himself she had an “agitated depression,” and thus was a candidate.  That Freeman was a zealot for the operation, as is well documented in journalist Jack El-Hai’s The Lobotomist (2005), did not help.  Most tragically, when Rosemary underwent her lobotomy some time in November 1941, something went “horribly awry.”  Patients were kept awake during the procedure and asked to talk or sing to help guide the surgeon’s scalpel.  But in Rosemary’s case, when Watts made his final cut of brain tissue, she became incoherent.  “The operation,” Larson writes, “destroyed a crucial part of Rosemary’s brain and erased years of emotional, physical and intellectual development, leaving her completely incapable of taking care of herself.”

The rest of Rosemary discusses her life after the lobotomy until her death in 2005.  She spent most of these years at a Catholic residential institution in Wisconsin.  Most cruelly, family members rarely visited, trying to render invisible what had happened.  To the Kennedys’ credit, in later years they corrected this error and brought Rosemary for visits to Hyannis Post and other family outposts.  There are only a few photographs in the book from this later era, but they help to humanize the woman who suffered for so long.


There is a happy coda to Rosemary.  Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Rosemary’s younger sister, was the family member that bonded most with Rosemary.  In 1961, she founded Camp Shriver, a program for mentally handicapped and disadvantaged children.  Meanwhile, Rosemary’s and Eunice’s brother John F. Kennedy, as president in the early 1960s, organized the first national panel on mental retardation and established the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.  In 1968, Camp Shriver became the Special Olympics, the remarkable international sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.     

Historians dislike Whig history, which sees the past as a march of progress in which earlier mistakes are fixed.  And Eunice Shriver denied that she did her virtuous deeds because of her sister.  But it’s hard to read Rosemary without thinking that an enormous amount of good ultimately emerged because of that fateful day in November 1941.


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt



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