Briefly Noted: ‘Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter’

Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter, by Kate Clifford Larson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (October 6, 2015), 320pp.

If you remember the era when John F. Kennedy was President, you probably don’t remember his sister Rosemary. There’s a reason for this. The first daughter of Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr, was confined at 23 to a mental institution in Wisconsin where she would remain until she died at 86 in 2005.

Kennedy - Wikipedia photo
Kennedy – Wikipedia photo

At birth, a nurse held her in the birth canal for two hours while waiting for the doctor, fearing the doctor would lose money if the delivery occurred before he arrived. Potentially deprived of oxygen, she was developmentally disabled. Rose and Joe concealed this, even from her siblings. Her IQ was judged to be a 70. A gorgeous child, she even met Queen Elizabeth and other dignitaries. However, as she grew older, she became rebellious, causing Joe to send her to a hospital for the lobotomy that almost succeeded in turning her into a vegetable.

In a review titled The Saddest Story Ever Told, the Wall Street Journal, calling Larson’s book a “heartbreaking biography,” says while lobotomies did modify behavior, there was no evidence that they cured mental deficiencies. “The American Medical Association warned of its dangers. Nevertheless, Joe went ahead.”

rosemarykennedyShe was left crippled, speechless, and quiet with a substantially lower IQ. As The Wall Street Journal puts it, “The operation had been botched.” That seems to be a contradiction in terms, but nonetheless apt.

Larson old NPR, of Rose and Joe, “I have sympathy for their position, but given their wealth, there were other alternatives, and they only had one vision of an alternative, and that was convent schools. And there were alternatives for Rosemary at the time — and he chose this radical, radical choice. At the time, it was still very experimental, so as a father, would he have experimented on his sons? I don’t think so.”

Kirkus calls the book “well researched,” author Will Swift calls it “a poignant story,” and author Marya Hornbacher calls it “an engrossing portrait of Rose and Joe Kennedy’s tragic misunderstanding of their oldest daughter’s capabilities, and of how her fate changed the Kennedy family forever.”

I call it an American tragedy about (as Larson calls her) a “lovely, lovely child, [who] grew to be a lovely adult woman” who was ruined by health care professionals and then hidden by negligent co-conspirators named Rose and Joe.