What I know of the Kennedys is the political aspects of the family. Which in their case is a good part about the family. However, I never knew much about Rosemary. I was vaguely aware there was a sister to JFK that was institutionalized. Other than that I knew nothing. Then I was reading an article about this book. Interesting, but what got me considering it was that Rosemary spent most of her life in seclusion in Wisconsin not far from where I worked there. What had me buy it was learning that her father had put her there and told the rest of the family she was dead. It was only after he was incapacitated by a stroke that the other children learned their sister was still alive. So how did a prominent family come to lose and hide one of their own members? A sister of a President? The tale is a sad one.
Why was Rosemary different? Honestly we don’t know but many suspect it stems from the circumstances of her birth. You see back then doctors were supposed to be men. Rich women like Rose Kennedy were to have their babies delivered by these doctors and not women like the poor common folk. So when Rose went into labor with Rosemary she was attended by a nurse who was to manage the labor until the doctor got there. The labor was progressing quickly and horror of horrors it looked as if the nurse would deliver her. So Rosemary was instructed not to push, to cross her legs, to sit on a hard surface, and finally in the last hours of avoiding delivery the nurse put both hands on the crown of little Rosemary’s head and pushed her back in. It is suspected to be the first cause of Rosemary’s brain damage. The second time would be when her father had a lobotomy performed upon her.
In Rosemary’s early years it wasn’t noticed that she was special needs. It was simply thought she was a bit slower but would catch up. By the time she was presented to British court it was known that she was different and her sister Kick was the best to care for and help Rosemary. However all her siblings loved her and helped. Jack would take her to his college parties for an hour or two then return her home before returning to well, be Jack at a frat party. Her other brothers or cousins would take her to dances.
Rosemary showed a talent for fashion and enjoyed being pretty. This led to concerns for her parents as she matured. They were afraid she would or was sexually promiscuous and thus limited her social interaction with people her age. It was here that life became hard for both Rosemary and her parents. They tried to find proper placement for her but hid her true condition and needs. This led to Rosemary not getting the care she needed and various institutions getting rid of her as soon as they could because they were not equipped to help her.
The one thing Rosemary needed was stability and that was the one thing she lacked. Her parents on one hand tried to help her but on the other were more concerned with what the truth of her condition would do to the family. Finally in the 1940s a match was found in England. Rosemary thrived there. However the growing threat of WWII caused her to be recalled to the states. It was here her rebellion set in. She’d escape her caregivers and disappear. She’d fly into rages and strike out at people.
Eventually her mother’s decreasing contact became none. Her father agreed for a lobotomy to be performed to make Rosemary more docile. Sadly like most lobotomies it went horribly wrong. Rosemary was left with a partially paralyzed body and unable to speak. It is here her father hid her in Wisconsin at a nunnery. Her siblings thought she’d died. It is not clear if her mother thought the same of just didn’t ask any more.
This tale is horrid up to this point a wonderful talented girl need of care and support is hidden shuttled about and taken from the one place she got what she needed, forced to undergo an operation that cripples her, then hidden away – dead to her family. But here it takes a better turn. When her siblings learn she’s alive and where she is they begin to work to understand how to help their sister they love.
It was now the 1960s and society was more open. JFK did visit his sister during his campaign as did Bobby and Ted. Her brothers did try to help all with mental illness, handicap, or challenges through legal means. Yet it was her sister Eunice (Kit had died in the intervening years) that did the most founding the Special Olympics, speaking without shame about Rosemary. Visiting Rosemary regularly and bringing her on family trips. It was understood that Rosemary’s home was Wisconsin and the sisters who cared for her were like family. Rosemary blossomed under her siblings love and protection. She began to speak more and again express herself in fashion and art.
Though protective of her, her siblings no longer hid her away. Instead they worked to make her life rich and even more importantly have her be part of the family again. It is through Eunice Kennedy Shriver that Rosemary’s story helped millions. When Rosemary died in 2005 she did so as a loved member of a family in a place she felt at home and received the care and support she needed.
I tried to understand that Joe and Rose, the parents were products of their time. That they tried to care for Rosemary while giving full opportunities to their other children. Yet I cannot get past the hiding of her needs from people they turned her over to for care. So cruel to Rosemary and the caretakers all to save face. It was private. I struggle with Rose’s washing her hands of Rose leaving Rose to the care of her father who felt she could be ‘fixed.’ The surgery was to be that fix. I can’t wrap my head around that.
Where I feel the parents failed the most however is post op. They locked her away and announced her death to save face. To abandon your child is beyond me. To want to give them medical help I can rationalize a bit but this, this I can’t.
Yet something was done right to have her siblings rally to her as they did upon her discovery. Yes society had changed and acceptance of special need adults was growing but they showed genuine love not just for their sister but for all families who had the privilege of caring for their Rosemarys. Eunice Shriver was heroic in her efforts to make society a place where her sister could be a member and not be hidden away. It is there Rosemary did more than her political brothers. It is there her pain spoke more than JFK’s words of ‘ask not what you can do for your country.’ It is there the beautiful smiling girl in the photo above changed the world. It that I want to remember about her, not the pain but the change for many.