Book Review: Author probes the tragic life of the hidden Kennedy sister
Special to the Daily
Illustrious and royal figures have always fascinated, and America has long had its own attraction to one particular family of national prominence, whose legacy has become synonymous with the mythos of this nation. The Kennedys, like the United States, have withstood trial after trial, exhibiting perseverance and fortitude in the face of great triumphs diluted by numerous crushing tragedies.
Nearly every utterance and action by members of the famous family has been dissected and studied to such an extent that the notion of America’s own “Camelot” has seeped into the national psyche. So, biographer Kate Clifford Larson’s recent book, “Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter” arrives like a revelation, a distinct new chapter in the annals of Kennedy history that is only recognizable because of its familiarly overwhelming tragic nature. The Kennedy family is known for weathering many challenges and personal tragedies, all in its very choreographed quest to gain social and political prominence on the global stage. In a family where cohesion and a solidarity of purpose was the focus from the outset, the troubled birth of Rose and Joe Kennedy’s third child was the first sign that their status as an elite Boston family would not place them above life’s normal trials and tribulations. With doctors at a premium because of the raging Spanish flu during the second decade of the twentieth century, the birth of Rosemary was delayed by a nurse’s hand for nearly two hours, even though “it was well understood that preventing the movement of the baby through the birth canal could cause a lack of oxygen, exposing the baby to possible brain damage and physical disability.” When finally delivered, Rosemary, by all accounts, seemed healthy, promising to be as ready for great things as her birthright demanded.
Having grown up comfortable in the public eye with a politician father, who “had chosen his politics over her future,” matriarch Rose Kennedy was well-primed to repeat the same pattern of preparing her offspring for upward mobility and instilling in them a stoic acceptance of their prescribed roles in life. Her own dreams of college and personal interests were denied by her father, so “her children became her career.” The expectations she placed upon her children were high, and the family finances were such that no expense was denied them, which meant the best schools, the finest homes and every chance to excel. But it became clear that Rosemary was not thriving like her eight siblings. By the time she started kindergarten, Rosemary was being called “deficient” by educators, a stinging rebuke to the expectations of perfection that were the standard in the Kennedy household. “Rose did not like people who lagged behind or who were different.”
But Rosemary’s parents threw themselves into the challenge of how best to help their daughter deal with the cards that had been dealt to her — with one stipulation — that her “condition” would be kept secret, for this was the era of eugenics, a time when wealthy and connected people usually opted to institutionalize their disabled family members, feeling it was better for their social standing to keep any possible genetic flaws hidden.
As with all stories about the Kennedys, there were circumstances that created Shakespearean-level complexities of drama, especially those of a tragic nature. Best intentions bumped up against social demands, and the yearning for wealth and status had Rose and Joe placing overwhelming pressures on their young daughter, whose only desire was to please her very demanding mother and father. Basic denial and a persistent assumption that Rosemary could be “cured” with the proper education, meant that for each school’s mistress there proved to be a “deep chasm between what Rose had told her about Rosemary’s abilities and the reality of life.”
So, though Rosemary needed stability and continuity more than anything, she was moved from one school to another as one after another determined that Rosemary’s needs were beyond their capabilities to manage. Larson details each of Rosemary’s heartbreaking transitions, and the reader can sense the coil tightening around the unfortunate young woman, especially in the eyes of her father, who was increasingly concerned that Rosemary “had now become a menacing disgrace to the Kennedy’s political, financial, and social aspirations.”
Joe made a catastrophic decision concerning Rosemary’s fate without any family discussion and without even consulting Rosemary’s own mother — and there is no indication that Rosemary was even told. “Under the laws of the day, a woman like Rosemary could be forcibly hospitalized and treated without her consent.”
The treatment Rosemary’s father chose for her was a pre-frontal lobotomy, a horrifying procedure that left her “almost completely disabled,” having “destroyed a crucial part of Rosemary’s brain and erased years of emotional, physical, and intellectual development.”
Failing to “cure” his troublesome daughter, Joe’s efforts turned to hiding his error. With son Jack’s (JFK) star rising, “the risk of having anyone discover that Rosemary was institutionalized and in such a debilitated state was a public-relations problem for a family with political ambitions.”
The unhappy story of Rosemary was just one of the many tragedies that pursued the Kennedy family with seemingly cursed persistence. Larson’s examination of the hidden daughter encompasses all aspects of the Kennedy saga, and it completes the narrative of the era that was defined by their presence on the world stage. Larson approaches Rosemary Kennedy’s history with deep compassion and grace, and a profound understanding of the tragic scale of her unfortunate life.
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