Amazon.com tells me that I purchased Kate Clifford Larson’s book, Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter on October 25, 2015. It was originally published on October 6th of that year, and I believe I bought it based on recommendations from Alexis, who was my #1 reader and commenter for years. I’m sorry it’s taken me almost eight years to finally get around to reading Kate Clifford Larson’s fascinating book about Rosemary Kennedy, and the very dysfunctional Kennedy family. I’m glad I finally sat down and read the book, because it was surprisingly compelling in many “soap opera-ish” ways.
I’ll admit that before I read Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter, I knew almost nothing about the Kennedy clan, other than the fact that they were a very rich and politically powerful Irish Catholic family from Massachusetts, and they seemed to be cursed by many tragedies. I never knew just how many tragedies there were until I finally read this book that’s been sitting in my Kindle queue for so long. My mind is blown on many levels.
Who was Rosemary Kennedy?
Rose Marie “Rosemary” Kennedy was born in her parents’ home on September 13, 1918 in Brookline, Massachusetts. She was the third child and eldest daughter of Joseph P. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. Her older brothers, Joe and Jack, were perfectly normal boys, born to wealthy and prestigious parents. Joe and Rose Kennedy would go on to have a total of nine children, eight of whom were healthy, strong, intelligent, and high achieving. Rosemary might have been completely normal, too, except for a terrible decision that was made as she was being born.
On the day of Rosemary’s birth, Rose’s doctor was not immediately available to deliver her, on account of a severe breakout of Spanish flu. The doctor had to be in attendance when the baby was born in order to collect his fee. Consequently, the nurse who was tending to Mrs. Kennedy told her to keep her legs closed and actually pushed Rosemary back into the birth canal. Because of those unfortunate decisions, Rosemary was kept in the birth canal for two hours without adequate oxygen. When the baby was born, she appeared to be healthy and normal, but as she grew, her parents realized that she was not developing as her brothers, and later, her younger siblings, did.
Soon, it became clear to her family that Rosemary had significant intellectual and mental delays. However, because the Kennedys were so rich, powerful, and ambitious, they kept Rosemary’s condition carefully hidden from most people. She was apparently beloved by her family, yet she was also an object of shame for them. Her parents– especially her father, Joe– took great pains to keep Rosemary’s difficulties out of the public eye.
When she was still a child, it wasn’t impossible to hide Rosemary’s condition from the public; but as she grew older, stronger, and wanting more independence, figuring out what to do with Rosemary, and hiding her disabilities from the public, became much harder for her parents. Complicating matters was the fact that physically, Rosemary was very attractive and flirtatious. She enjoyed the company of men, and they liked her, too. The Kennedys were concerned that Rosemary would end up falling into a disreputable lifestyle that would put her in danger or, seemingly worse to them, somehow embarrass the family.
Rose Fitzgerald was a favorite daughter of John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, a very politically powerful Irish Catholic man from Boston, Massachusetts who had served as a Massachusetts State Senator, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Mayor of Boston. Rose met her future husband, Joseph Kennedy, when she was a teenager vacationing in Maine. John Fitzgerald hadn’t really liked Joseph Kennedy and discouraged Rose from being involved with him. But Rose didn’t listen to her father; the couple were wed October 7, 1914, when Rose was 24 years old.
Joseph Kennedy was quite wealthy, and his wife and children wanted for nothing materially. However, he was very unfaithful and had many affairs, to which Rose turned a blind eye. As I read this book, I learned that Joseph was also very image conscious and ambitious, and he expected his family to present the proper look. Rose Kennedy was also very image conscious and obsessed over her children’s bodies. She weighed them every week, and according to Larson’s book, both parents relentlessly fat shamed poor Rosemary, who had a tendency to gain weight.
Because of her intellectual disabilities, Rosemary Kennedy did very poorly in school. Her reading ability never rose past a fourth grade level. She had terrible penmanship and spelling, even though she apparently enjoyed writing letters. She also had trouble counting.
Although Rosemary was basically sweet and loving, she often had what today we might call “meltdowns”. Because she had trouble regulating her emotions and could not seem to grasp basic educational concepts, she went through a whole lot of different schools. Her younger siblings’ scholastic achievements soon surpassed Rosemary’s, as Rose Kennedy was constantly searching for the right boarding schools for her children. Though the other children were bright, competitive, habitual winners, Rosemary was constantly the subject of anguished letters from harried teachers and headmasters who didn’t know what to do with her.
The family experienced a brief hiatus in their scholastic drama when they moved to England in 1938. Joseph Kennedy was then serving as the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, so the family was temporarily based in London. Rosemary was placed at a Catholic boarding school called Belmont House, where she thrived. Unfortunately, the Kennedys had to move back to the United States due to Nazi Germany’s attack on Europe. Although Joseph and Rose kept Rosemary in England for as long as they could, it was too unsafe to allow her to stay there permanently. She moved back to the United States and then seemed to enter a negative spiral. All of the gains she had made at Belmont House quickly vanished as Rosemary became even less manageable.
Another tragic decision– Lobotomy…
Rose and Joseph Kennedy kept trying to find a suitable place for Rosemary. They failed repeatedly. Rosemary’s behavior grew more erratic and unpredictable. While her parents were apparently genuinely worried about her well-being, they also worried about how public knowledge of Rosemary’s condition might affect their political status and business standing.
Joseph Kennedy had heard about a new psychosurgical procedure being offered at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, DC. Psychiatrist Dr. Walter Freeman, and his associate, surgeon Dr. James W. Watts, were developing a technique that supposedly made “difficult” people like Rosemary more compliant and calm. The procedure was called “lobotomy”, and it involved numbing, and then boring small holes at the top and on either side of the patient’s head while they were awake and restrained. Although the vast majority of patients who had lobotomies did not experience good outcomes, Joseph Kennedy was apparently so eager to solve his issues with Rosemary that he eagerly signed her up for the operation. He did not tell Rose or his other children that Rosemary had the surgery until after it was completed in November 1941.
Like most of the other patients who had served as human guinea pigs for Freeman’s and Watts’ research, Rosemary Kennedy had devastating results after the lobotomy. She temporarily lost the ability to walk and talk, and became even more significantly intellectually delayed. Rosemary eventually learned how to walk again, but did so with a limp. She never regained her ability to speak clearly, and her arm was left palsied.
Heartbreakingly, after the lobotomy, Rosemary’s family basically abandoned her to the care of psychiatric facilities and, later, nuns. She very rarely saw her family for over twenty years, until Joseph Kennedy’s death in 1969. At that time, her family began bringing her back into the family circle. In spite of her intellectual and mental health issues, Rosemary Kennedy was very physically strong and healthy. She died of natural causes on January 7, 2005, in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. She was 86 years old.
My thoughts on the book…
It may seem like I’ve given away a lot of Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter in this review, but actually, I’ve just scratched the surface of this incredible story. Kate Clifford Larson did an excellent job researching this book, and writing a compelling explanation of the Kennedy family. I’ve barely mentioned Rosemary’s siblings, three of whom died tragically young, nor have I shared some of the more shocking and outrageous aspects of this story. I definitely came away with an opinion of Rose and Joseph Kennedy, who gave birth to remarkable children who would shape and influence America, yet showed such crass and callous disregard for Rosemary. Yes, it’s true that some of their actions had a lot to do with the mores of the time period, but a lot of it was also just very cold-hearted and cruel, not just to Rosemary, but also to the people who were tasked with helping her.
I do think that this book is profoundly sad, and parts of it are pretty infuriating on many levels. However, it’s also fascinating, given the historical importance of the Kennedy family and the events that were going on at the time. If you’re interested in American and world history, this book may be a page turner for that alone, as it offers glimpses of the current events of the time, and touches on business, politics, health, and mental health care.
While I definitely think the way Rosemary was treated was cruel, I also realize that there were very limited options for people like her when she was coming of age. That was a time when “defectives” (as they were sometimes called then) were forcibly hospitalized or otherwise locked up, sterilized, and/or kept out of society, and away from their families. Rosemary Kennedy was both blessed and cursed by having such a wealthy family. They could afford to send her to different camps, schools, and hospitals, but they were also ashamed of her, and didn’t want her to “ruin” their financial and political successes.
The Kennedy family was also very deeply entrenched in religion. Larson touches on how Rose Kennedy’s deep devotion to Catholicism caused huge rifts with her children, as she insisted that they adhere to her strict beliefs. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you might already know how I feel about religion, and parents insisting that their children adhere to their religious beliefs. Rose Kennedy’s use of Catholicism in her attempt to try to control her adult children is bad enough, but Joseph Kennedy’s disastrous decisions made solely to protect his image and career were especially reprehensible. Moreover, both Rose and Joseph Kennedy treated some of the people who helped Rosemary with contempt and a true lack of consideration.
Kate Clifford Larson includes extensive footnotes, photographs, and a detailed bibliography. Some reviewers complained that there were too many resources included, and too little text. Personally, I didn’t have that complaint, but then to me, this book included information I didn’t know. People who already know a lot about the Kennedys may find this book to be repetitive. Some even stated that they felt it was a waste of time to read it. Again– this is my review, and it wasn’t a waste of time for me. It does make me think I might want to read more about the Kennedys, however.
I’m glad I read Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter, by Kate Clifford Larson. I would recommend it to history and political science buffs, but also to anyone who enjoys true stories. However, I would caution readers that this story is pretty sad and infuriating in some parts. Also, I would caution that this book is not strictly about Rosemary Kennedy, but is more from the perspective of her family. You won’t be reading much about what life was like from Rosemary’s perspective, as Larson doesn’t seem to do a lot of original research.
If I had known more about the Kennedys before I read this book, I might have had a more negative opinion of it. But, since I learned new things by reading it, I honestly don’t think of it as a poor effort. Some Amazon reviewers who obviously know more about the Kennedys than I do did take issue with the fact that the book is more about the Kennedy parents and, to a lesser extent, their children, than Rosemary herself.
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