Rosemary Kennedy: A Life Stolen by Mental Illness and Her Family

Rosemary on a fall day. Courtesy of Bancroft Press.

When Rosemary Kennedy was enrolled into Kindergarten in 1924, her teachers labeled her as “deficient.” Rose and Joe Kennedy, her parents of high status and education, heard this and were taken aback. You see, the Kennedys had five children and one on the way, and not once had this term been brought up before. For years, little Rosemary struggled to keep up with her classmates. Each day after school, her mother would subject her to several additional hours of study in the hopes of giving her the most opportunity for achievement. However, Rosemary was still held back from progressing to the next grade level at least three times during her education.1

After moving Rosemary from school to school, her mother felt defeated. In her growing years, the 1920s through the 1930s, the education system was not advanced enough to have a standardized curriculum or specialized teaching styles for those with learning deficits.2 Each school taught what they were comfortable with, and if the students could not conform, they had little chance to ever be successful. As Rose saw her daughter struggle, she decided to visit the best doctors available to her.

During one particular consultation, Rose was asked to remember the day of Rosemary’s birth. The pregnancy itself was not out of the ordinary, as Rose had two children before. However, when it came time to give birth, the obstetrician who was to deliver the baby was several hours late. It was during the height of the flu season, and before he could make the house call, he had several other patients to tend to. During those excruciating hours, Rose’s nurse was forced to hold the baby’s head in the birthing canal, which meant that the baby was receiving little to no oxygen. The reason the nurse had to prevent the baby from coming out is that her license only allowed her to help the doctor deliver, and do nothing if a doctor was not present. She also could not offer Rose any form of anesthetic. The effects of that night was the most obvious reason for Rosemary’s hardships.3

Rosemary at 15 years old | Courtesy of Bancroft Press

In the 1930s, Joe Kennedy and his family caught the public’s eye more frequently than ever, their social lives often making debuts in the front pages of national and international newspapers. Joe had a successful political career, and Rose always made motherhood seem effortless.4 Rose’s modern interpretation of being a hardworking mother of eight children made them celebrities. In 1938, Joe was given the role of United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom. He presented Rosemary and her younger sister Kathleen to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Rosemary, finally allowed in the limelight, overshadowed her sister in beauty, and men began to take notice of her. According to the papers, her body was voluptuous and her face projected a happy and innocent light. She seemed like a young girl who was primed and prepped for marriage, and the most eligible bachelorette of the Kennedy daughters.

Even though Rosemary was handicapped, puberty and teen angst made her parents extremely uneasy. She would lash out in anger towards her family when she didn’t get her way, and she would sneak out of her boarding school in the middle of the night. Her inability to communicate her frustrations efficiently led her to do things that her family simply could not approve of, especially because everything would eventually make its way into the papers. Rose would try her best to watch Rosemary with a keen eye, but Joe was uneasy that the public would find out about Rosemary’s disability. Even close family friends had no idea that Rosemary had learning deficits.5 They hid her away as much as possible, claiming that she was a home-body, and extremely shy. Her own siblings didn’t fully understand the extent of her disability either.

It goes without saying that the times were not understanding of disabilities of any kind. There was a lack of research, little empathy, and no opportunities for the disabled, and Joe was not about to lose grip of his success. If the public were to find out about Rosemary, they might think lowly of him and of his own ability to perform as a person of political power. Without consulting Rose, he started to ask for help from surgeons in the area. Two particular neurosurgeons, James W. Watts and his partner Walter Freeman, advised Joe Kennedy that the only chance for Rosemary to act accordingly was for them to perform a lobotomy on her. Both doctors were advocates for this new form of psychosurgery, because they were the ones to standardize and popularize it in the US.6

Example of a Lobotomy. Courtesy of New England Journal of Medicine.

The method in which a lobotomy is performed starts by making an incision in the skull while the patient is awake, then one inserts a tool into the frontal lobe of the brain and move it in several directions, only stopping when the patient became unresponsive. The intended result is to help the mentally ill become easier to control.7 They would have less self-awareness, slower responses, and dull emotional range. Even though the surgery often resulted in effects much worse than this, the lobotomy was popular for almost twenty years.

After listening to the sureness of the doctors, Joe decided that a lobotomy was the best thing that he could do for Rosemary. Of course, he didn’t understand any major risks, nor had he heard of any stories of bad results. And so without consulting his wife or even Rosemary for that matter, Joe brought Rosemary to her “appointment.”8 Rosemary never knew that one day would be her last as a free young woman, because when she came out of her surgery, Rosemary Kennedy became the poster child for a botched lobotomy. She woke up with the mental capacity of a two year old, unable to speak or care for herself. And so, the tragedy of the secret Kennedy became a tale that people forgot about, but it provides a scary truth on the treatment of the mentally ill in her time.

After the lobotomy, Rosemary spent several years in a psychiatric hospital, un-visited by family or friends.9 Her condition never improved, and she required 24/7 care to eat, bathe, go to the restroom, and walk.10 We must realize that this is the case for the daughter of an internationally known wealthy politician and socialite. What can we say about the mistreatment, misdiagnosis, and misrepresentation of all US citizens who cannot speak up for themselves?

Left to Right: Sister Kathleen, Mother Rose, Rosemary | Courtesy of Bancroft Press

Even in present time, unorthodox and unwarranted procedures such as shock-conversion therapy are legal to do harm to innocent people in the process. Mental afflictions should be treated, and they should be researched in the same way as medical afflictions. The stigma against mental illness is not only instilled by the general population, but shows just as bad in legislation as well. According to the National Center for Health Statistics in 2016, suicide is at an all time high, yet prevention is not.11

Since Rosemary’s operation, her siblings have been keen to donate time and money to foundations built to represent the disabled, and her sister Eunice founded the Special Olympics.12 Rosemary went on to live a long life and died of natural causes at the age of 86. However, her “life” ended at the tender age of 23, without her permission. Rosemary is one of millions that suffered similarly, but it is a hope that her story will be heard and not hidden for the remainder of history.

  1. Kate Larson, The Hidden Kennedy Daughter (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), 176, 180,187.
  2. Kate Larson, The Hidden Kennedy Daughter (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), 225.
  3. Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff, The Missing Kennedy: Rosemary Kennedy and the Secret Bonds of Four Women (Baltimore: Bancroft Press, 2015), section 1-11.
  4. Lisa Guardarini, Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch (Illinois: Algonquin P.L, 2013), 87.
  5. Kate Larson, The Hidden Kennedy Daughter (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), 76-80.
  6. Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff, The Missing Kennedy: Rosemary Kennedy and the Secret Bonds of Four Women (Baltimore: Bancroft Press, 2015), section 60-63, 68-70.
  7. Robert Whitaker, Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill (New York: Perseus Books Group, 2002), 107, 122, 141.
  8. U.S. Health Policy and Politics: A Documentary History, 2012, s.v. “Kennedy’s Presidential Panel on Mental Retardation,” by Kevin Hillstrom.
  9. New Catholic Encyclopedia Supplement, 2010, s.v. “Kennedy Family,” by Robert L. Fastiggi.
  10. The Gale Encyclopedia of Mental Health, 2008, s.v. “Deinstitutionalization,” by Laurie J. Fundukian.
  11. The Gale Encyclopedia of Mental Health, 2008, s.v. “Deinstitutionalization,” by Laurie J. Fundukian.
  12. “Oldest Kennedy daughter dies: OBITUARY I Mentally challenged woman inspired the Special Olympics,” The Vancouver Sun (British Columbia), January 8, 2005 Saturday. Accessed September 16, 2018. https://advance-lexis.com.blume.stmarytx.edu/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:4F6N-5XG0-TWD4-03BB-00000-00&context=1516831.

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76 Responses

  1. This was a profound story about Rosemary Kennedy life and her experiences with mental illness. I had never heard of this story in particular, but it explains the horrible truths of those who face any time of mental disorder. This article does a great job at explaining the stigma during Rose’s time and the lack of medical development in this area. The lobotomy procedure is only one example of the medical field’s failure that still transcends with the still practiced shock-conversion therapy.

  2. This article did an excellent job of telling a story. I never knew about this young lady and it is saddening to see how she was treated because of her special needs. Personally, whenever I see people discussing human rights, I do not often hear people talk about those with special needs. I think it should be a more prominent discussion in our society. The way the author pointed at the end of a wealthy white woman like this was treated to imagine what others went through made me wish they had spoken more about others with special needs. Or at least discussed more how special needs laws have changed.

  3. This article made for such an interesting read! I did not know anything about Rosemary Kennedy and was shocked when reading about the surgery her parents had her undergo. As you said in your article, methods like this as well as other forms of therapy are still used today and raise many ethical and human rights questions. The stigma around mental health even today is typically a negative one and something that is hard for people to understand if they have not had an experience with it be it themselves or someone they are close to. It would have been interesting to add cases similar to this in more present times if available. Great read!

  4. I found this article to be very informative on the perception of mental health and how it was approached back then. It’s heartbreaking to learn that Rosemary’s father cared more about his reputation rather than her well being. Not only does this article tell the tragedy of what happened to Rosemary but it also highlights the stigma of mental health and the inhumane medical treatments for the mentally ill that existed. I first heart of the lobotomy procedure in a psychology class that I took and frankly I am disappointed to learn that treatments such as shock conversion therapy still exist.

  5. This article was very informative and offered a good description of what the popular opinion was on mental illness during the 40’s. I find it disturbing that people had no understanding or empathy for the disabled that they resorted to essentially cutting the brain in attempt to make it easier to control the patients. I think this article could benefit from also incorporating the testimony of the mother Rose and her opinion of what Joe Kennedy did.

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