Wednesday, October 7, 2015

A seamy side to the Kennedy legend

Rosemary Kennedy on the right, with with her younger sister Kathleen
and mother, Rose, ready to be presented in May 1938 at the British Royal Court.
On a more disheartening note, I read a NY Times book review that my son just sent me. Entitled, Rosemary, The Hidden Daughter, its author Kate Clifford Larson tells the tragic life story of the oldest daughter and third child of Joe and Rose Kennedy.

Rosemary's troubles began in utero.  Her mother's obstetrician was unavailable when she went into labor. The nurse attending the home birth instructed Rose to keep her legs closed in order to delay the baby's delivery until the doctor's arrival two hours later. During the wait, Rosemary was oxygen deprived.

I shuddered to read those lines because my own obstetrician was delayed for not one nor two but three of my deliveries. The midwives all gave me similar instructions to those Rose received, namely keep panting, don't push, and, whatever you do, don't let the baby out until the doctor arrives.

Fortunately, I wasn't too obedient, heeded my babies instead and pushed for all I was worth. The doctor was annoyed but I hardly cared. And after reading that as a child, Rosemary was developmentally delayed thanks to that lame-brained advice, I now care even less.

But Rosemary's real suffering began when she was a young woman, shortly after this beautiful photo of her (above) was taken.

Until the age of 23, her problem was that she was functioned cognitively as a 10 year old. But then her condition deteriorated. Previously placid, she began to have seizures, tantrums and erratic behavior. Concerned that his daughter  might embarrass the family and impede its political ambitions, (and after several attempted residential arrangements had failed), Joseph P. Kennedy subjected Rosemary to a lobotomy.  His wife was not informed of the surgery which had then been performed in the U.S. on only 80 patients, 80% of whom were women. 

Wikipedia provides gory details of that primitive, ruthless procedure, related by the surgeon-butcher himself. It was an undeniable failure.

Sent to a private psychiatric institution in New York, then to a church-run facility in Wisconsin, Rosemary was abandoned by her parents. Joe appears to have stopped seeing her in 1948 although he was vigorous until 1961, when he suffered a catastrophic stroke. Rose, who blamed her husband for authorizing the lobotomy, couldn’t face her damaged child. “There is no record of Rose visiting her eldest daughter for more than 20 years,” Larson writes. In the early 1960s, when Rose finally did turn up, Rosemary reportedly recoiled. [NY Times]
For the rest of her life Rosemary's mental capabilities remained of a two year old, she was unable to walk, was incontinent and had mild physical disabilities. Moreover, the family's shocking view of disabilities cast an even wider net.  Writing to his father after a 1934 visit to Germany Joe Jr.
praised Hitler's :sterilization policy as "a great thing” that “will do away with many of the disgusting specimens of men.”  [NY Times]
To be fair, in recent years the family did attempt to re-embrace Rosemary and her siblings were at her side when she died at age 86, in 2005. Moreover, several relatives, including Rosemary's late sister Eunice Shriver, her late uncle Ted Kennedy and her nephew, Robert Kennedy Jr. have devoted much of their lives championing the rights of the disabled.

Still, while I feel I ought to read this book, I doubt I could stomach it.


Elizabeth said...

Ugh, me too. Just couldn't stomach it. Did you know that Arthur Miller had a disabled child that he institutionalized and never acknowledged? His daughter, Rebecca Miller (who married the actor Daniel Day Lewis) visited her half-sibling often, though. So perhaps there is some redemption as history evolves.

The Sound of the Silent said...

No, I didn't know that about Arthur Miller. It seems to have happened in the most unexpected and respected families. You're right, the next generation's switch in attitude indicates that there's been progress. Even though at times society appears to be stagnating (or even regressing).