Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter

Author: Kate Clifford Larson
Year: 2015
ISBN: 978-0-544-81140-4
Publisher: Mariner Books
My Goodreads Rating: 5/5
Content Warnings: Ableism, abuse of people with disabilities, detailed descriptions of surgical procedures
Purchased or Received Copy: Purchased for myself

The Kennedy family is practically American royalty. They are an affluent family who have been at the helm of American politics for decades. However, the family isn’t without its secrets and tragedies. While John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination is the most famous of the tragedies, it wasn’t the first one. Rose Kennedy said herself that the first tragedy to befall her children was that of her eldest daughter: Rose Marie “Rosemary” Kennedy.

Rosemary Kennedy, born in 1918, faced difficulties thorough her life due to her intellectual disabilities. Her mother put enormous pressure on their children to not only succeed in their own endeavors, but out-perform their peers. For someone whose physical and mental development was so delayed, Rosemary often felt left our among her own family. She spend years shuffled between schools and convents to try and meet her needs for personalized education and attention. Still, she went with her family to England shortly before World War II when her father became the American ambassador to England. It would not be long, however, before Joseph Kennedy, Sr. would make the decision that led to the first Kennedy tragedy.

At the age of 23, Rosemary underwent a lobotomy. Because of her diagnosis of “mental retardation”, (which was a technical term, not a pejorative at that time unlike today) she didn’t have the opportunity to give her consent for the procedure. Her health was at the sole discretion of her father, and she didn’t have agency into the procedure that changed her life.

People with mental illnesses or disabilities often faced lobotomization before the invention of new medicines and techniques to better help them. Rosemary, like so many others sadly lost to history, were restrained and awake during the procedure in which a surgeon severed connections in her brain. She survived the surgery, but could no longer speak, walk, or control her waste.

For years, few even within the Kennedy family knew about Rosemary’s lobotomy. Rose was not aware of it, though she had considered lobotomy for her daughter beforehand. After learning about the effects of lobotomy, Rose decided that she didn’t want to put Rosemary through that ordeal. However, since Joseph Kennedy Sr. had the final say in Rosemary’s medical decisions, he made the decision to force her to undergo the mutilating and debilitating procedure.

In Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter Larson pulls back a veil of secrecy that the Kennedy family was determined to keep shut. It would be years before her siblings new what had happened to her or visited her. Her father never saw her again. Despite the tragedy that Rosemary faced in her life, there was some good that came from her mistreatment. The Kennedy family spent decades active in creating and supporting programs that support people with disabilities, like the Special Olympics. Larson shines a light on Rosemary Kennedy’s life without forgetting her humanity. She doesn’t shy away from the darker side of the Kennedy family, creating an eye-opening and heartfelt experience.

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