I’ve just finished reading a new biography about the Kennedys as viewed thru the life story of Rosemary. She was the third of Rose and Joe’s nine children, born just after Jack and before Kathleen. Some of you may know that she was the victim of a lobotomy and spent most of her life hidden away in an institution. It’s titled Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson. It is well worth reading for those interested in history, the Kennedys, autism, mental illness or the arrogance of contemporary “science” and medicine.
It is also terribly poignant. As I read it I couldn’t help being reminded of my mother, Mary, and her struggle. My mother and Rosemary were both born in 1918, within a month of each other, and her pic on the book’s cover bares some resemblance to my mother. They were both tall and shapely–but Rosemary’s life effectively ended at age 23. She was left partially paralyzed and horribly disfigured by a lobotomy gone awry. She devolved from having the mentality of a ten year old to not much more than a vegetable. Only after many years of rehabilitation was she able to speak or walk at all.
My mother was traumatized at age-14 by being in an auto accident that killed her father, mangled her mother, and left the family destitute during the depths of the Great Depression. And beginning at age 29, her life pivoted around a series of bipolar episodes that always ended in hospitalization. In the 1940s and 50s the working poor got the state hospital and electroshock for treatment.
Rosemary suffered brain damage during a difficult birth and was left slow and uncoordinated in an unusually bright, athletic and competitive family that saw her disability as an embarrassment. Her IQ was a Forrest Gumpish 65-75. After years of tutoring and special schools she functioned academically around the 4th or 5th grade level. However, the tutoring and the exceptional family she inhabited left her with an air of culture and sophistication that could fool the unsuspecting.
Several of her best years were spent in England when her father was ambassador. She was enrolled in Belmont House in Herfordshire in the compassionate care of Mother Isabel and the Assumption Sisters. These nuns provided her with ample love in a secure environment. In this Montessori school she was given a role helping with the care of the younger residents and she blossomed. She was effectively being trained as a primary school teacher’s aide, and at age 21, she was a striking beauty, who along with her sister Kathleen, was presented to the King and Queen. In the ball that followed her dance card was signed by the most eligible young bachelors of Europe’s aristocracy. Most hadn’t a clue that she was at all impaired.
As war loomed in Europe Joe moved his family back to the States in stages. Rosemary was the last to leave due to how well her schooling was progressing. During this time she drew closer to her father and felt special without the competition of her siblings. However, back in the States she was enrolled in a school that did not meet her needs like Belmont House had and as she grew on into her early-20s she became more easily frustrated, prone to rages and unpredictable behavior. One doctor described it as an “agitated depression.” Very likely she was having bipolar episodes in an era when there was no effective medical treatment for that condition.
Enter two unscrupulous doctors connected with St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington. Drs. Freeman and Watts convinced a father eager for results that a new and largely untested procedure could result in a dramatic improvement in Rosemary’s prognosis. At that time fewer than 100 pre-frontal lobotomies had ever been performed–and with very mixed results. Her sister Kathleen researched the procedure and formed a very negative opinion. However, Joe charged ahead with neither Rosemary’s consent nor his wife Rose’s knowledge.
During a lobotomy the neural connections between the frontal lobes and the hypothalamus are severed. The procedure was pioneered by a Portuguese doctor, Egas Moniz in 1935. The theory was that cutting the connections between the site of executive action (frontal lobes) and the site of emotions (hypothalamus) would result in a calmer, happier, more manageable patient. Unfortunately, this quack Moniz won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1949. Before the advent of the anti-psychotic drug Thorazine in 1955, hundreds of thousands had undergone this nearly useless and very brutal procedure. The doctors who advocated and performed lobotomies published journal articles that largely ignored its many failures and glorified its few successes. This is not unlike today, when doctors whose research is funded by pharmaceutical companies almost always get results that favor the drug they’re researching.
At that time lobotomies were performed with the patient awake and securely restrained–and sometime in late November, 1941, Rosemary underwent this procedure. The book’s description of the procedure is stomach turning. It did not matter if the patient screamed to stop, the doctors anticipated this and went ahead anyway. It was immediately apparent that Rosemary’s lobotomy had gone very wrong. She was left not much more than a vegetable.
After several placements in the East, Joe, ever mindful of the family’s political ambitions, decided to get Rosemary away from any public scrutiny and she was moved to St. Coletta’s School for exceptional children in rural Wisconsin. To a degree for many years she was forgotten about by the rest of the family. However, eventually, her younger sister Eunice assumed the role of monitoring her care, and during his 1960 presidential campaign Jack paid a secret visit to St. Coletta’s. He was deeply moved by what he saw and out of this visit eventually came legislation to fund both exceptional children’s services and mental health.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver became a tireless advocate for people with disabilities. Among her other initiatives she founded the Special Olympics. It seems a terrible irony that much of our services for the mentally ill and disabled today can be traced to Rosemary’s terribly interrupted life—to a botched lobotomy by a couple dishonest physicians and Joe Kennedy’s relentless ambition.
In an odd karmic twist, less than a year after JFK became President, Joe suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak. He was filled with the same helpless rage that had been Rosemary’s fate. He would often use his one good arm to strike out at nurses and caregivers.
Rosemary, on the other hand, was given great care at St. Coletta’s and was eventually able to walk and communicate a bit. After many years the family reconnected with her and she was given frequent home visits during the holidays. Though very impaired, she was apparently at peace.
My mother had several hospitalizations in the late-1940s and 1950s for her bipolar disorder. She would spend up to six weeks at a time in Toledo State Hospital, and she underwent many rounds of “shock treatments” (ECT, electroconvulsive therapy). ECT was a brutal but somewhat effective procedure. My mother feared the ECT. She was afraid they would kill her. One of the effects of ECT is a significant disruption of short-term memory. Though there were various theories, medicine was largely in the dark about why ECT was often effective.
I know my mother was misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic, but I do not know if she was ever considered for a lobotomy. If she was, it would not be surprising. There was no effective treatment for bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or the actively psychotic until the 1960s and the advent of the phenothiazines, antidepressants and lithium carbonate—psychoactive medications–and, almost as importantly, the federally funded community mental health centers that provided counseling to all.
I did not consciously pick mental health as my life’s work. In God’s opaque economy, in some odd fashion, it picked me. I’d rather have been a history professor or a journalist, but nevertheless mental health is where I ended up, and in 1998, I started teaching a class at my church on coping with depression. It was called “The Unwelcome Blessing.” In 2005, I published a book with the same title. It is dedicated to my mother.