About the Book
They were the most prominent American family of the twentieth century. The daughter they secreted away made all the difference.
Joe and Rose Kennedy’s strikingly beautiful daughter Rosemary attended exclusive schools, was presented as a debutante to the Queen of England, and traveled the world with her high-spirited sisters. And yet, Rosemary was intellectually disabled — a secret fiercely guarded by her powerful and glamorous family. Major new sources — Rose Kennedy’s diaries and correspondence, school and doctors’ letters, and exclusive family interviews — bring Rosemary alive as a girl adored but left far behind by her competitive siblings. Kate Larson reveals both the sensitive care Rose and Joe gave to Rosemary and then — as the family’s standing reached an apex — the often desperate and duplicitous arrangements the Kennedys made to keep her away from home as she became increasingly intractable in her early twenties. Finally, Larson illuminates Joe’s decision to have Rosemary lobotomized at age twenty-three, and the family’s complicity in keeping the secret.
Rosemary delivers a profoundly moving coda: JFK visited Rosemary for the first time while campaigning in the Midwest; she had been living isolated in a Wisconsin institution for nearly twenty years. Only then did the siblings understand what had happened to Rosemary and bring her home for loving family visits. It was a reckoning that inspired them to direct attention to the plight of the disabled, transforming the lives of millions.
320 pages (hardcover)
Published on October 6, 2015
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This book was a library loan.
Before you go on, please know that this is less a book review, and more a rant about how much this family ended up repulsing me on almost every possible level. Spoilers abound. You have been warned.
Look, I’m going to level with you. I know nearly nothing about the Kennedy family. I know, for example, that they are Irish, Catholic, rich, and JFK was a womanizer who was assassinated. That’s about it. I don’t generally have that much of an interest in wealthy “American royalty” and other than the bullet points, I don’t typically feel the need to dive deeper.
That being said, I’ve been reading some darker books recently and I wanted a bit of a detour. I was browsing through the online library’s website and I saw this audiobook. My thought process was, “Well, it’s about a Kennedy. How bad could it be?”
Famous. Last. Words.
Friends, I don’t honestly think I’ve read a book that has infuriated me this much in a long, long time. And let me be clear: It’s not the book that made me so mad. It’s what the book is about that brought me to a land of righteous fury I heretofore have not experienced before.
Rosemary Kennedy was the eldest Kennedy daughter, their third child born of nine. She was born during the influenza pandemic in 1918. Due to a mishap, she was held (forcefully) in the birth canal for two hours by the nurse before the doctor could arrive to bring this baby into the world. Now, nothing is ever decisively said one way or the other about that, but my personal feeling is, if you hold a child in the birth canal for two hours after it starts working its way toward life, and said child ends up with some disabilities, then the two are likely related, but what do I know.
Okay, so that happens. Rosemary is a beautiful child. She appears like the standard-issue human, until she turns around one or two years old and it’s obvious that she is developing slower than her two older brothers. She has a hard time walking and talking. The learning disabilities just become that much clearer cut as the family gets bigger and older.
Now, let me be clear on this point. Rose and Joe Kennedy did try very, very hard to find Rosemary an educational path that would suit her. There was, at that time, almost no understanding of learning disabilities, or many other disabilities for that matter. No one had a clue how to deal with people who were developed differently. It was either deal with them at home, or put them in some hospital for the rest of their lives, and the hospitals were HORRIBLE so Rose and Joe didn’t want that. Instead, they tried hard to find her help, and find her people that had a better understanding of her condition and how to treat it.
Other than that, there is almost nothing good I can say about those two people. They were more focused on how Rosemary would embarrass them than anything else. They were worried about people finding out that their family had “bad genes” and so they spent forever trying to groom her to behave certain ways in public so no one would find out that she is disabled. They shunted her off from one place to another with little to no consideration for how hard it was for her to adjust, or her anxiety levels, and they started this when the poor child was only ten years old. They had absolutely no consideration for how she’d fit in in intimate family gatherings, where the entire family would play these knowledge games and Rosemary would get really upset and have a tantrum. And no wonder. She was basically treated like the third wheel, part of the family, but completely apart from it and given almost no room to be part of it in her own way.
There were other issues, too. Like Rose sent Rosemary off to a summer camp without telling anyone at said camp that Rosemary was disabled and needed special care (her instructions were to make sure Rosemary does her arch exercises, nothing about her disabilities and specialized care needs). Rosemary shows up in shoes that were so small her feet were bleeding. The nuns at the camp were completely unprepared for her, and when the task at hand was too much for them to handle, Rose refused to bring her child home, and then ran up to Maine for a nine-month long vacation at some makeup artist’s mansion, and then complained about paying a $200 bill for her own child’s care when it was all said and done.
When World War II starts up in Europe, they vacation in Spain after watching the new pope get uh… pope-ified, and instead of being all like, “Whoa, look at what’s happening all around us,” Rose complains about two-piece bathing suits, and Joe admires all the leggy women. I swear to God, these people just lived on a completely different planet than the rest of humanity.
And let me complain about Joe sr. and Joe jr. for a minute, because the other thing I had no idea about was the fact that they were basically jazzed up Nazi sympathizers. Both Joes thought that Hitler had some great ideas in his forced sterilization programs, and that if Hitler was executing the Jews, well, obviously they had done something to deserve it.
So here are these guys, with a disabled family member, who absolutely know that if they lived in Germany, then Rosemary would be killed in Hitler’s various purges, saying, basically, “Man, that guy has some great ideas. Look at the wonderful job he’s doing of ridding the planet of some really shitty people.” And seriously, just take some time to let that sink into you for a minute, because I did, and that alone nearly had me orbiting the moon on a tide of my morally fueled ire, and not just on Rosemary’s behalf, but on the behalf of like… you know, humans inhabiting the planet.
Fast-forward from there. Rosemary gets older, and she starts having these wild, erratic mood swings. She’s hard to control, and Joe and Rose start worrying that Rosemary will run away, and end up getting pregnant somehow (because another belief was, apparently, disabled women are “loose” and they will basically all wander away to screw anything that moves because that’s in their nature.). Joe is afraid that her mood swings will put the family in danger, that she will become a “menacing disgrace” to the family’s “political, financial, and social well-being.” So he decides to put her forward for a lobotomy, because heaven forbid his own daughter embarrass the family and impact their social standing.
I mean, my god. I’m basically over here vibrating with rage. Never once was the consideration ever for how they could help their own daughter live her best life. They were nearly always focused on how to minimize any potential embarrassment that she would heap on the family, and limit the amount of people who knew about the “bad genes.” It wasn’t ever, ever, ever about anything more than limiting Rosemary’s lasting impact on the rest of them. And you know what? Here’s a heaping pile of fuck all of these guys. That is NOT how you treat a human being.
Rose, for her credit, was not fond of the lobotomy idea. However, King Nazi-Sympathizing-Eugenics-Loving Asshole isn’t that excited about having an unpredictable daughter and what says goes, because he is man, hear him roar. The lobotomy goes forward. Something goes wrong, and Rosemary is basically… undone. She has to learn how to walk again, talk again, eat, drink, think… she can never, ever, ever live without full-time care for the rest of her life. She ends up in a hospital. Rose Kennedy never says her daughter’s name again, either spoken or in writing, for two decades, and she ends up telling the younger children that Rosemary “went to the Midwest to become a teacher.” Though, information doubtless got out. Apparently, Ted Kennedy believed that if he cried too much, his dad would give him a lobotomy too.
Just a whole family of peachy assbags.
Now, away from how putrid and repugnant these people are, everyone seemed to deal with the issue of Rosemary differently. JFK and Ted both worked to pass very forward-thinking disability legislation. Eunice Kennedy was likely impacted by Rosemary’s story earlier than many of her siblings. She was very close to Rosemary, and the loss of her sister really, profoundly had a very severe emotional and physical impact on her. She ended up with her own health problems, and actually started the Special Olympics. I swear to god, Eunice and Rosemary were probably the only two people in the entire family that didn’t really piss me off on some fundamental level.
And, let me be clear: It is really, really good that the kids of these two pukes worked hard through social work and legislation to profoundly alter the lives of millions of disabled Americans due to their own reckoning with their sister’s story. That being said, what happened to Rosemary is appalling, and that it took twenty years of her being hidden away in some backwater town in Wisconsin before any of them learned, definitively, what happened to their own sister is honestly grotesque.
So now that I’ve spoiled the plot and ranted for a billion words here, let me say that this book is very much worth reading, but my god is it full of emotional landmines, and it rose up a fury in me which was, quite frankly, stunning. I knew absolutely nothing about the Kennedys going into this, and now that I’m done reading it, I really, profoundly dislike nearly the entire family. Rosemary’s story, however, is one that needs to be told. It’s beyond tragic, but she deserves to be known. She never had a voice. Never got a say in her own life. Never got any measure of self. She was lost in the shuffle of an upward-moving family, and my god is it sad.
Basically, if you read this book, read it to be aware of what happened, what some people suffered through, and please, for the love of god, read this book and do everything these human sacks of crap did not do for their own daughter.
I can’t even rate this book. It was really good, but the content pissed me off so much I just don’t even know where to put it on a scale of one to five stars.