THE WORLD DOES NOT LACK for Kennedy biographies. Yet more continue to arrive, promising fresh angles and as-yet-unexplored source materials. A recent pair have sought to reframe the family through the lens of one of its longest-held secrets: the life of Rosemary Kennedy, who was born with intellectual disabilities about a year after the birth of her most famous brother, Jack, and whose disastrous 1941 lobotomy did not become known to the public for more than 40 years.
The 2015 book Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson concludes with a 2007 eulogy for Rosemary given by her sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver. “[M]ore than any single individual,” Eunice says, “Rosemary made the difference.” Lest this vague superlative confuse the reader — more than any single individual? — Larson ties her book up with the following bow: “Through the loving, indomitable spirit of Rosemary, the Kennedy family found one of its greatest missions, and in doing so changed millions of lives.”
Eileen McNamara tells a similar tale in her 2018 biography, Eunice: The Kennedy who Changed the World. But whereas Rosemary credits Rosemary with precipitating the Kennedy family’s work around disability, Eunice credits Eunice. McNamara argues that Eunice — the driving force behind the Special Olympics and an advocate for people with disabilities for decades — “left behind the Kennedy family’s most profound and lasting legacy,” namely “one of the great civil rights movements, on behalf of millions of people across the world with intellectual disabilities.”
This is no Kennedy family hagiography. McNamara catalogs Eunice’s faults, particularly her impatience, her tendency to place excessive and perhaps demeaning demands on her employees, and her aversion to self-reflection. Eunice, per McNamara, “mastered” the “special Kennedy skill” of being able “to simultaneously know and not know inconvenient truths that contradicted the family’s carefully curated narrative.” She would work to cover over those inconvenient truths, among them the infidelities of her father and her brother Jack, the Chappaquiddick incident involving her brother Ted, allegations against nephews for heroin possession and rape, and Rosemary’s lobotomy.
Larson, for her part, shows the unfortunate ways the family treated Rosemary. We see how Rosemary’s parents, Joe and Rose, refused to acknowledge either to themselves or others the extent of their daughter’s impairments — to see her for who she was as opposed to who they wished her to be. We see the strain this placed on Rosemary, who was shuttled between boarding schools and doctors in her early years in pursuit of an elusive cure for her disabilities. And we imagine in detail, with Larson’s help, the lobotomy Rosemary had at the age of 23 — an operation that transformed her from an independent young woman whose disabilities were often hard to discern into a person able to speak only a handful of words and able to move only with difficulty. She would spend most of the remaining six decades of her life in a Wisconsin institution.
It feels almost inevitable when Larson and McNamara suggest that these unsettling parts of the story served a greater good. Biography is supposed to set out the significance of a life, so biographers elevate the influence of their subjects. These books, moreover, are not just any biographies; they are biographies that center on Kennedys and on disability. The Kennedy brand has been burnished and mythologized for more than three-quarters of a century. And readers have come to expect — perhaps even demand — that stories about disability feel hopeful and uplifting, not disquieting or ambiguous. Given these pressures, it is perilously easy for the unvarnished truths of Rosemary to be lost, even if we set out with best intentions to find her as she really was.
The Kennedy family’s efforts to curate a family brand may not seem extraordinary amid the omnipresent branding of today. Yet it was a startling story in its time: a patriarch, Joe Kennedy, who rose from modest beginnings to build not just a vast fortune, but a family ethos that propelled his sons Jack, Bobby, and Ted into the highest echelons of American political life. Eunice rose along with them, and Kennedys continue to wield considerable influence today.
From the beginning, the family brand was suffused with smarts and wealth and glamour. As a childhood friend of Rosemary’s wrote of her siblings: “They looked, and were, so American. All had smiles that never ended, with such perfect teeth each one of them could have advertised toothpaste.” Consistent with the family mystique, this friend was Maria Riva, the daughter of one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Marlene Dietrich. Riva wrote she was drawn to Rosemary, “the damaged child” of the Kennedy clan, because Rosemary was a “misfit” like she was. The Kennedy brand, however, did not welcome misfits.
Rosemary knew this. Even if she struggled with the rigors of her schooling — at the age of 18, she remained at fourth- and fifth-grade levels in math and English — her childhood letters betray a vibrant and curious mind. One can see the joy she felt from being with friends and going to dances, the sense of purpose she derived from teaching young children, and perhaps most of all the sadness behind her efforts to win the approval of her demanding father.
“I would do anything to make you so happy,” Rosemary wrote Joe in a letter from the boarding school she attended in 1934. “I hate to Disspoint you in anyway. Come to see me very soon. I get very lonesome everyday. See you soon I hope. It was raining to-day. So We could not play hockey. So we went to Franklin Park. We had lots of Fun. I bought a New Hockey Stick for $4.35. Most Sticks cost $6.00. I got a very good one.”
As the family’s prominence grew, the seeming incongruity between Rosemary and the Kennedy brand became a more delicate matter. Rosemary could pass for a person without disabilities in public. Indeed, she participated, with her sister Kick, in debutante balls in London in the spring of 1938, during a period when Joe was serving as an ambassador there. Larson reports that “Rosemary was stunning, more beautiful than her sister,” and that her “striking beauty — lovely features, a broad, perfect smile, and a buxom figure” attracted men’s attention.
But when it came to explaining Rosemary’s academic and professional difficulties, Joe and Rose obfuscated. They told reporters she was a teacher at a school in England where, in fact, she was more akin to a student. When Rosemary was institutionalized after the lobotomy, they initially told reporters she was a schoolteacher who preferred her privacy. As more details came out during Jack’s presidential campaign, the narrative remained a sanitized one: the family was vague about the extent of Rosemary’s disabilities and did not mention the lobotomy.
The Kennedy family’s attitude, of course, was not merely a product of its branding efforts. This was the story of disability in American life: people were hidden away in institutions amid shame and stigma. Even today, our more expansive views of disability — shaped, in part, by Kennedy-driven reforms — leave many of the same exclusionary pressures intact. Disability is defined in part as a relation to a hostile world: as well meaning as the world might be, a trait is disabling if it hinders us from being at home within it. And as well meaning as the Kennedys might have been, it would have been difficult for Rosemary to find a place within a family in which the abilities and ambitions of her siblings quickly left her far behind.
The complexity of this dynamic, and its wrenching quality, is at times apparent in Larson’s and McNamara’s books. But it tends to be left in the middle distance, secondary to building a feel-good story. Larson, for instance, spends a considerable amount of energy pondering who knew what, when about Rosemary’s lobotomy: Did Rose participate in Joe’s decision to move forward with it? And when did the other Kennedy siblings learn about the operation?
Posing these questions becomes a way not to ask deeper, more painful ones. Could this have been a literal death wish, conscious or otherwise, on Joe’s part? Why was it that Joe sent her away and saw her only a handful of times after the surgery — never after she was moved to the Wisconsin institution in 1949? Even if Joe didn’t wish Rosemary dead, what did the decision to proceed with the operation reflect about how he and the family saw her? And what was the effect on Eunice and the other children of seeing their sister so profoundly and irrevocably harmed by an act of their father’s will?
Rosemary was among the first 80 patients of Walter Freeman, the infamous pioneer of the now-discredited lobotomy in the United States. He promoted the operation, Larson notes, as a way to cure “deep depression, mental illness, and violent, erratic, and hyperactive behavior.” None of these descriptors fit Rosemary, who at most had exhibited a mild degree of agitation and depression. Indeed, Larson points out, the surgery “was never meant to be used on intellectually disabled individuals” as a way curing their disabilities. Prior to Rosemary’s surgery, the American Medical Association had warned against use of the experimental procedure. And a journalist friend of Kick’s had told her that early results of the surgery were “not good.” Patients “don’t worry so much,” he said, “but they’re gone as a person, just gone.”
Larson sets out these disturbing details but seems intent on suppressing any real engagement with what they suggest about Joe and Rose. The result within her book can be an odd sort of displacement. For instance: After Larson describes the lobotomy, she recounts an interview Rose gave decades later to Doris Kearns Goodwin. Rose had thought that the lobotomy would help Rosemary, she told Kearns Goodwin, “but it made her go all the way back. It erased all those years of effort I had put into her. All along I had continued to believe that she could have lived her life as a Kennedy girl, just a little slower. But then it was all gone in a matter of minutes.”
To summarize the import of these comments Larson adds, confoundingly: “Rose’s frankness is revealing: the lobotomy had injured her as much as it had Rosemary.”
How’s that again? Rose, of course, did not have nerve endings in her brain severed until “she became incoherent.” Larson’s blandishment comes only a few pages after she invites the reader to imagine the sheer terror of that procedure, one in which Rosemary did not understand what was being done, one in which she remained awake and was asked to “recite simple songs and stories” as the doctors worked — until after a final cut, she “slowly stopped talking” and lapsed into silence. But it is the mother’s pain that matters for the remainder of Larson’s book, in which Rosemary is portrayed less as a person than as an inspiration.
The pivot in McNamara’s book is similarly swift. McNamara details how Eunice formed a special bond with Rosemary in childhood. And she describes how, in the 1960s, Eunice began visiting Rosemary in Wisconsin and “reintegrating her sister into the family that had abandoned her” for more than 20 years. But McNamara leaves the specifics of this reintegration unclear, saying little aside from that Rosemary and the nuns who cared for her traveled for “extended visits” with Eunice several times a year. Tellingly, photos of Rosemary in McNamara’s book are limited to the pre-lobotomy years. In the text, meanwhile, we see Rosemary not as a person but primarily as a symbol — the reason Eunice pressed her brother Jack to convene a special panel on mental disability during his presidency, the reason Eunice founded “Camp Shriver” for people with disabilities at her home, and the reason Eunice transformed a 1968 athletic competition in Chicago into the Special Olympics.
These measures were radical at the time. It is perhaps too easy to forget the fear people with intellectual disabilities then aroused, too easy to forget that they were often thought unable even to learn and often viewed as a sign that a family was “unfit.” Here was Eunice, inviting dozens of young people with disabilities to her home outside Washington for a summer camp, connecting them with high school student counselors from the community, getting into the pool herself to teach campers how to swim. Celebrities came to help popularize the cause: football drills with Jim Brown, baseball practice with Stan Musial. Children often cast as untouchables were becoming ambassadors to the wealthy and the famous, symbols of the possibilities of a more open and welcoming world.
And yet this, too, was a curated expression of the Kennedy family PR machine, an uplifting story for the cameras that buried the lede. Nowhere was the main character: an avid sportswoman transformed by surgery into a person who could barely talk or walk. McNamara recounts how Eunice, even as Rosemary approached old age, would use flashcards for hours at a time to try to help her sister regain words lost in the lobotomy: “Rosemary, this is a dog. Repeat after me: dog.” These sessions, McNamara suggests, were expressions of love, demonstrations that Eunice would always see the promise in her sister. But nuns from the institution were less impressed. Said one: “Eunice has no compassion for human weakness.”
If Rosemary might not fit the triumphant narrative, Eunice would make her fit. Tim Shriver, one of Eunice’s sons and now the chairman of the Special Olympics, perhaps reveals more than he realizes on this score in his 2014 book Fully Alive: Discovering What Matters Most. His mother, he writes, “taught us children that by force of will, we should see Rosemary as a winner.” Never mind the subtleties of what they really saw.
Perhaps the single constant in Rosemary’s life was the ambivalence of her family, who loved her and yet wished she were not herself. We see this in how Jack, who accompanied Rosemary to dances when they were teens, soon struggled not to seem embarrassed by her behavior in front of company. We see it in the lobotomy, a catastrophic betrayal coming from an almost willful blindness. And we see it even in Eunice’s devoted efforts with her sister.
Both Larson and McNamara invite us to avert our eyes from this ambivalence in favor of a more uplifting message. Difficult as Rosemary’s life may have been, we are told, it helps teach us about our common humanity, about how we are more similar than we are different, about how our abilities are more important than our disabilities. This message may sound familiar. It was Eunice’s for decades, and it remains at the core of the Special Olympics. But in the feel-good story, we can lose sight of who Rosemary was and all that she endured.
Presented with the tragedies of Rosemary’s life, we might be tempted to judge the Kennedys harshly: if only they had treated her better, if only they had quashed their mixed feelings. But some amount of ambivalence around disability may well be inevitable. Rosemary’s disabilities — before and after the lobotomy — were a fundamental part of who she was, a constitutive element of her being. To love her was to love that part of her. Yet we call certain traits “disabilities” — rather than mere differences — for a reason. It is hardly surprising that the Kennedys would love Rosemary as one of their own and yet also be repelled by the disabilities that made her different.
Some dispute that certain “disabilities” are anything other than mere differences. Think, for instance, of blindness and deafness, or of Asperger’s. Perhaps what is truly disabling, in those cases, is how we choose to structure the world, not the limitation in question. But in cases of really significant impairments, like Rosemary’s after her lobotomy, it becomes much harder to maintain that they are mere differences, not disabilities. We see Rosemary’s lobotomy as a disaster because it left her incapable of doing nearly everything we associate with a good life. And no amount of social reconstruction could bring those capacities back.
In the eulogy that closes McNamara’s book, Eunice describes her sister’s influence on their brother Jack. “Truthfully,” she says, “I believe Rosemary’s rejection had far more to do with the brilliance of his Presidency than anyone understands.” She continues:
I believe it was Rosemary’s influence that sensitized him […] I think I can say that no one author among the thousands who have written about him has understood what it was really like to be a brother of a person with intellectual disability. And tonight, I want to say what I have never said before: more than any one single individual, Rosemary made the difference.
Eunice’s point, it seems, is not merely that Rosemary sensitized Jack to issues around disability. Rather, she sensitized him as a man.
I know what it is “really like” to be the brother of a person with intellectual disability. And I am uncomfortable with this claim. There is a way in which Eunice’s words ring true to me: my own sister has no doubt sensitized me in this sense. But I don’t want to think of her experience as justified for that reason. Her life isn’t a straightforward story of inspiration. It’s a story full, as well, of pain and pathos, and of confronting the ambivalence of those around her. It’s a story that is only intelligible in relation to the unique person that she is, not some grand narrative.
There are glimpses, in Larson’s and McNamara’s books, of the unique person Rosemary was. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is how fleeting those glimpses necessarily are. The life that stretched before Rosemary at the time of her lobotomy vanished in an instant. Her story is largely one of loss — the loss of herself. Larson and McNamara try to fill the void left by this loss. But that project isn’t really about finding Rosemary. It’s about finding a way to avoid grappling with how little we can hope to find of her at all.