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A Haunted Baby Sister

Eunice Kennedy shriverI don’t know much more about Eunice Kennedy Shriver than what the general public knows, but the fact that she worked tirelessly on behalf of people with mental disabilities, and had a sister who was believed to be mentally challenged, tells me a great deal about her. In the book A Difference in the Family, Helen Featherstone names embarrassment, identification, and confusion to be common among siblings of children with disabilities. A disability in the family, she says, “shifts organization and alignments of family members,” and siblings are frequently “cast in the role of pint-sized parents.”

Eunice was the only Kennedy sibling who continued, during the course of her sister’s lifetime, to visit her on a regular basis. (Rosemary Kennedy died in
2005). While we cannot know the exact effect Rosemary had on her younger sister, Eunice’s work to improve the lives of people with mental disabilities is evidence that her influence was strong. In 1984, when President Ronald Reagan awarded Mrs. Shriver the Presidential Medal of Freedom he said:

With enormous conviction and unrelenting effort, Eunice Kennedy Shriver has labored on behalf of America’s least powerful people, those with mental retardation. Over the last two decades, she has been at the forefront of numerous initiatives on behalf of the mentally retarded, from creating day camps, to establishing research centers, to the founding of the Special Olympics program. Her decency and goodness have touched the lives of many, and Eunice Kennedy Shriver deserves America’s praise, gratitude and love.

What Ronald Reagan failed to mention, and what most people didn’t know—and still don’t know, since today’s eulogies aren’t telling the truth—is that the circumstances of Rosemary Kennedy’s life were even more gut-wrenching than your normal heartbreaking tale of disability. Rosemary Kennedy’s story is enough to rip out the heart of the most hardened of creatures.

As a child Rosemary appeared to be somewhat slower than her siblings–but in a family where everyone had an IQ of 130, if hers was 90 or 100, she would appear slow. According to Wikipedia, a former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, a Dr. Brown, called Rosemary’s story “the biggest mental health cover-up in history.” It was the family’s treatment of Rosemary, he said, that led to her mental illness: “I think it’s likely she was somewhat slower than the others. Then she was treated as if she was retarded. Then it becomes reactive depression, including rages and loss of control.… she reacted to being treated as a lesser member of the family.”

At adolescence, Rosemary’s mood swings worsened. She did things like sneak out of the convent where she was being educated—behavior that is, in my world, in line with normal teenage rebellion. But Joseph Kennedy did not expect or tolerate rebellion, teenage or otherwise, so when a doctor friend suggested “a cutting edge procedure” to “help calm her mood swings that the family found difficult to handle,” Joseph Kennedy gave permission for the procedure. Rosemary Kennedy’s operation was only the 66th pre-frontal
lobotomy in history. Instead of producing the hoped-for result, it reduced Rosemary to an infantile mentality. Her verbal skills became unintelligible babble. Her mother Rose, who may not even have known about the lobotomy until after the fact, was devastated, and considered it the first of the Kennedy family tragedies.

Dr. Walter Freeman, who performed the lobotomy, went on to do more than 3000 more before losing his medical license due to a patient’s death. Rosemary was institutionalized for the rest of her life and became detached from the Kennedy clan. Eunice grew up to champion the rights of the mentally challenged. Her most well-known work was co-founding the Special Olympics in 1968, but Eunice’s list of achievements on behalf of the mentally disabled is as long as my arm.

Kennedy kidsIf not for Eunice it’s possible we wouldn’t know even of Rosemary’s existence: she was kept a family secret, like countless “madwomen in the attic” from all but the closest of friends, until John F. Kennedy became President, and Eunice wrote a cover story for The Saturday Evening Post. Even that story didn’t tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help us god. Perhaps Eunice didn’t know it. Still, she passionately believed that those living with intellectual disabilities should not live in isolation and neglect the way her sister did, and spent her life acting on those beliefs.

I was outraged when I first learned about Rosemary Kennedy many years ago. Since then, I’ve never been able to respect Joseph Kennedy, famous American patriarch. Think of it: the man devotes his life to attaining high public office for his sons, while for his daughter he orders up a lobotomy.

Moon blue

In families with disability there’s always collateral damage, but Eunice was one sister who did the best anyone could do with such enormous pain—talk about making lemonade from lemons! Today, upon her death, I remember her as well as Rosemary, and I remind myself that she probably wasn’t, as the media keep repeating, “mentally retarded.” Her life was a needless tragedy by which more than one Kennedy daughter was injured. Just this once I’m with Ronald Reagan, remembering Eunice Kennedy Shriver with praise, gratitude and love.


21 responses »

  1. Absolutely fascinating story. I had no idea.

  2. Thank you for this piece. It illustrates Mrs. Kennedy Shriver’s willingness and ability to turn a family tragedy into meaningful societal change. Perhaps that is the lesson here.

  3. I remember reading about Rosemary Kennedy many years ago; it is totally appalling how the father sanctioned this procedure, as you say. However I know that, sadly, the mother DID know about the procedure(and perhaps even condoned it too). The article I read discribed in graphic detail how they performed the lobotomy and the desired outcome WAS to reduce the patient to a vegetable(more managable). UGH
    How wonderful that Eunice cared for her little sister all of her life….

    Thanks for the info, though I am sorry to hear that Rose knew, and that the outcome was what they wanted (which isn’t what Wikipedia says, but is as I suspected). I was trying to give Rose at least the benefit of the doubt.–MS

  4. Thanks for sharing this!

  5. RIP, Eunice Kennedy Shriver. In a family and time dominated by men, you blazed your own trail and made the world a better place.

  6. In a 1993 article in US News & World Report, Harrison Rainie wrote “when the full judgement on the Kennedy legacy is made – including JFK’s Peace Corps and Alliance for Progress, Robert Kennedy’s passion for civil rights and Ted Kennedy’s efforts on health care, workplace reform and refugees – the changes wrought by Eunice Shriver may well be seen as the most consequential”. Today I believe this prediction to be true. She was indeed the greatest of the famous siblings.

  7. Great story. You taught me something today. Keep writing.


    Thank YOU!–MS

  8. Thanks for sharing.

  9. We know so much, and yet know so little. The world will miss Eunice.

  10. I have known about the Rosemary Kennedy cover-up for many years. She was not mentally retarded! All those who perpetuated the belief that she was mentally retarded should be ashamed. I have always wondered whether Eunice Kennedy Shriver knew the truth.

    You know, the more I’ve thought about it the past two days, the more I think you’re right–that first of all, she was never even mildly retarded, it was all because of the lobotomy, which they gave her for not conforming; and secondly, I’ll bet the way it was presented to Eunice and the other kids, was in such a way as to evade the whole truth. I’ll bet that Eunice felt suspicious all her life, and that’s partly why she threw herself into the cause. In that sense, maybe Rosemary was a martyr to the cause…I hope someday the whole truth will be told. MS

  11. One fact most people do not know with regard to Rosemary Kennedy’s tragic story is that she had sexual relations with a male patient from the institution she was staying at. She became pregnant. When her parents-(Joseph & Rose Kennedy) found out they…did not want to be publicly embarrassed… So, Rosemary Kennedy did indeed have the baby ( a little boy) and he was…raised by nuns until a poor family adopted him. He was ostracized from the Kennedy clan and all hospital records of his birth…were destroyed when the orphanage mysteriously burnt down… This is a true …story. However, it is impossible to find any records of the birth…due to the ‘clout’ that the Kennedys still have… My husband happens to work with a man whose wife’s father is the ‘lost little Kennedy baby’.

    Who knows if this is true or not…if anyone else knows anymore about it, let us know.–MS

  12. Rosemary could have discovered {the} gifts she had, {but} the lobotomy limited her ability…In honest truth, the Kennedy curse really began with Rosemary’s lobotomy. I think putting Rosemary away in an institution far away, ignoring her, and never seeing her again was the biggest sin that the Kennedy family did. In my opinion, this was worse than their extra-marital affairs and even Chappaquiddick. Because of their treatment of Rosemary, the Kennedy family deserved their curse.

    I have read over and over that Eunice had the closest relationship with Rosemary before and after the lobotomy. Eunice lived 88 years. She was survived by her husband and all of her children; none of them died before she did and they always appeared healthy. She never divorced her husband and was alert and active until the very end. Her father spent his last eight years incapacitated and her mother, eleven. Four of her and Rosemary’s siblings died before the age of 50 {except} Ted {who}died at 77, younger than Eunice and Rosemary, and he had divorced and two of his kids had cancer. Pat spent the last five or six years suffering from cancer; she divorced and died at the age of 82. Eunice was the {only} one who made the effort to have contact with Rosemary in her later years. She helped other people in similar situations to Rosemary, by starting the Special Olympics and…speaking to Congressmen to pass legislation to improve the lives of people living with disabilities. I think Eunice deserved to live long and have all of her children with her at the end.

  13. Here is an article that I found about Rosemary:

    Few Knew About Kennedy’s Visits To Jefferson
    By Michael George

    Audio: Andrea Speth of St. Coletta’s on 620WTMJ’s “Wisconsin’s Morning News”

    JEFFERSON – Few members of the public knew about it at the time, but for decades, Senator Ted Kennedy and his family members would come to Jefferson, Wisconsin regularly. They were visiting his sister Rosemary, who had been a resident at St. Coletta of Wisconsin for close to 60 years.

    Rosemary Kennedy was 23 when a lobotomy left her with severe developmental disabilities. Her family placed her in the care of St. Coletta, a Catholic organization providing a home and services for people with disabilities.

    “I think there’s a conception, or misconception, I should say, that they weren’t very involved in her life, and that’s just completely wrong. They were very close siblings and she was an integral component of their life,” said Andrea Speth, spokeswoman for St. Coletta.

    Ted Kennedy and his family visited Jefferson since Rosemary came to St. Coletta in the late 1940s. But few people outside of Jefferson knew about the trips to Wisconsin.

    “They did what they did on the national level to promote the rights of people with disabilities, but this was their private story. We were always conscious to respect that privacy. The time they spent with their sister was really sacred, and they would come and go very quietly,” Speth said.

    Rosemary passed away in 2005. With Ted Kennedy’s death on Wednesday, the family’s loss is being felt at St. Coletta. The staff got to see a side of him that few ever saw.

    “He’ll be remembered for his sense of humor and for his graciousness and his charm, as well as his true love for his sister,” Speth said.

    Senator Kennedy’s relationship with his sister and his visits to St. Coletta were an inspiration in his lifetime of fighting for the rights of those with disabilities.

    The Kennedy family was instrumental in creating the Special Olympics and Best Buddies programs.

    Thank you for sharing this–it’s most heartening to know that Ted and others in his family visited Rosemary.–MS

  14. In the early days children were contolled by their parents, they were treated as possessions. Joseph Kennedy was a dominant male so everyone in the family had to toe the line. Unfortunately for the Kennedy clan they can’t dictate to the powers that control fate and luck and so began a curse. When tragedies are man made, that’s when curses take effect. It happened in my own family. Lk X

  15. it is interesting to me that I can’t find the date on which the operation was done or the name of the hospital where it was conducted. If anyone out there knows the answers, I would love to know.

    That information might be in Wikipedia, which is where I found other information such as the doctor’s name (I cited it above).

  16. Kennedy’s are liars and continue the life-long cover ups of all the multiple horrific sins and crimes committed by them. Additionally I wil add, high achieving parents are still trying to “fix” their kids with experimental psychiatric interventions — now it’s psychotropic drugs. And we wonder why these very kids who are on prescribed medication since early elementary years become teens and young adults who shoot up schools and movie theaters.

  17. I think this is a hard thing on a family -Eunice is highly admired by me as a mother and grandmother of two special needs granddaughters.

  18. I’ve been re-reading these comments, and I just want to say, that as much outrage as the treatment of Rosemary elicits in me, I do NOT believe it to be the cause of the many Kennedy tragedies, nor do I believe they deserved them. That’s irrational voo-doo thinking. Many good people suffer all kinds of tragedies in life.

  19. Joe Kennedy tragically thought a lobotomy could fix his daughter who was slow compared to the other kids. Its not a crime to be slow, and she was experimented on because Joe Kennedy thought only about himself and the Kennedy name. He’s burning in hell as we speak.

  20. This post is a response to Holly Golightly’s comment above.

    While researching the Kennedy bloodline we found some information that suggested that Rosemary gave birth to a baby girl in 1945 who was adopted through Children’s Service Society of Wisconsin to a family in Green Bay, Wisconsin. However this is all that we have been able to find. If anyone else has further information we’d love to hear from you.

  21. Rob Gridwet I’d love to talk with you more. How can I contact you?

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