I 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.
If 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.
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.