The Kennedys' Darkest Secret Comes To Light

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The Kennedy family does not lack for scandals. For all their political success and adulation as American royalty, they are equally known as a lineage dotted with horrific deaths and shocking tabloid headlines, from assassinations to ill-concealed alleged affairs at the White House.

But one member of the clan has long been relegated to mystery, and only recently have the real facts about her story come to light. Rosemary Kennedy was JFK's sister, the eldest daughter of Joseph and Rose Kennedy. Though a member of one of the country's most visible families, she was hidden from the public and, indeed, her own siblings, for most of her life. Many have a vague concept of her as a disabled woman — unable to walk or speak — but few know the truth about her disability, and its origins. In her new book, The Hidden Kennedy, historian Kate Clifford Larson reveals the tragic truth about why.

Rosemary was born on September 13, 1918, and from the start, it was clear she had some level of developmental delay, possibly due to medical errors during her birth.

"She was a cute happy kid, who also was frustrated because she couldn't keep up with her siblings," says Larson, who spent nearly a decade researching Rosemary's life, using both personal accounts and family documents — only recently made available at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Furthermore, Rosemary was prone to mood swings and physical aggression. "Clearly, there were some mental health issues along with intellectual disabilities," notes Larson. The exact diagnosis (if there was one) has never been made public, but under the watch of her highly ambitious and critical parents, there was no room for anything less than perfection.

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"I was so sad to learn that she was sent away to boarding school at the young age of just 11 years old," says Larson. "And her letters home just pour out her loneliness — how much she wants to see her parents and her siblings. It’s so heartbreaking."

Regardless of her alleged psychiatric and intellectual issues, Rosemary was fully capable of socilizing and expressing herself, even making rare appearances alongside her accomplished siblings. At 19, she even attended an audience with King George VI during her father's tenure as U.N. ambassador to the U.K. Described as "curvy and vivacious" in Larson's book, Rosemary soon became a liability in her father's eyes.

"There was great concern about her sexuality," says Larson. As a teenager, Rosemary had been sent to live in a convent, from which the nuns reported she would often sneak out. They told her parents that, "She would come home and she had been drinking and she would be all messed up — leaves in her hair and things like that. The implication was that she was out meeting men and having sexual encounters. And that obviously scared Joe very much."

This is perhaps why, in 1941, when Rosemary was 23, her father decided to have her lobotomized.

"She was one of the first 100 patients to ever have it done," says Larson. At the time, transorbital lobotomies (or "ice-pick lobotomies," the first of which were performed with actual ice picks), were becoming a popular treatment for mental illness, as well as other apparent maladies. Dr. Walter Freeman made his style of treatment famous for it's effectiveness and expediency, traveling the country in what he called his "lobotomobile" and performing up to 10 lobotomies per day. It was a barbaric procedure, typically done without anesthesia, wherein the instrument was inserted via a patient's eye socket with a hammer, and scraped back and forth along the frontal lobe of the brain. As a result, lobotomy patients were said to become "calm and docile."

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It's worth noting, as Larson does, that although women only made up 40% of psychiatric patients, 80% of lobotomies were performed on women. Typical diagnoses were things like homosexuality or nymphomania. "A lot of it was tied up in women's behavior that was outside the societal norms at that time," says Larson. "And men had so much power over their daughters, sisters, wives. And mothers, too, for that matter." Joseph may have thought the procedure would stop Rosemary's alleged promiscuous behavior. Instead, she lost the ability to walk, speak, and maintain continence.

While many lobotomy patients came through with their faculties intact, Rosemary's famously botched lobotomy made her an even greater shame to her family. She was quickly institutionalized and remained so, for the rest of her life. Her siblings weren't told what happened, and most of them didn't know where she was for 10 years. The ones who did know, apparently respected their parents' wishes to keep Rosemary's condition a secret; in her own research and interviews, Larson found that, "the younger generation really had little information given to them by their parents and their aunts and uncles about what happened to Rosemary." Some, she claims, want her story told, while others would prefer to keep it quiet, still.

Though she gathered much of her background research on Rosemary from family documents at the JFK Library, Larson says that, "perhaps even more telling was the amount of information that wasn’t there." She found records showing that hundreds of documents related to Rosemary had been withdrawn from public access.

Rosemary spent the rest of her life institutionalized in Wisconsin, until her death in 2005. Her mother didn't visit her for 20 years. Her father never saw her again. Only after Joseph's death did the other Kennedy children begin to visit Rosemary, or bring her home to meet their own families. Two generations later, the Kennedy family remains an enduring symbol of aristocratic glamour, no matter what scandal befalls them. We watch their lives with eagle eyes, waiting for the next new icon or tabloid headline — whichever comes first. Meanwhile, Rosemary's life remains releagated to rumor, all but erased from the picture.
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