Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Exiled Life of Rosemary Kennedy

After a recent read through a 700-page dual biography of the Churchills and Kennedys, I took away one valuable piece of information: Joe Kennedy Sr. fucking sucks. Among all the reasons for why Joe's suck-level is astronomically high, the involvement in the fate of his daughter, Rosemary Kennedy, has resonated in my mind.

Image source: Kennedy Family Wiki
Born the year after JFK, Rosemary was Joe and Rose Kennedy's first daughter. She had cognitive disabilities, an impairment that frustrated the super-smart, super-robot Kennedy family. As a teenager, she was known for violent mood swings, which many believed were attributed to difficulties in keeping up with her siblings and the high standards placed upon them (by dad). By the time she reached her 20s, her IQ hadn't accelerated past that of a child between the mental ages of eight and twelve.

The family wondered what Rosemary's deal was. Her younger sister, Eunice, thought the condition stemmed from a deprivation of oxygen during a prolonged wait in the birth canal. Eunice should know because she was there during Rosemary's birth (she wasn't) and she is a trained OB-GYN (she's not). Rosemary's maternal grandparents were also blamed, as they were married second cousins.

Joe was worried Rosemary's behavior would bring shame and embarrassment to the family (as I read, was a common feeling among parents with disabled children during this time) and ruin his and his son's political careers. After hearing of a new neurosurgical procedure that would help calm her mood swings and outbursts, he volunteered his daughter for the operation. Allegedly, Joe didn't inform his wife of the lobotomy until after the procedure because she would have said, "hell fucking no, Joe, she won't go." 

One of the neurosurgeons who carried out the operation described what happened during the 23-year-old's prefrontal lobotomy:
"We went through the top of the head, I think she was awake. She had a mild tranquilizer. I made a surgical incision in the brain through the skull. It was near the front. It was on both sides. We just made a small incision, no more than an inch." The instrument Dr. Watts used looked like a butter knife. He swung it up and down to cut brain tissue. "We put an instrument inside," he said. As Dr. Watts cut, Dr. Freeman put questions to Rosemary. For example, he asked her to recite the Lord's Prayer or sing "God Bless America" or count backwards..... "We made an estimate on how far to cut based on how she responded." ..... When she began to become incoherent, they stopped.
After the botched lobotomy, Rosemary's mental capacity diminished to that of a two-year-old. She could not walk, speak intelligibly, or control her bowels. Thanks, dad.

Image source: People
She was placed in an institution in Wisconsin in 1949, where she lived until her death. As the Kennedys became more prominent due to JFK's political career, they blamed the absence on her reclusiveness. The Kennedys didn't mention her until after JFK won the presidency in 1961, and only then did they say she was deemed "mentally retarded." Joe built a private house for her a mile from the main campus with his guilt money. Rosemary's only company were her caregivers and her dog (not the one pictured, I think). Rose didn't visit her daughter for 20 years and Joe never visited. 

By 1969 she had learned to walk again, but with a limp. Rosemary never gained the ability to speak clearly and her arm was palsied. She died in 2005 from natural causes at the age of 86 with her remaining brother and sisters at her side. She is buried beside her parents in Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline, Massachusetts.

So. Was Joe Sr. trying to help her? Or help himself? Or both? Can he be blamed on taking advice given to him from goddamn neurosurgeons? Can this tragedy be attributed to the "norm" of the 1950s?

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