Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter

by Kate Clifford Larson

I’ve never much been into learning about the presidents.  Political intrigue is not my thing.  It makes me paranoid.  The only brief interest I’ve had in any president is Thomas Jefferson, mostly because his love story with Sally Hennings captured my imagination.

Rosemary_Kennedy_at_Court
Rosemary’s presentation in the English court

Fun side note, I got a lot of dirty looks on the family vacation to Monticello when I pointed out the secret cupboard in his room and asked if that was for Sally.  Mom pinched me and said in a quite voice “they don’t like to talk about that here.” That’s when I learned what “damn yankee”.

Recently I was challenged to pick a biography on a woman, after browsing the shelves of Barnes and Noble I decided on Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter.  It wasn’t super long, and the picture on the front captured me. I had learned somewhere JFK had a sister with learning disabilities who was lobotomized but it’s not something that has really sunk in.  Like, if I was playing a game of Trivia Crack and had to answer the question “Which of these four US presidents had a sister that was lobotomized” I would have chosen Kennedy, but it’s not something I recalled without the hint.

The biography moves quickly, and I never experienced boredom or felt like the story was dragging on.  Clifford Lawson did an excellent job of showing both the Kennedy glamour and dysfunction (weekly weigh ins for children, anyone?)

I get that American society has far to go.  But, it’s hard to imagine just how far we’ve come until you read a book that highlights just how few rights there were for the mentally handicapped and women during the early to mid parts of the 20th century.  It’s astounding to me a man could lobotomize his adult daughter without her consent, or that of her mother.  The book brings statistics to light and acknowledges that 80% of those lobotomized were women.  80%!!

The book is enjoyable, informative, and a quick read.  The author resisted the urge to go down rabbit holes, something I think is easy to do in biographies.  It is also surprisingly easy to keep track of all the people despite there being many characters and having them dip in and out of the story.

Criticisms I’ve read have a lot to do with how depressing the book is.  Whenever I read a review that says it’s too depressing I want to say “gee I’m sorry you had to read a depressing book about somebody else life.” Larson simply reported the facts, she wasn’t adding gore for the sake of it being depressing. It’s sad and tragic, but I don’t think there is anything near making it impossible to read.  The only part that was a tad hard for me to read was the description of the lobotomy.  Although I’m not sure if it was the description so much as knowing that you are watching a train wreck.

Read It If:

  • You want a Biography that reads like a novel
  • You’re interested in history of intellectual disabilities
  • You can hang in there with Rosemary as she struggles through life during the time when eugenics was a popular idea

Skip It If:

  • You struggle with realistic stories of pain and suffering
  • You can’t handle any negative thoughts about the Kennedy’s

What to Read Next:

Another view of the Kennedy’s: Kick Kennedy: The Charmed Life and Tragic Death of the Favorite Kennedy Daughter by Barbara Leaming. Kick appears a lot in Rosemary, and next to Eunice was the person I most wanted to get to know in the book.

More on lobotomies: My Lobotomy by Howard Dully.  While Rosemary’s lobotomy left her deeply disabled this author’s experience was quite different, but still a horrifying journey with difficult outcomes.

More on high society women of the era: The Swans of 5th Avenue Melanie Benjamin.  This is more of a fun read, but it does continue to bring to light the difficult position women had in society at this time.  Bonus it also highlights another celebrity… Truman Capote.

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About Kaitey Moore 40 Articles
Kaitlin Moore Morley is passionate about storytelling, the kind of our imagination and the kind of our experiences. She works as a hospital chaplain where she collects love stories and as a pastor where she collect biblical narrative. She holds an undergraduate in Social Anthropology from the University of Manchester in England and a Master of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. She lives in Evansville, Indiana in an old (very cold) Victorian house with her husband, Darren and their dog Olga.

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