Let’s be real. The deaths of JFK and Robert Kennedy were ultra-traumatizing. So traumatizing, in fact, that just thinking about the events that occurred decades ago is enough to bring a tear to your eye. But what most Americans don’t realize is that the stories of the brothers aren’t even the greatest Kennedy family tragedies. These words are kind of hard to wrap your head around, but the horrific fate of their sister, Rosemary, was far, far worse.
Take a minute to mentally prepare yourself for what you’re about to read, because it’s disturbing as hell.
The odds were stacked against Rosemary literally from birth. According to Kate Clifford Larson’s book Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter, when her mother, Rose, went into labor on Sept. 13, 1918, the nurse on duty tried to stall her progress by forcing her knees closed because the doctor was with other patients and the nurse didn’t want to deliver the baby herself, even though she was trained to do so. The baby was forced to remain in the birth canal for two hours, causing a critical loss of oxygen.
Rosemary suffered developmental delays as a child, which did not fit in with her father, Joe Kennedy’s, vision for the perfect American family. After private tutors failed to yield the intellectual results he desired, Rosemary was shuttled off to a series of boarding schools. Letters from this period reveal a young girl desperate to please her father — in one she wrote, “I would do anything to make you so happy.” And she was forced to endure experimental injections meant to curb hormone imbalances her father believed were causing her mood swings.
Rosemary was by all accounts a sociable, happy girl, even making a stunning debut at Buckingham Palace while her father was the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain. But a sudden move back home to the U.S. from her British boarding school caused a massive regression in her intellectual development and she began acting out. Fearful of a scandal that could prove disastrous to Joe’s dreams of a family political dynasty, and without telling his wife, he arranged a procedure that even the American Medical Association had already warned against: a prefrontal lobotomy.
The 1941 surgery was perfunctory and brutal. A surgeon drilled two holes in her head and scraped away at brain tissue while a psychologist asked a still-conscious Rosemary to sing songs and recite stories until she became incoherent, then finally silent. Once vivacious and charming, if a bit behind her peers, she was left with the mental capacity of a toddler, her entire left side nearly paralyzed.
It gets worse.
Rosemary was shuttled off to a care home in New York State, and Joe continued to lie to his wife and other children about what happened to her. His story? That a doctor informed him the best thing for Rosemary was to be institutionalized with absolutely no contact with anyone. And for 20 years, that’s exactly what happened — no one knew where she was and could not even visit her.
Several years later, when it was discovered she was being sexually abused, she was moved to a different facility, this one in Wisconsin. For those keeping track at home, that’s one severe brain injury at birth, a lobotomy, loss of speech, trapped in her own body and sex abuse.
It wasn’t until Joe was incapacitated himself by a massive stroke and the bills stopped getting paid that Rose finally discovered what happened to her oldest daughter.
When Rose visited after a 20 year separation, it was not a happy reunion. In her book The Missing Kennedy, author Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff wrote that when Rose opened her arms to embrace her daughter, Rosemary “beat her mother’s chest with her fists shrieking with a primordial ‘AAAARRRCK!'” She recognized the fact that her family had abandoned her for the previous two decades.
From then on, until her 2005 death, Rosemary spent more and more time with her family, although her brothers John and Robert never did visit her before their deaths and the relationship with her mother remained tense.
Rosemary died at her nursing home in 2005 with her four surviving siblings by her side.
The tragedy that befell Rosemary was partially due to the times in which she lived — children with special needs were hidden away then, especially by upper-class and Catholic families who saw their presence as shameful — and partially due to her father’s unbridled ambition for a political dynasty. While her story was greatly overshadowed by the lives and deaths of her brothers, it’s a dire warning to women who dare stand in the way of a man’s ambition — even if, like Rosemary, they were never given any choice in the matter.
Originally posted March 2017. Updated August 2017.