|Subject: Interesting article on Rosemary Kennedy and her impact on the family
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Date Posted: 19:26:18 03/08/05 Tue
ROSEMARY KENNEDY: THE IMPORTANCE OF A HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE
JOURNAL OF FAMILY HISTORY, July 2004
By Gerald O’Brien: Gerald O’Brien is an associate professor in the Social Work Department at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Primary research interests are historical issues in disabilities, analysis of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and contemporary ethical issues that pertain to persons with disabilities. He has recently published in Social Work (July 2003), Metaphor and Symbol (January 2003), and (with Christine Reynolds) the Journal of Social Work in Disability and Rehabilitation (May
In most accounts of the Kennedy family, Rosemary, John F .Kennedy’s eldest sister, has been discussed only in passing. In fact, there is much in Rosemary’s story that is instructive in regard to the effort families take to cope with disability, the impact of the social environment on such efforts, and the impact of a disabled member on the family as a whole. Rosemary’s presence within the Kennedy home may have been a much more important component of the family’ rise to prominence than most scholars appear to believe. This article describes Rosemary’s place within the family, attempts by her parents and siblings to cope with and obfuscate her condition, and her possible impact on family dynamics.
Keywords: Rosemary Kennedy; Kennedy family; family dynamics
Rosemary Kennedy was born on September 13, 1918. The third of nine Kennedy children, Rosemary would play a pivotal, though largely unrecognized, role in influencing the dynamics of this most famous of American families. In discussions of the family, Rosemary is usually relegated to “footnote status,” as John Kennedy’s retarded sister who was forced by her father to undergo a botched lobotomy that left her severely impaired and who continues to live in a Wisconsin institution. One could argue, however, that Rosemary’s presence in the Kennedy home was an extremely important factor in the drive for success that so typified the family and directly impacted the course of the nation.
The primary objective of this article is to describe Rosemary’s role within the Kennedy family. The article begins with a descriptive overview of Rosemary’s place within the family system. Following this, differing views of Rosemary’s “diagnostic condition” shall be discussed, as some controversy has arisen over this issue. The third section of the article will include a sociohistorical overview of the era within which Rosemary matured and the perception of intellectual disabilities during this era. An understanding of the cultural perception of disability, and especially feeblemindedness, 1 is extremely important in gaining an awareness of the environmental context within which the family operated. Last, the larger implications of this study will be discussed, especially in terms of the possible impact of overcompensation upon the other Kennedy children.
It should be noted at the outset that a clear understanding of the dynamics of the family, and Rosemary’s role within it, is severely undercut by the great lengths to which the family has gone to shield outsiders from any information that might be construed as damaging to the Kennedy name. As Gibson and Schwartz wrote, “None of the many stories about Rosemary’s young life can be believed with any certainty. Rosemary’s childhood history has been re-created in several different ways in ‘official’ family versions.”2 This obfuscation, along with the inbred nature of biographical works on the family, makes it difficult to know just how reliable existing accounts of the family are.
BACKGROUND AND PARENTAL RESPONSE
Rosemary was the third of the Kennedy children and the oldest girl. Preceded by Joe Jr. and John, she would have had a difficult time keeping pace with her older siblings even had she not been lacking in intellectual or physical ability. Rose, her mother, realized within a few years of Rosemary’s birth that her daughter took longer to reach developmental milestones than did the two boys. As Doris Goodwin noted, however, “Nothing prepared Rose for the heartbreak she would experience when she finally had to admit to herself that her beautiful daughter was retarded and had probably been so since birth.”3 Rose initially found ways to rationalize Rosemary’s lack of progress as a temporary problem. She and her husband engaged in a spree of doctor shopping as they desperately sought accurate diagnostic and treatment information related to their daughter.4
While Rosemary’s father, Joseph Sr., had an especially difficult time acknowledging that he had sired a retarded child, Rose attempted to treat her daughter as much as possible like the other children. Both parents denied their daughter’s condition, but this denial took a different form for each. While Joe Sr. largely ignored Rosemary, especially as she approached adolescence, Rose painstakingly worked with her daughter to mold her into a Kennedy.5 This response was in keeping with normative gender roles within the family. While all the Kennedy children were guided by both parents somewhat, the boys were expected, especially as they matured, to demonstrate more of their father’s values and role expectations and the girls more of their mother’s.6 While sexual conquest, for example, was an expected trait among the males in the household, the daughters were taught that an important element of their religious faith was abstinence until marriage.7
Rose, a strong Catholic, later rationalized that her daughter had been sent to them for a special purpose, “to do a work he cannot do through any other child.”8 Even if Rose believed that her daughter had been sent to her from God, however, this did not remove the shame that she and her husband felt toward Rosemary. This shame was a powerful, often overlooked force that influenced the family dynamics and brought it together as a cohesive family unit.9 It also had the effect of closing the family in upon itself, both to protect Rosemary from the outside world and “to protect the family image from the reality of Rosemary.”10 To those outside the tightly closed family circle, Rosemary’s condition was well hidden. A 1939 article in Reader’s Digest about the family of then-Ambassador Kennedy noted that twenty-year-old Rosemary was “studying to be a kindergarten instructor.”11 The shameful secret would not be shared with those outside the family until the 1960s, when political exigencies necessitated disclosure. Even into the 1960s, however, the truth about Rosemary’s condition was obscured. Koskoff noted that “accounts of the family dismissed Rosemary as the quiet one who had elected to devote her life to helping the handicapped with the sisters of St. Coletta.”12 A 1960 book on the family noted that Rosemary “was teaching in a school for retarded children inWisconsin.”13 This story was reprinted the following year in a New York Times article on John Kennedy’s Presidential Panel on Mental Retardation.14
As she grew, Rosemary became increasingly agitated as she failed to keep pace, both physically and intellectually, with even her younger siblings. “As her older brothers . . . moved out into the world,” Collier and Horwitz wrote, Rosemary “joined the circle of the younger children in the family. But now they too were striking out on their own, and she was left behind as the last and perpetual child.”15 Rosemary’s unhappiness hit a high point when she reached young adulthood. The beginning of World War II forced Joe to leave his ambassadorship position in Great Britain, and Rosemary was required to leave an English Montessori school where she had been quite happy.16 Upon moving back to the United States, Rosemary’s frustration increased and often gave way to acts of physical aggression.17 In addition, her parents were concerned about Rosemary’s sexual awakening.18 Rosemary being widely regarded as one of the most attractive of the Kennedy girls, Joe and Rose were extremely worried about the possibility that she would become sexually abused or pregnant.19 The latter possibility was a special source of anxiety to a father who was constantly concerned about political implications and a mother who was raising her daughters to be “good Catholics.”
Because of concerns about her growing aggression and sexuality, Joe Sr. decided, without consulting or informing his wife, to have a prefrontal lobotomy performed on Rosemary.20 Because of its importance in this case, a few words about the prefrontal lobotomy are in order. First, Rosemary’s surgery was performed very soon after the introduction of the technique in this country. Fewer than one hundred such operations had been completed at this time, and the procedure was very much experimental.21 The operation was recommended for “ ‘hopeless’ patients who had failed to respond to other methods of treatment, people who had little to lose and everything to gain.”22
This description hardly fit Rosemary Kennedy. The operation was performed by Walter Freeman and James Watts, the two leaders of the psychosurgery movement in the United States.23 Their seminal 1942 book Psychosurgery sheds little light on why they, or her father, might believe the operation could help Rosemary. They noted, for example, that “sexual behavior . . . does not seem to undergo any great alteration following prefrontal lobotomy.”24 Interestingly, one section in the book contends that while the operation did not necessarily increase IQ levels, it could help “patients think more constructively.” 25 A 1939 article in Science News Letter reported on a psychosurgery patient whose IQ increased following the operation. While this case did not involve Freeman or Watts, it is very likely they were familiar with it.26
Rosemary’s operation was a complete disaster, taking away many of the skills that she had developed through years of her mother’s perseverance.27 Rosemary was later placed in St. Coletta’s, a Wisconsin facility for persons with mental retardation, where she remains to this day.28 Considering her young age at the time of the operation compared to others who underwent the procedure, and the early date of the operation, Rosemary Kennedy probably holds the dubious distinction of being the longest surviving recipient of a lobotomy in the country.
Rose Kennedy was not even informed that a lobotomy had necessitated her daughter’s institutionalization for two decades. Once she was institutionalized, Rosemary was treated as if she were no longer a part of the family. In the family letters that Rose wrote after 1942, Rosemary’s name was not included along with those of her siblings, and she only received a few visits from family members over the next several decades.29
A QUESTION OF DIAGNOSIS
At this point, it may be helpful to look more closely at Rosemary’s “condition,” since diagnostics play a central role in how Rosemary was viewed by and treated within her family. While the family admitted in the early 1960s that Rosemary was originally diagnosed as retarded or, more specifically, feebleminded, this diagnosis has been questioned in several secondary sources. According to Ronald Kessler, one of the physicians to perform Rosemary’s unsuccessful lobotomy felt that Rosemary “suffered not from mental retardation but rather from a form of depression.”30 He wrote that the symptoms describing Rosemary at the time of the operation are in keeping with a depressive diagnosis.31 Kessler adds that Joe felt mental retardation to be a less stigmatizing condition than mental illness and thus preferred the former diagnosis. 32 As evidence of this, Kessler cites Dr. Bertram Brown, “a former director of the National Institute of Mental Health” and “a special assistant to executive director of the President’s Panel on Mental Retardation.” Based on his knowledge of family sources, Brown contended that Rosemary was mentally ill because “the stigma of mental illness in those days was like tuberculosis or cancer or worse. Mental retardation is more benignly not your fault.”33
There are several problems with Kessler’s contention that Rosemary was mentally ill. First and most important, the degree of stigma attached to feeblemindedness during the 1920s and 1930s was extraordinarily high. While many professionals felt mental illness to be a treatable condition, especially with the growth in Freudian psychotherapy, mental retardation was viewed as untreatable. The stigma of feeblemindedness will be discussed further below. Because of their knowledge of social issues, and their attempts to find a diagnostic reason for Rosemary’s lack of progress, Joe and Rose would certainly have known the extent of this stigma. Second, it was not Joe who shared Rosemary’s retardation with the public but Rose and Eunice, Rosemary’s sister. Joe would not admit publicly that Rosemary was mentally retarded.34 Last, the Kennedys’ involvement in activities and programs related to persons with mental retardation was extensive and very well known. From John Kennedy’s task force on mental retardation to multi-million-dollar research grants, the creation of Special Olympics to the Rosemary Kennedy school, the family has put a remarkable amount of time and money into services and research related to this population.35 It seems unreasonable to believe the family would go to such lengths simply to further the deception that Rosemary was not mentally ill but rather mentally retarded. Finally, a recent publication of the letters of Joe Sr. includes a 1934 letter he wrote to a physician wherein he stated that Rosemary “is still suffering from backwardness” and asking about a new glandular theory.36
Gibson and Schwartz, in their 1995 book Rose Kennedy and Her Family, contended that Rosemary was dyslexic and that her retardation was a “family myth.”37 The authors base this claim on an analysis of Rosemary’s handwriting and statements about her daughter’s writing difficulties that appeared in Rose Kennedy’s memoirs. It appears obvious from the secondary works about the family that Rosemary’s “problems,” especially as her parents identified them, were much more global than a specific learning disability would indicate. Elements of dyslexia may have been present, but Gibson and Schwartz too easily discount other aspects—both physical and mental— of Rosemary’s situation.38
Discussions about whether Rosemary was mentally retarded, mentally ill, or learning disabled are not only speculative but arise from an incorrect assumption about the nature of such diagnostic labels in the first place. Unlike specific verifiable conditions such as Down Syndrome or Alzheimer’s Disease, these more global categories are vaguely defined and, to a large degree, culturally constructed. Furthermore, scholars generally contend that Rosemary was either mentally retarded, mentally ill, or learning disabled, as if these broad conditions were mutually exclusive of one another. It may well be that Rosemary had characteristics that were typical of multiple diagnostic conditions. If she was “feebleminded,” or treated as such, Rosemary can easily have developed depression based on her inability to live up to her parents’ expectations and keep pace with her siblings. Diagnostic classifications and techniques were either rudimentary or, in the case of learning disabilities, nonexistent at the time Rosemary was maturing. In the end, the important question is not whether she “was” feebleminded or mentally ill but rather whether her parents believed that she was. This belief, and the reactions to it, are what would impact the development not only of Rosemary but also of all her siblings. Based on the historical evidence, it appears that Rosemary’s parents did believe she was mentally retarded. Unfortunately for Rosemary, the first half of the twentieth century was not at all a good time for a young woman to be feebleminded.
One cannot properly understand the coping strategies that are undertaken by any individual, family, or group unless a concomitant knowledge of prevailing societal norms, beliefs, and values are brought into play. Only thus can such situations be analyzed in their proper historical and environmental context. With this in mind, it is important to discuss the societal atmosphere within which Rosemary lived her formative years, focusing specifically on the cultural view of persons with cognitive deficiencies.
Rosemary Kennedy came of age during the eugenic alarm period in the United States, which lasted from approximately 1900 to the early 1930s.39 Virtually all eugenicists advocated either the eugenic institutionalization and/or sterilization of feebleminded persons, especially females.40Apredominant notion of this age was that feeblemindedness, as mental retardation was then referred to, was almost exclusively a genetic occurrence.41 Walter Fernald, for example, the superintendent of the facility that now bears his name in the Kennedys’ home state of Massachusetts, wrote that “the ordinary family is safe and sound and whole, and is extremely unlikely to produce feeble-minded children.”42 Because of its supposed genetic nature, therefore, the condition was believed by many professionals to be characteristic of an underlying weakness in the biological constitution of the parents. Jennings wrote that a defective gene, even in a “normal” person, was a “frightful thing; it is the embodiment, the material realization of a demon of evil; a living self-perpetuating creature, invisible, impalpable, that blasts the human being in bud or in leaf. Such a thing must be stopped whenever it is recognized.”43
Rose and Joe, in keeping with the era’s focus on the hereditary nature of feeblemindedness, were especially worried that genetic influences had caused Rosemary’s condition.44 Even years later Rose was always quick to point out, when speaking on the subject, that she had given birth to six “normal” children after having Rosemary. To her, this seemed to provide confirmation that the Kennedy genes were “untainted.”45 According to Doris Goodwin, “Rose was haunted by the fear that the retardation was the consequence of her parents’ once forbidden marriage, the genetic fruit one generation later of second cousins bearing children.”46Wills added that Joe could not confess that his daughter’s condition might be congenital, and “he told the press that she had suffered a childhood attack of spinal meningitis,” although he knew that this was a patent falsehood.47 Because of the focus on genetic factors, the parents of disabled individuals did not escape pejorative assumptions about their own concealed shortcomings.
Additionally, feeblemindedness was widely thought to be the most pressing ill within society and to cause a plethora of other social problems, including criminality,48 poverty,49 prostitution, sexual immorality and sexually transmitted diseases,50 and a wide range of other physical and mental disorders.51 The moron was the most highly functioning subcategory of the feebleminded population (the other categories were imbeciles and idiots). Female morons especially were believed to inflict damage on society, particularly by their unrestrained sexuality and subsequent high rates of procreation. 52 If indeed she was diagnosed as feebleminded, Rosemary Kennedy would most likely have been included in this category.53
Joe and Rose may have been particularly sensitive to the presence of a retarded child in their midst because of their social position. Many commentators have noted that the Irish-Catholic Kennedys were often snubbed by the Boston elite, which was composed largely of Protestants of British descent. This treatment was most certainly an important contributing factor in their obsessive will to succeed.54 The intense fear of and widespread discrimination against Irish immigrants and first-generation Irish-Americans that had characterized the middle of the nineteenth century had largely diminished by 1900. In its wake, however, was a more subtle prejudice that resulted from class and religious differences between the relative newcomers and the self proclaimed “native” Americans. The public knowledge of a retarded child in the family would have served to justify the disdain these individuals had of the Kennedys and made it imperative that the condition remain hidden from those outside the family unit.
It would be surprising if Joe and Rose were not aware of the eugenics movement and its highly pejorative view of morons. In their search for information related to feeblemindedness, they would certainly have come across eugenic writings. Many professionals in the area of feeblemindedness held eugenic beliefs when Rosemary was growing up, and many of the leaders of the eugenics movement were institutional administrators, physicians, and psychologists.55 The East Coast was the hotbed of the eugenics movement. During the 1930s, when both Jack and Joe Jr. were attending Harvard, one of the more famous professors at the university was the criminal anthropologist Earnest Hooton, who was a leading member of the movement.55 Additionally, as ambassador to Great Britain on the verge of World War II, Joseph Kennedy was likely aware of Adolf Hitler’s own eugenic beliefs.56
In considering the historical era during which Rosemary matured, then, one finds an atmosphere where limited coping possibilities existed for the parents of a mentally retarded child. Professionals and physicians were of little help because of their rudimentary understanding of cognitive disabilities as well as the often-pejorative view professionals had of morons. As was the case with Joe and Rose, many families with a mentally retarded child were simply told by physicians that they should institutionalize him or her. There were virtually no positive outlets for support, education, or comfort for parents to access.57 The secondary stigma that was directed toward the parents of feebleminded children was especially strong, and a depreciation of the family unit was sure to accompany the birth of a mentally retarded child. Ironically, just as John Kennedy had led many parents to bring their children with disabilities out of the closet in the 1960s, Franklin Roosevelt, Joe’s superior when the latter was ambassador, characterized the spirit of his times by hiding his disability.58
FAMILY COPING AND OVERCOMPENSATION
With the birth of a disabled child, or the disablement of a previously non disabled member, the social status of the family, or what one may call its group identity, may be shaken, sometimes irreparably. The parents especially may be concerned that in the eyes of other relatives, important reference groups, or society as a whole, the value of the family system may be diminished. The degree to which this will occur depends on a number of factors, including (1) the severity and visibility of the condition; (2) the coping patterns and values the family members—especially the parents—bring into the situation; (3) the acceptability of the specific condition within important reference groups and the overall society within which the family operates; (4) the precrisis status held by the family, and the degree to which this status is desired by the parents, and (5) the availability of siblings who may be asked, through overt or underlying messages, to act as ambassadors for enhancing the family’s collective sense of self-esteem. It should be noted that the impact of a disabled child on his or her siblings is a unique experience in each family and not always negative. Siblings may, for example, feel a greater sense of altruism, compassion, or personal responsibility because of their experiences with a disabled brother or sister.59
While Rosemary’s condition was mild and not highly visible, this in fact may have been a detrimental factor in the parents’ ability to accept it. The relative invisibility of Rosemary’s disability probably increased the possibility that her parents could deny its existence, hold firm to the belief that she could become “normal,” or blame her for not improving. Not knowing for sure what the condition was may have increased the parents’ sense of frustration when progress came slowly, as well as Rosemary’s frustration at constantly falling short of the expectations that were placed on her.
In terms of family values, the Kennedys were characterized above all by an obsessive drive for success.60 According to Nancy Clinch, Joe Sr. “was a stern taskmaster, even trailing his children’s sailboats in his power launch to note their mistakes. Those who erred and lost races were sharply scolded and sometimes sent in disgrace to eat dinner in the kitchen.”61 Nigel Hamilton added that for the Kennedy children, to win “meant to gain their father’s love; to lose, conversely, was to forfeit it.”62 Axel Madsen added that “Rosemary was a torment for a family committed to the ethos of winning at all costs,” and the parents responded by pushing her in hopes that she would overcome her difficulties.63
Succeeding in the face of adversity was a Kennedy trademark, and no one more typified this than John, who overcame numerous childhood illnesses.64 Indeed, just as Rosemary’s “disability” was kept hidden, the future president would be depicted as the epitome of health and vigor, although he suffered greatly from back pains. According to Garry Wills, the family need to hide weakness led to the sequestration of John Kennedy’s medical records when this was felt to be politically necessary and to his deliberate lying about having Addison’s Disease.65
Where John had been successful in overcoming his impairment—psychologically if not physically—his sister was not. This would, Clinch noted, unconsciously signal rejection to a child such as Rosemary. She would sense the undercurrent of conflict in the family and that her existence was a problem. It seems impossible that this power-obsessed family of highly intelligent people could have truly integrated any retarded person. The Kennedys’ monomania for constant triumph precluded genuine acceptance of a retarded family member.66
Rosemary was the symbolic antithesis of all the values that her family held dear. Unsuccessful in most endeavors, lacking high intelligence and physical agility, unable to overcome obstacles, Rosemary represented failure. Kessler wrote that Joe’s inability to accept his daughter resulted in his sending Rosemary away to live with his aide and her wife for several years prior to the surgery.67 In a family as close as the Kennedys, the parents developed an especially strong bond with their children. The successes and failures of each of the children were a direct reflection on Joe and Rose, who in many ways lived vicariously through their children.68 Barbara Gibson wrote in 1986 that “Mrs. Kennedy’s maternal sensitivity to the slightest hint that her children had turned out anything but perfect made me understand why the thought of Rosemary . . . still caused her such torment.”69
Overcompensation as a defense or coping strategy for dealing with a disability can take one of two primary forms. In the first, the individual who is disabled may attempt to overachieve in certain areas, possibly as a means of balancing out strengths and weaknesses. Thus, a person with a mobility impairment, for example, may rely on his or her upper body strength to scale mountains, or an individual with a severe physical impairment may become highly successful in academia. Such overcompensation, in and of itself, is neither pathological nor undesirable. We all draw on our strengths to a degree, and it only becomes a concern when the obsessive need for success arises from feelings of low self-esteem and the inability to reach high levels of achievement reinforces these feelings, or when one’s ability to gain satisfaction from achievements is insatiable.
The second form of overcorrection, which concerns this situation, takes into account the family system as a whole. On occasion, the presence of a disabled family member may force others within the family unit, often siblings, to make up for the deficits of the former. This is done in an effort to regain a functioning homeostasis, or balance, within the family. As Seligman wrote, the siblings of children with disabilities “may be burdened by excessively high aspirations to compensate for parental disappointments and frustrations.”70 Certainly, shameful conditions other than a disability could trigger the same response. The child who fills the “hero” role (e.g., is highly successful in academics or sports) within the alcoholic family, for example, may be overcompensating for the addiction of the parent.71
Several writers have noted that parental acceptance of a child’s disability is an important variable in the attempt by siblings to effectively deal with their own feelings toward their brother or sister. Siblings are likely to model from their parents not only the way that they are to respond to the child but also the value and dignity afforded him or her.72 From secondary accounts of the family, it appears that to a large degree—her sister Eunice being the notable exception—Rosemary’s siblings perceived her in a similar way than did their parents, as a source of family disgrace and shame. John Kennedy discussed his sister with the actress Gene Tierney after he first was elected to Congress in the late 1940s. Tierney had a mentally retarded child, and the future president commiserated with her. “In any large family,” he is quoted as saying, “you can always find something wrong with somebody.”73
Considering the social perception of feeblemindedness during Rosemary’s early years, coupled with the parents’ shame of having a child with a presumed disability and their need to be accepted within proper Boston society, it is highly probable that overcompensation played a key role in escalating the pressures to succeed that were placed on Rosemary’s siblings. Certainly, high expectations and a competitive focus would have been placed on the children anyway. Rosemary’s siblings, however, obviously realized the humiliation and disappointment and, after the lobotomy, the guilt that Joe and Rose felt because of her. It is therefore likely that they felt the need to overcompensate for her deficits, regardless of whether the parents pushed them harder because of their sister. Collier and Horowitz, in writing about Rosemary’s younger sister Kathleen, for example, stated that it seemed as if “she was trying to make up for Rosemary’s defects by an excess of normality of her own.”74
Historians miss the mark when they perceive Rosemary as a tangential member of the Kennedy family. They generally view her as having a profound indirect influence on the field of mental retardation, through John Kennedy’s Presidential Commission, Eunice’s development of Special Olympic, Joe Sr.’s financial contributions, Bobby’s exposure of poor institutional treatment, Teddy’s support of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and other ventures.75 Historians do not, however, discuss her impact on family dynamics to any great degree. If her siblings, especially her brothers, felt the need to push themselves harder to succeed to overcompensate for her deficits, it may not be overstating the situation to say that she had a profound impact on the course of the nation.
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