explainer

The forgotten Kennedy: The story of JFK's sister, Rosemary, who was hidden from the world.

After U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot dead during a 1963 visit to Dallas, Texas, his eldest sister, Rosemary, was among those glued to the television coverage.

There were no family members by her side, no one but the nuns who cared for her to comfort her through the horror.

While her family lived in the limelight, Rosemary Kennedy had been left to live in secret for more than two decades, confined to a Wisconsin facility for adults who need lifelong care.

Exiled. Hidden. Forgotten.

A private struggle.

Rosemary Kennedy’s birth was a traumatic one.

Like her elder brothers, Joe Jr. and John, she was born at her parents’ sprawling Massachusetts home. Only, there was no doctor present when her mother, Rose, was ready to deliver her daughter in September 1918. The nurse, intent on waiting for help, ordered Rose to keep her legs together until the doctor arrived.

Rosemary was held inside the birth canal for two hours, deprived of vital oxygen.

It was a decision which many have speculated may have influenced the course of Rosemary’s entire life.

Rose Kennedy with Joe, John and baby Rosemary. Image: Getty.

As she grew, typical milestones were missed. She was slow to crawl, talk and walk, and later at school lagged years behind her classmates in reading and writing.

At age 11, she was sent to a Pennsylvania boarding school for intellectually challenged students, and at 15 to a convent school in Rhode Island where she was educated separately, with the help of a dedicated staff. Reports suggest her family made large donations to the school for its efforts.

To the outside world, it appeared Rosemary enjoyed the same charmed life as her siblings.

After her father, millionaire businessman Joseph P. Kennedy, was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Britain in 1938, she stunned at a reception at Buckingham Palace where she was introduced to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Her diaries tell of attending the opera, dances, luncheons in their new home city of London.

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In public, at least, Rosemary blossomed. But in private, she struggled.

After returning with her family to New York in 1941, Rosemary reportedly regressed. Multiple accounts claim she experienced seizures, depressive episodes and violent outbursts.

Rosemary and her father in 1938. Image: getty.

Once again, she was sent away, first to a summer camp (from which she was kicked out), then a Massachusetts boarding school and finally a Washington D.C. convent school. Her rebellious late-night wanderings from there in her early 20s had the nuns fearing "that she was picking up men and might become pregnant or diseased," wrote Kennedy family biographer, Laurence Leamer.

It was the last straw for her father, a man famous for steering his family's political ambitions.

The lobotomy.

In 1941, Joseph secured doctors to perform a lobotomy on his daughter, a surgical procedure that, at the time, was considered an acceptable form of treatment for mental illness and mood disorders. Although it was rarely recommended for intellectual disability.

According to biographer Kate Clifford Larson, author of Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter, Rose had asked her daughter, Kathleen, to research the procedure. She concluded, "It’s nothing we want done for Rosie." But it mattered little.

"If Rose told Joe her misgivings about the surgery, he didn’t listen,” Larson wrote. "Without informing her, he ordered the procedure be done as quickly as possible."

And so, in November 1941, surgeons at George Washington University Hospital cut into the connections in the prefrontal cortex of Rosemary's brain.

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The procedure was later described by Ronald Kessler in the definitive biography of Joseph Kennedy: "As Dr. Watts cut, Dr. Freeman asked Rosemary some questions. For example, he asked her to recite the Lord's Prayer or sing 'God Bless America' or count backward. 'We made an estimate on how far to cut based on how she responded.' When Rosemary began to become incoherent, they stopped."

The procedure was a catastrophic failure. It left Rosemary incoherent, unable to walk and only able to utter a handful of words.

She was 23 years old.

Hidden from the world.

After the surgery, Rosemary was committed to a psychiatric facility for several years and then sent to live in a private cottage on the grounds of a care institution in Wisconsin in 1949. It was there she was left hidden.

None of her siblings knew where she was, and at least one — Jean — was told Rosemary had "moved to the Midwest" to become a teacher's aide, People reported.

According to Kate Clifford Larson, she was essentially abandoned, even by her parents: "There is no record of Rose visiting her eldest daughter for more than 20 years," she wrote.

Reflecting on his grandfather's decision, Rosemary's nephew, Timothy Shriver, told People in 2014, “I don’t know how other than just from sheer devastation he could allow her to disappear so much from his life... He had to be destroyed by it. That’s the only way I can explain it. It’s an incredibly heartbreaking story of a dad trying to help his daughter and hurting her. What could be worse?"

It wasn't until Joseph suffered a debilitating stroke in 1961 that Rosemary's siblings were told of her location and, along with Rose, began visiting her.

By then, Rosemary regained the ability to walk, but her speech was permanently slurred and her arm palsied.

The secret revealed.

It was Rosemary's sister, Eunice — who later became a prominent disability advocate and founded the Special Olympics — who first publically shared Rosemary's story.

In 1962, she penned a powerful article for The Saturday Evening Post in which she revealed that her sister was intellectually disabled and lamented the fact that she'd been institutionalised unnecessarily. Still, she praised the Wisconsin facility for ultimately giving her an "agreeable" life: "She has found peace in a new home where there is not need for 'keeping up', or for brooding over why she can't join in activities as others do," Eunice wrote.

The lobotomy was not mentioned.

After Joseph Kennedy died in 1969, Rosemary was gradually reintroduced to her family life; there were visits to her childhood home and even short trips away to see relatives.

She passed away of natural causes in 2005 at the age of 86. Her once estranged siblings, Eunice, Jean, Pat and Ted, sat lovingly by her side.

Featured image: Getty.

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