Rosemary Kennedy's father made her have a secret lobotomy. Then she vanished for 20 years.

She was 15 and her school was having a Tea Dance. There would be music and pretty dresses and the hallways of the Sacred Heart Convent boarding school in Rhode Island were filled with excited, teenage chatter about the event.

Rosemary Kennedy was probably excited, but she wasn’t a part of the chatter. She took her classes separately from everyone else. She was 15 but her reading, writing and mathematics were reported to be at a fourth-grade level. This was why she was kept separate. Not because she couldn’t keep up, but because nobody could know she was mentally impaired.

Her father was determined at least one of his sons would become the country’s president. In the 1930s, mental illness would be a mark against the family name. How could a Kennedy be president, when the family was being punished by God?

To make sure she appeared “no different at all“, Rosemary’s older brother John accompanied her to the Tea Dance. It’s difficult to be an excited 15-year-old girl when you’re being baby sat by your 16-year-old brother.

In reality, God had nothing to do with it.

Rose Marie (known as Rosemary) Kennedy was born to Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy and Joseph Sn. on September 13, 1918. The birth was at her parents’ home in Brookline, Massachusetts. But the doctor was late.

The nurse couldn’t deliver the baby so she ordered Rose to keep her legs crossed. At times, she placed her hands inside the birth canal, to stop the baby from coming out. Little Rosemary was trapped, with limited oxygen, in her mother’s birth canal for at least two hours.

Rosemary Kennedy was the Kennedy's third eldest child. Image via Creative Commons.

At first, there wasn't much difference. Rosemary looked very similar to her siblings but she was a quieter baby, a little slower, not as active. She was one of nine, the first daughter and third child. Her elder brothers were John F. Kennedy and Joseph Kennedy. Her younger siblings were Kathleen, Eunice, Patricia, Robert, Jean, and Ted.

Soon, it became more obvious. Rosemary couldn't progress from kindergarten. She failed the Binet intelligence test that was mandatory in the State of Massachusetts. She started having seizures and, while her body grew up, her IQ remained somewhere between that of an eight and 12-year-old's.


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But no one could know. Rosemary was educated by two nuns and a special teacher. Her mother told no one and made sure Rosemary's hair was curled, her makeup was done, she wore the same dresses as her sisters and she smiled when there were cameras about. Judging by appearances, Rosemary was "no different" to anyone else.

For a time, Rosemary's life was hopeful.

In 1938, the family moved to Britain after Joe Sr. was named ambassador to the Court of St James.

The family sent Rosemary to Belmont House, a boarding school run by Catholic nuns. The school was all about practical skills and hands-on activities. Away from academia, the 19-year-old flourished.

But, in 1940 when the second world war was turning into the Second World War, the family returned to the US and Rosemary's life returned to one of secrecy and shame and "why can't I do what Kathleen is doing?"

Rosemary Kennedy was 23 when she underwent lobotomy. Image via Creative Commons.

Rosemary was angry.

Her siblings were growing up around her. Leaving the family home. Studying at Harvard. Starting careers. There was never any doubt of their success but Rosemary was hidden. No one spoke to her about studying law, or becoming a senator, or marrying well, or having a family.

She was sent to a convent and she rebelled. There were reports she was escaping in the middle of the night. Going to bars. Finding men and having sex.

Her father had to intervene and, at the time, lobotomy was all the rage.

Rosemary (right) was presented to the monarchy at Buckingham Palace during the family's time in England, along with her mother and sister Kathleen. Image via Creative Commons.

Lobotomy was the practice of drilling a hole in the skull, sticking a long, sharp instrument through the hole, and severing the connections to and from the brain's prefrontal cortex. Patients were often awake during the operation. The purpose was to reduce the effects of mental illness. It was always done at the expense of the person's personality and intellect.

Doctors would say the procedure made patients calmer, more docile, less spontaneous and aggressive, much easier to control. Those who knew the patients, would say they'd become "soulless". They became unwilling, and in some cases unable, to move. Their personalities became nothingness. Their responsiveness and self-awareness was non-existent.

Joe Sr. began speaking to Dr Walter Freeman and his associate Dr James Watts about his daughter's 'cure'. Lobotomy was all the considered 'safe', and some 50,000 operations were performed between the 1930 and the 1970s.

1928 Kennedy family children portrait. Image via Creative Commons.

Later, Rosemary's mother would say she had no idea about the operation. That she didn't know, at the age of 23, Rosemary was strapped to a table at the George Washington University Hospital and given an anaesthetic to specific areas of her brain.

She wasn't unconscious, though. She was asked to recite poems from her childhood as the doctors drilled two small holes in her skull and inserted a small metal spatula. The 'doctors' - Dr Freeman had no surgical training - moved the spatula in slicing motions. When she was no longer reciting poems, and instead staring in silence, they knew their work was done.

Rosemary never recovered. Her father, in his mission to stop her rebellion, instead left her unable to walk or talk. After months of therapy, she regained some movement but one of her legs was permanently turned inwards and she only regained partial movement of one of her arms. Her speech also disappeared, and though it returned, it was never the same again.

She lived until she was 86. Immediately after the procedure, her father moved her to a psychiatric care facility but she didn't see her family for 20 years. She disappeared from the public eye.

Who knows what he told them, but it was only after Joe Sr. suffered a stroke in 1961 that Rosemary's mother finally came to visit. It's reported that during that first meeting Rosemary, desperate with anger and heartbreak and hurt and loneliness, attacked her mother. Putting into violence, what she could never put into words.

Slowly, her siblings started arriving. They, too, began to see her, listen to her, understand her. The Kennedys became known for their work in campaigning for disability rights.

John F. Kennedy, who fulfilled his father's dream of becoming the 35th President of the United States, approved the first major legislation to combat mental illness and retardation.

Rosemary's younger brother Ted, was a Democrat Senator and on the board of the American Association of People with Disabilities. He pushed the introduction of the Americans with Disabilities Act during his time in Parliament.

Rosemary's sister Eunice founded the Special Olympics and championed for the rights of disabled people.

All this legacy and success and ultimate good, but at the expense of so much pain.

That 15-year-old girl, excited for the Tea Dance and who couldn't understand why her brother had to accompany her, could never have known or understood the differences her family would make in her name.

People today, living with disabilities, are more protected and better looked after because of Rosemary's legacy. It took the sacrificing of her personality and laughter and movement and mind, all in the name of keeping up appearances, to stop people believing mental disability is a 'punishment from God' and to dissuade doctors from drilling holes in the brains of mental health patients.

It's devastating that this progress came at such a tragic cost.

H/T Marie Claire

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