Remembering Rosemary Kennedy

In this week of remembrances about the assassination of President Kennedy, I couldn’t help but think of all that his family did on behalf of people with intellectual disabilities. And that leads me to the tragic story of Rosemary Kennedy.

Like everyone who was alive and aware of the world on November 22, 1963, I remember

Rosemary Kennedy

Rosemary Kennedy

exactly where I was when I learned that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. I was in the sixth grade in Champaign, Illinois, and I heard it from one of my classmates.

I don’t have as vivid a memory of the day I learned the truth about Kennedy’s younger sister Rosemary, who had some kind of disability that was kept secret from the public for many years.

There has never been a definitive diagnosis for Rosemary, whom the family eventually claimed had an intellectual disability. By some accounts, she could read and write and perform mathematical calculations, all skills that would put her IQ above the 75 threshold for mental disability.

No room for being different

Still, there was something not quite right with Rosemary. She developed and learned more slowly than her siblings and as she entered adulthood, she became increasingly frustrated and prone to rages. Her father Joe Kennedy had lofty political ambitions for his family and didn’t want to risk Rosemary causing a scandal of any kind.

So in 1941, when Rosemary was 23, Joe Kennedy hired two surgeons – Dr. James W. Watts and Dr. Walter Freeman – to perform a prefrontal lobotomy on her.  It was an experimental treatment at the time, designed to relieve psychiatric symptoms.

The operation was a disaster, leaving Rosemary unable to speak or care for herself. She spent the rest of her life in an institution.

As mentioned before, in all the writings about Rosemary, there remains some disagreement about her diagnosis. Jack El-Hai, who wrote a biography of Walter Freeman, once told me there can be no doubt that Rosemary had a mental illness and not an intellectual disability. It would have been medical malpractice to perform a lobotomy on someone who had a mental disability.

Indeed, Dr. Watts, interviewed many years after Rosemary’s operation, confirmed that he believed she suffered from depression.

Which stigma do you want?

Whatever the truth, the Kennedy family always maintained that Rosemary had an intellectual disability.  To admit that there was mental illness in the family might have been damaging to John’s chances at the presidency. Yet, there were also stigmas associated with intellectual disability.

Nevertheless, Joe set up a foundation dedicated to research and public policy concerning intellectual disabilities. His daughter Eunice ran the foundation and also started Special Olympics, which promotes athletic achievement for people with mental disabilities.

The story of Rosemary Kennedy is a heartbreaking one, to say the least. All that can be said looking back on it is that some good came from the high price she paid for being different. The rest is pure tragedy.