Rosemary Kennedy was the third child and oldest daughter of the famous Kennedy clan. At the age of 86 she was the first Kennedy of that generation to die from natural causes. Using Rosemary’s life as inspiration her politically well-connected family insured American society has been in the forefront of establishing laws to protect, and programs to accommodate, the needs of the disabled. Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson examines the struggles of Rosemary while the backdrop of her life was a family soon to be considered by the moniker of “American Royalty.”
The book was an interesting mix of attitudes about the disabled, Catholicism, and the building of a political dynasty. Although we aren’t talking an ancient epoch it does feel as if the world has made a 180 on certain attitudes. For instance, Rosemary’s birth was the thing of sexist patriarchial nightmares. The doctor was stuck in pre automobile traffic and the attending nurse was a by the books girl who insisted Rose, Rosemary’s legendary mother, to literally cross her legs in order to keep the baby from being born because God forbid a child to enter the world without a male doctor present, you know, in case something went wrong. Rosemary’s mental disability most likely was the result of the lack of oxygen during birth.
Joe and Rose Kennedy expected all of their children to be overachievers and between the two of them both had their parenting styles mapped out. For the most part they were successful but Rosemary’s limitations were a thorn in their sides. They acted as if her lack of mental abilities could be overcome with some discipline and good old fashion elbow grease; however the harder they pushed the more it became clear that Rosemary wasn’t like the rest of her siblings.
A reader can’t help but feel for Rosemary when viewing her correspondence with her parents. She so desperately wanted to please them but could never find the right recipe for full acceptance. It was always a lecture if she did this then there would be an improvement in that. Even her diet wasn’t immune to criticism. By the time Joe Kennedy was the American ambassador to Britain Rosemary’s budding beauty was being noticed and the metaphorical wagons started to circle around her. There was concern that she would embarrass the family through a foible or outright scandal including a sexual escapade or perhaps even kidnapping (remember the Lindbergh kidnapping was still a fresh memory in the lives of the rich and famous). There was a general feeling that both parents would have preferred putting Rosemary in a box rather than realistically deal with the fact that whatever she grew into she would never be what they had hoped. This diluted thinking, amongst other things, led to Joe giving his blessing for Rosemary to have a lobotomy.
There is a lot to digest in this book. No one was perfect, well except for Eunice Kennedy Shriver (Rosemary’s closest and younger sister) who took the reins of her sister’s care along with spearheading important legislation for the disabled. Although an elderly Rose Kennedy has been painted as almost a Catholic saint in the popular press, Larson presents a different portrait. Through the prism of history there are a lot of lessons to consider in regards to Rosemary Kennedy’s life.
I recommend Rosemary because this book is a perfect pick for a small reading group or to be shared amongst friends. It offers a lot of topics for discussion and food for thought.