By Jack Ford.
The sad but true story of Rosemary Kennedy, sister of former US president John F Kennedy, highlights a lot in terms of the treatment and portrayal of women with mental health issues in the 1950’s
The third oldest of Joe Kennedy Sr.’s children, Rosemary Kennedy had difficulties from a young age. She was regularly excluded from her siblings’ games, as she found it hard to take part, and she also had big problems with reading, which saw her fail twice to graduate from kindergarten.
At 15, her parents had her removed from public school, largely out of shame, and sent her to a boarding school in Rhode Island, where she was kept separately from all the other students. One letter she wrote home read: “Darling Daddy, I hate to disappoint you in any way. Come to see me very soon. I get very lonesome every day.”
Despite her educational struggles, she was seen as an even-tempered and happy young girl, who had a number of hobbies and interests, enjoyed social outings and showed a great interest in social welfare and education. Rosemary was briefly educated in England, where the family had moved to after her father was appointed US ambassador. It was during this time she was said to have made great strides in her character and school work.
A young adult when the family moved back to America, those around her would see sudden, evident changes in Rosemary. She had become boisterous, combative and was prone to mood swings. In an attempt to remedy her new behaviour she was placed in a convent, but she would regularly sneak out.
The family did not know how to control her, and with her two oldest siblings – John and Joe Jr. – about to enter the world of politics, there was a fear that Rosemary’s behaviour would threaten their chances of winning office.
It was then that a doctor friend of Joe Sr. told him about a procedure that could fix neurological problems like his daughter’s – a lobotomy. Without hesitation, and not hesitating to inform anyone else in the family, Joe whisked 23-year-old Rosemary away to Wingdale Psychological and Correctional Facility in New York to have one performed. He ignored all the warnings about the risks associated with the procedure, and any possible wishes of his daughter, and Rosemary was lobotomised.
She went silent on the operating table, and when the doctors tried to get her to respond, not only was she unable to speak, she was unable to move. The operation had gone wrong. The Kennedys’ fought to keep Rosemary out of a mental institution all their lives, but following the botched procedure, there was no other option but to commit her. It took months of physical therapy to get her to move again, but she never regained the ability to walk or speak.
Rosemary spent the rest of her life in Jefferson, Wisconsin, at a specialist support school. The family largely played down her disappearance, and when they did eventually acknowledge her, they cited mental deficiencies as the reason for her absence from the public eye. Aside from her mother, on one occasion, she never received a visit from any family member, and in 2003, at the age of 85, Rosemary Kennedy passed away.
Rosemary Kennedy’s actual condition is open to speculation, but in a new age of understanding of mental conditions, it’s easy to see signs of a variety of illnesses that today are easy to treat and manage.
She was not alone in her persecution either, history has seen innumerable people with easily treatable and manageable conditions either being given the wrong care or institutionalised. Women have fared particularly badly; with their own feelings not regarded. Often, any change in personality was jumped on and scrutinised, and until recently, emotional changes associated with the monthly cyclecould have been classified as ‘hysteria.’
Accounts from history like this go to show us is how far we’ve come in how we view and treat mental illnesses. Rosemary’s sad story unfolded at a time when there was little known about the causes for mental instabilities and stigma surrounded them, not helped by the Kennedys trying to protect their now famous name.
About the Author
Jack Ford is a charity worker, anti-rape activist and volunteer art gallery attendant from Somerset. Currently, he abides by the Hunter S Thompson quote: ‘I have no taste for either poverty or honest labor, so writing is the only recourse left for me.’ His work has appeared in Jupiter magazine, on the Bristol Sport website and he writes for The Redeem Team and Nondescript.