Magazine | November 2, 2015, Issue

The Sacrament of Pity

Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter, by Kate Clifford Larson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320 pp., $27)

Like death and taxes, Kennedy books have taken on an inevitability all their own, but if you are thinking “Not another one!” don’t be so fast. This one, about the family’s mentally disabled daughter, takes a fresh and often merciless look at the wall they built around introspection that made it impossible for them to confront their insecurities.

Rosemary Kennedy was born at home, but there was nothing ominous about that. Home birthing was still widespread in 1918. The first two Kennedy children, Joe Jr. and Jack, had been born at home with no ill effects. The practice could be rough on the poor, but for those who could afford it, it meant a house call by a prominent obstetrician and round-the-clock prenatal services from his specially trained obstetrical nurses. Joe Kennedy, already a rich man and getting richer by the minute, had escaped Irish Boston to a house in the Protestant suburbs and turned it into a virtual obstetrical hospital. Rose had a full-time nurse to take all her signs and vitals until labor started, whereupon the doctor would be called to come and deliver the baby.

But babies wait for no one. Because of the Spanish flu raging in Boston, the doctor was running late when Rose’s pains began. She had the nurse with her, but, by the rules of the elite arrangement, an obstetrical nurse, who had been trained to deliver babies, was not allowed to do so. Only doctors could deliver babies, so when Rose’s labor began, the nurse became understandably nervous and tried to distract her, urging her to ignore the pains and fight back the natural urge to push. Joe Kennedy had paid for a doctor, not a midwife, so the nurse knew she had to keep the baby from being born until he got there.

Kate Clifford Larson’s description of how she did it, like her many other descriptions of hideous wrongness committed by the Kennedys for Rosemary’s good, has the compelling urgency of screenwriting. The “baby began entering the birth canal and Rose could not resist the need to push with each more forceful contraction. . . . Then the baby started crowning, a crucial point in the birthing process.” When the doctor still did not arrive, “the nurse demanded that Rose hold her legs together tightly in the hope of delaying the baby’s birth . . . and when that failed the nurse resorted to another even more dangerous practice: holding the baby’s head and forcing it back into the birth canal for two excruciating hours” until the doctor finally arrived.

It was well known that preventing the movement of the baby through the birth canal could cause a lack of oxygen, exposing the baby to possible brain damage or physical disability, but the medical niceties had been observed. (And, Larson adds, the doctor could collect the then-enormous house-call fee of $125 that he would have forfeited had the nurse delivered the baby.)

Rosemary looked healthy but was soon lagging behind in crawling, walking, feeding herself, and other developmental signs, until it was obvious that she was “different.” That was enough for Joe, to whom “different” was the ultimate trigger word. Being different meant being Irish instead of Brahmin, Catholic instead of Protestant, rejected instead of accepted: “He had long vowed never again to be subjected to outsider status — nor would his children be. They would excel in everything. He would spend his life grooming them to be accepted into those insider circles, and he would not risk having any of them falter.” In short, he saw Rosemary as a threat.

Rose also had an unacceptable reaction that would be consigned to the Kennedy insight-shredding machine: She identified with Rosemary, who was said to “lag behind,” something Rose herself had been forced to do by her own father. As mayor of Boston, “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald had encouraged Rose’s musical talents and intellectual bent and had promised to send her to Wellesley, until the archbishop told him he would be seen as catering to the upper-class Protestant hierarchy and lose Irish support. Rose, he said, could not be seen as a “New Woman”; she had to go to a Catholic convent college and become a Child of Mary, a member of a secular order that personified the “virgin brides, modest wives, and queenly mothers” of the Church.

Rose obeyed — she always would — but far from lagging behind like Rosemary, she became the fastest Child of Mary out of the starting gate. Let the New Woman have a career in the professions, she would become a Professional Mother. Larson breathes new life into the familiar story of Rose’s card file on her children’s colds and shots. It was much more, a multicolored archive of motherhood designed in the era of growing interest in industrial efficiency. The Kennedy home was Rose’s factory, boardroom, warehouse, shipping center, and sales floor, and Rosemary, lagging behind, was the bad product who had to be redesigned.

Until her teens, Rosemary lived with the family and attended at least five different small special schools found through the Church or the efforts of the childless Eddie Moore, Joe’s right-hand man in politics and business, who knew the truth and was also Rosemary’s godfather. Rose was not always entirely truthful about the extent of the girl’s difficulty, letting the teachers discover it for themselves. She learned to read a little and write simple sentences in a scrawling lopsided hand, then went home to learn how to be a Kennedy amid Rose’s dinner-table quizzes. Her siblings were enlisted to show her what social life was like — the sisters teaching her how to apply makeup without smearing the lipstick and the brothers taking her for brief appearances at prep-school dances, then whisking her back home and returning to the dance (Jack later said that he always feared she would do something embarrassing). And Joe Sr., when he was home, doted on her to convince himself that he did not consider her a threat. Efforts to avoid strain for Rosemary’s sake put a strain on everybody.

Their only respite came in, of all places, England. When Joe became our ambassador, Rose found an ideal Catholic school deep in a rural county 30 miles south of London. It was a Montessori school, part of an educational system then and even now considered by some to be permissive, built around ungraded classes geared to the student’s abilities regardless of age. Rosemary fit in at once and did really well for the first time. Rose was so delighted to be rid of the lagging-behind specter that she decided to have her presented at Court.

It was an unforgivable cruelty to subject her to the nerve-destroying ordeal, but if photographs alone could tell the tale, Rosemary was the family’s star daughter, by far the prettiest, with no signs that she was bred in tooth and jaw by Kennedys and Fitzgeralds. She was also buxom, which the rest were not. Her only bad moment came when she stumbled in her curtsy to the king and queen, but she caught herself in time and otherwise performed perfectly.

Rosemary’s good days in England could last only as long as her father lasted as ambassador, and that was not going to be very long. His flatly stated opinion that England was finished and would be defeated by Hitler’s Germany offended everyone except his eldest son, who agreed with him. Joe Jr., who had attended Rosemary’s presentation, admired much about the Third Reich, especially its policy of sterilizing the mentally unfit. “I don’t know where the Church stands,” he began carefully, “but . . .” His father listened without comment, then proceeded to talk about “the Jews, but . . .” This incredible detachment persisted after war was declared and Rose had to take the younger children and Rosemary home. Germany was going to win, her husband told her, but “when things settle down here under any regime,” the nuns at the Montessori school would be delighted to have Rosemary back. “That he was sure his daughter could return and live in a totalitarian state under a fascist government intolerant of people with disabilities reflects his increasing disconnect with the English people and with his own democratic government,” Larson writes.

After three blissful years of progress at her own pace, Rosemary returned to Kennedy upheaval, uproars, upstaging, and one-upmanship. She degenerated fast, until November 1941, when she was lobotomized.

Larson, the author of this superb book, is a consultant for various museums and public-history projects on the role of women in our national identity. Her son was diagnosed at age 19 as a schizophrenic, so although she sees through the Kennedys she also sees with them. Knowing what it is like to confront private problems complicated by public attitudes, she includes excellent summaries about views on mental health in early-20th-century America.

It was a bad time to have a child like Rosemary, because there were no names for her. “Retarded” was still in the future; people said “backward” or “slow,” but they also said “half-wit,” “dumbbell,” and “simple-minded,” which soon became all-purpose slurs, as did the official medical designations of “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “moron.” Worse yet, there was little real distinction between mentally slow and mentally ill.         

Even churches could be a problem. “At that time,” Larson notes with irony, “the Roman Catholic Church routinely refused the sacraments of holy communion and confirmation to intellectually disabled children, especially those with Down syndrome. . . . Did Rose question a religion that would have excluded her child from some of the most holy of Catholic sacraments?”

If the Kennedys kept their disabled child at home, so did most Americans, albeit for different reasons. There simply were no institutions, and what few there were resembled what one rare survivor called “Purgatory,” dank holding pens for an indiscriminate mix of the mentally slow, the generally insane, the sexually insane, and the criminally insane, all preyed upon by sadistic keepers.

Nobody cared what happened to them except members of the Eugenics Movement that so won Joe Jr.’s approval. Larson includes an excellent thumbnail history of the group and names some names: Theodore Roosevelt, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie were the most prominent, but Margaret Sanger, founding mother of Planned Parenthood, goes unmentioned.

Rosemary’s last home was a private institution in Washington from which she escaped. Tall, strong, and increasingly violent, she overpowered her guardian and evidently forced open a window. She was found walking on the dark streets at 2 a.m. Now the fear of a sex scandal, always present once she had grown up but never talked about, could no longer be ignored. At last Joe saw Rosemary as a threat. If she were raped, impregnated, or kidnapped and forced into prostitution, everything he had done and planned for his family, especially the political career of Joe Jr., whom he intended to make the first Catholic president of the United States, would be ruined for good. Just how long he had considered the possibility of a lobotomy is not clear, but the speed with which he arranged Rosemary’s says much. It was done on November 28, 1941, at George Washington University Hospital in D.C.

The records are still there, but no names are attached, just numbers. Larson could not find out the number, but it doesn’t matter. Using her vast research into the operation, she relates what any lobotomy is like — the need to keep the patient awake with only local anesthesia, the terror he feels when he hears the drill cutting his brain in half, his gagging screams, the doctor urging him to recite the ABCs or nursery rhymes, his own responses becoming ever slower and more garbled as his brain falls apart.

Larson’s style is so vivid and powerful that we want to read it through spread fingers like a jury looking at autopsy photos. I was wiped out when I finished the book. Here is a writer who rejects today’s penny-ante responses of empathy and compassion and compels us instead to receive humanity’s sacrament of pity.

– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.

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