When Rosemary Kennedy died of natural causes on January 7, 2005 at the age of 86, it marked the end to a long and tragic life that was all the more heartbreaking since it began with such promise.
Born in 1918, Rosemary was the oldest daughter of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy and, as such, was expected to lead a charmed existence. Her father was one of America's wealthiest businessmen and would later serve as ambassador to Great Britain just as World War Two broke out. Her mother was a member of one of the oldest political families in Massachusetts and the daughter of a former mayor of Boston. Born into wealth and high society, Rosemary should have become a socialite like her mother. Unfortunately, the intellectual disabilities that grew increasingly worse as she grew older would ensure that her entire life would be spent away from public scrutiny.
The only details of Rosemary's early childhood come from what her mother and siblings would provide in later years but the problems in Rosemary's motor and cognitive development were clear enough, especially compared to her two older brothers, Joseph Junior and Jack. Her concerned parents tried taking her to numerous specialists for treatment but none of them could provde any answers. While Rosemary started school at the age of five in a regular kindergarten class in Brookline, Massachusetts, it became quickly apparent that she couldn't keep up with the other children in her class. As her mother would later write in her autobiography, "Her lack of coordination was apparent and she could not keep up with the work."
Withdrawn from regular school, Rosemary was eventually sent to the Sacred Heart Convent in Providence, Rhode Island when she was fifteen. After receiving special education involving private tutoring, she eventually learned to read and write at a basic level. Still, she was kept apart from the other children and, aside from occasional social outings, including a tea dance with her brother Jack serving as her escort, Rosemary was kept well-hidden from public. When she was seen at all, it was in carefully controlled settings that kept her "differences" out of the public eye. Though she was presented to the Queen along with her other siblings, Rosemary was otherwise raised and educated separately.
Due to the terrible stigma surrounding intellectual disabilities in children, especially in an era in which eugenics advocates routinely declared intellectually disabled children to be "genetically unfit", only the closest family friends were allowed to know about Rosemary's condition. To most other visitors to the Kennedy family home, Rosemary's failure to interact the way her siblings did was put down to her "shyness."
Rosemary tried her best and apparently functioned as borderline normal for most of her childhood. It was only when she reached her early twenties that her condition grew worse. Whether due to grief at being unable to live up to her parents expectations or for other reasons, she began acting out and became more difficult for her family to control. Along with gaining a great deal of weight, she had also become sexually mature and the "shy child" excuse no longer worked. Not only was Rosemary unable to "pass" as a normal child, but she was also prone to violent tantrums, including throwing objects and even physically assaulting family members. In the summer of 1941, she even assaulted her grandfather, John J. (Honey Fitz) Fitzgerald
John and Rose Kennedy began searching for a solution to deal with their disturbed daughter. Not only were they worried about her violent acting out, but her sexual maturity meant the increasing possibility of a scandal that might damage the future political careers of the other Kennedy children. Even then, John Kennedy Sr. had every intention of seeing one of his sons as President of the United States in time and the stigma that Rosemary brought to the Kennedy name was a particular concern. John Sr. and Rose also had the concern that all parents of children with intellectual disabilities have. Unfortunately, even for the rich and powerful Kennedy family, actual resources for dealing with these kind of problems were almost nonexistent in the 1940s.
Finally, based on the medical advice provided by the costly specialists they consulted, the Kennedys reached a decision. At that time, Rosemary was living in a convent school in Washington, D.C. though reports of her late-night wandering worried her parents even more. The nuns who ran the school even suggested that she might be picking up men and had become sexually promiscuous; something that terrified both her parents. In the fall of 1941, not long after the incident with her grandfather, Rosemary was admitted to Saint Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C. for what her mother would later describe as a "certain form of neurosurgery." In other words, a prefrontal lobotomy.
The surgery was a success, of sorts. Rosemary would never be a disgrace to her family, but it came at a terrible price.