Sunday, November 22, 2015
Rosemary Kennedy lived a tragic life. She was the oldest Kennedy daughter, and she was slow. Very slow. Too slow to be successful in school. She lived in a time period when developmental delays were not well understood, so she did not get the help she needed. To compound the issue, she was born into a family in which the need to get ahead, to be successful, to look good at all times in public - all those were preeminent to meeting the needs of a daughter who was different. And, being the oldest daughter, she had to watch her younger siblings catching up and surpassing her with their academic and athletic abilities.
So Rosemary was constantly pushed and prodded, and moved to different schools. Her parents felt like if she just tried harder, if she just had the right school placement, or the right tutors, or whatever, that she could succeed. All the pushing and prodding, for a young woman who simply did not have the abilities to be academically or athletically successful, led to understandably great frustration and anger issues.
The one time in her turbulent life when she was truly happy was while her father was the U.S. ambassador to England, when she was living at a convent school there. She was trained to be a teacher's aide for preschool children, and she loved it. That sense of accomplishment, coupled with being away from her demanding parents (her siblings loved her but didn't really understand the situation), led to that being a peaceful time for her. Unfortunately, World War II loomed, and her family had to return to the States. Her life spiraled downward after that.
Then, in her early 20s, came the cruelest decision--one in which she had no say. Her father ordered a frontal lobotomy performed on her. This was a new, fairly untested procedure that was supposed to help with her increasing depression, seizures, and anger outbursts. It went horribly wrong. She was never again able to walk or communicate properly. She disappeared from the family, and her siblings were not given an adequate explanation for many years as to what happened to her. So as not to have too much investigation into her situation, which might have jeopardized the political futures of the family in Massachusetts, Rosemary was settled into a large group home setting in Wisconsin run by a religious order. Her father had a little house built for her, and she was cared for by nuns on the campus until her death in 2005.
Her mother did not visit her for 20 years.
The one good thing to come out of this mess is that, because of Rosemary, her sister Eunice, as well as many of her nieces and nephews, became advocates for disabled people. They took a great interest in her, and in later years visited her often. The Special Olympics program was one result. Ted Kennedy's work in the Senate on behalf of disabled people was another.
Kate Clifford Larson has a good style and writes a book that is difficult to put down. Part of that is due to the arresting subject matter.
Today there is almost an excess of help for special needs people. For example, sometimes I can get irritated with the Americans with Disabilities Act, because it's frustrating to see a dozen empty parking places in a store's lot, when others have to park further away. However, this book revealed another side to that picture - it showed what the days were like when there was little assistance for people who desperately needed help. Rosemary Kennedy was one of those. Reading about her difficult life has given me more compassion for those with special needs.