I'm in a quandary. I didn't sleep well last night.
In the wake of Senator Edward Kennedy's death the other day, and all the news and documentary footage I've been watching about this storied family, I cannot help but think about only one particular Kennedy.
Rose Marie Kennedy. Rosemary. Rosie, to her family.
I will admit off the top, I do not know a great deal about the Kennedy family. I am no expert. But I loved the Kennedy dreams and hopes and, in the case of Teddy, all the good he did for the American people. Yes, those three "boys" – Jack, Bobby and Teddy – had their faults. They made mistakes. (Who hasn't?) They were exuberantly human. Brilliantly so. I don't know why that should be such an issue, when you consider the big picture and all they accomplished and the hope they embodied.
But their sister Rosemary's life was a tragedy that didn't have to happen. Today, it never would.
I don't know for sure all that much about Rosemary because there are too many conflicting accounts of her life and too many questions that remain unanswered.
Was she brain damaged at birth? Was she slightly mentally retarded? Was she simply not as brilliant and naturally athletic as her extraordinary siblings? Was she more high spirited and exuberant and moody than her brothers and sisters? Was she just a little too different for her controlling father to bear?
What is known for sure is that in 1941 on the recommendation of his doctors, Joseph P. Kennedy insisted that his 23-year-old daughter be given a pre-frontal lobotomy. At that time, Rosemary was the 65th American and according to some reports the only patient with a diagnosis of "mental retardation" to be subjected to this then-radical and experimental treatment.
It was a disaster. This beautiful young woman with a glorious smile who loved attending the opera and tea dances and writing in her diaries, following the surgery, became an incontinent, blubbering child-like soul who stared into space for hours. Her mother was devastated and considered this the first of the calamities that became known as "the Kennedy curse."
In 1949, Rosemary Kennedy was sent to the St. Colletta School for Exceptional Children where she remained for 56 years until her death at the age of 86 of natural causes on January 7, 2005. Her sister, the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver and her brother Teddy Kennedy were at her bedside. In the Kennedy lore, Rosemary is considered the inspiration for the Special Olympics, which the Shrivers initiated and championed.
Two biographies of the Kennedys published in the mid-1990s have different accounts of young Rosemary Kennedy and what led to her lobotomy.
Laurence Leamer, considered an expert on the Kennedys, in his 1994 biography The Kennedy Women: A Saga of an American Family suggests that Rosemary was "mildly mentally retarded" – the most widely accepted story – and a potential problem expecially for her father who feared she may do something to disgrace the family. She may have been brain damaged at birth, but no one knows for sure. Apparently placid and easy going as a child, in her adolescence she developed "violent mood swings" and tended to sneak out of her convent dormitory in the middle of the night, according to Leamer.
On the other hand, conservative journalist and biographer Ronald Kessler in his 1996 biography The Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty He Founded, presents another picture. Rosemary, he suggests based on research he conducted, had a mental illness, depression perhaps.
I don't know what to believe.
All this petrifies me. Insisting that a 23-year-old woman have a pre-frontal lobotomy because she was considered "mildly mentally retarded" and might be a source of family embarrassment is abhorrent to me. I was sleepless last night. It all harkens back to my concerns about diagnostics and treatments. About what is considered "acceptable behaviour." To whom?
Rosemary Kennedy never to my knowledge ever hurt a soul. Kessler suggests her story "is the biggest mental health cover-up story in history. Since the public story is still that Rosemary was retarded, the lack of support for mental illness is part of a total lifelong family denial of what was really so."
Back in the 1940s, the mental illnesses were hugely feared. Enormously mythologized. Ignorance abounded. Along with hideous prejudice and discrimination. Secrecy. No one talked about mental illnesses or wrote about mental health in newspapers or magazines. No one knew anything, compared to what we are beginning to understand about the brain and the mind, today. Including psychiatrists.
Pre-frontal lobotomies were put out to pasture in the 1950s. Dr. Walter Freeman, known as "The Lobotomist" because he was running around the countryside performing thousands of these Draconian procedures, eventually lost his medical licence when one of his patients died.
Finally, pre-frontal and ice-pick lobotomies were replaced by the first antipsychotic medication Chlorpromazine – known as "the chemical lobotomy." That drug was given to me in the early 1960s when I was first hospitalized for mania with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. I remember very little of the experience. It hit me like a sledgehammer and turned me into a "zombie" – I slept for days, I'm told.
Pre-frontal lobotomies were used primarily in cases of schizophrenia back in the 1940s and 1950s.
That's why the story of Rosemary Kennedy haunts me still. She was never diagnosed with schizophrenia. I'm sure she was well-treated in her Wisconsin institution and cared for with compassion.
Still, she should never, ever have been given a lobotomy. Poor, dear girl. Now, she would have so many other options, I like to believe.
I know this. She was born at the wrong time. And perhaps into the wrong family.