October 2015

Kate Clifford Larson

Forgotten daughter
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A new biography offers a heartbreaking look at the life of Rosemary Kennedy, who was lobotomized and hidden away because of her disability.
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A new biography offers a heartbreaking look at the life of Rosemary Kennedy, who was lobotomized and hidden away because of her disability.

Your two previous biographies focused on 19th-century figures. What prompted you to leap ahead 100 years and focus on the Kennedy family?

In January 2005, I saw Rosemary’s obituary in the Boston Globe. I knew who she was, but I felt there was more to know. As I started to explore her story, I became deeply moved by the struggles and obstacles she faced, and how her family dealt with those challenges.

Your publisher touts “major new sources” for the book. Can you elaborate on these sources and how they were useful?
I was fortunate to start research soon after the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston had begun to unseal the private papers of Rosemary’s parents, Joe and Rose Kennedy. The two collections contain many letters to and from Rosemary, as well as scores of documents from Rosemary’s teachers, doctors and caregivers. Unlike other Kennedy biographers, I have used all of Rosemary’s letters in crafting this biography—some of them I have transcribed and are seen here for the first time.

Did you have any contact with the Kennedy family? If so, how cooperative were they? Did you encounter any resistance?
I interviewed Anthony and Timothy Shriver—Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s sons—who recalled many fond memories of Rosemary and her frequent visits to their home. They, like most of their generation of Kennedys, are unclear about what happened to Rosemary.

There is definitely resistance within the family to engage in discussions about Rosemary. The John F. Kennedy Library still restricts access to some documents related to her, per Kennedy family wishes. Given her vulnerability in life, it is understandable that the family remains protective of her even now.

Joe and Rose Kennedy made multiple mistakes in Rosemary’s upbringing. Which of the two do you hold more culpable in how Rosemary’s life turned out?
I feel that it is impossible to blame one parent more than the other. They both made decisions that had profoundly negative consequences for Rosemary. They both wanted to consign her care to someone else and send her away from the family. And while Joe may have facilitated Rosemary’s lobotomy, Rose abdicated her responsibility as a mother when she let Rosemary be dropped out of their lives for the next 20 years.

Although it ends on a redemptive note, the book is often heartbreaking to read. Was it difficult to write from an emotional standpoint?
It was very difficult to write. I fell in love with Rosemary as I read her letters and learned more about her. She was an incredibly adorable child, a sweet and loving sister, and a beautiful daughter with her own potential. It is heartbreaking to think about what she endured growing up in such a high profile and competitive family in a society that rejected people with disabilities. Her letters expressing her loneliness and desperate pleas for approval from her parents are so painful. But the scene about the lobotomy was the most challenging to write. It is deeply troubling to know that there was no one to protect Rosemary from such callous doctors and desperate parents.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Rosemary.

Author photo by David Carmack

This article was originally published in the October 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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By Kate Clifford Larson
ISBN 9780547250250

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