Ronald Kessler reporting from Washington, D.C.
— A new book on Joseph P. Kennedy purports to be the authoritative word on the founder of the Kennedy dynasty.
According to the introduction, Kennedy’s children, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, approached the author, David Nasaw, and offered him unfettered access to their late father’s sealed papers at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. Nasaw agreed to write “The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy” as long as nothing would be censored.
|Joseph P. Kennedy calls on President Harry S. Truman in 1950.
But after the death of the former U.S. ambassador in London and former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Kennedy family chose what to give the Kennedy Library. Nasaw censored himself by disregarding first-hand, on the record accounts of Kennedy’s philandering and his order to lobotomize his daughter Rosemary when she was mentally ill rather than mentally retarded, as the family has long claimed.
Adopting the family’s mythology, Nasaw, a City University of New York history professor, writes that Joe Kennedy recognized that “there was no cure for her retardation, but advised that a simple operation might make it easier for her to live with it, he arranged a lobotomy that went horribly wrong.”
Referring to one of two doctors at George Washington University School of Medicine who was performing lobotomies, Nasaw’s book says, “Because Joseph P. Kennedy never wrote or talked about his communications with Dr. [Walter] Freeman, we can only speculate what he asked or what the doctor told him.”
But the lobotomy of President Kennedy’s sister was actually performed by Freeman’s partner, Dr. James W. Watts. In the only interview he ever gave on the subject, Watts told me in October 1994 for my book “The Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty He Founded” that neither he nor Dr. Freeman ever performed a lobotomy on the mentally retarded. Rather, they performed them on people who were mentally ill.
A review of all of the papers written by the two doctors confirms Dr. Watts’ declaration that all of the patients the two doctors lobotomized were diagnosed as having some form of mental disorder.
As described by Dr. Watts, while Dr. Freeman supervised, he did the surgery.
After Rosemary was mildly sedated, “We went through the top of the head,” Dr. Watts told me in the recorded interview just before he died on Nov. 7, 1994. “I think she was awake. She had a mild tranquilizer. I made a surgical incision in the brain through the skull. It was near the front. It was on both sides. We just made a small incision, no more than an inch.”
The instrument Dr. Watts used looked like a butter knife. He swung it up and down to cut brain tissue. As Dr. Watts cut, Dr. Freeman asked Rosemary questions. For example, he would ask her to recite the Lord’s Prayer or to sing God Bless America or to count backwards. Her pulse became more rapid, and her blood pressure rose.
“We made an estimate on how far to cut based on how she responded,” Dr. Watts said. When she began to become incoherent, they stopped. “I would make the incisions, and Dr. Freeman would estimate how much to cut as she talked. He talked to her. He would say that’s enough.”
Dr. Watts told me that Rosemary had suffered from a form of depression, and he signed a statement saying she was mentally ill rather than mentally retarded. At the age of 90, he could not recall with certainty what kind of depression she had. Then as now, the terminology of psychiatric illnesses was constantly changing.
“It may have been agitated depression,” Dr. Watts said, using a term then used to describe patients who seem overwrought or agitated. “You’re agitated, you’re shaky. You talk in an agitated way. All kinds of things go on in the eyes,” he said.
Many of the symptoms described by Joe’s wife Rose Kennedy and other family members conform with a diagnosis of depression. As now defined, depression includes irritable mood or persistent anger, changes in weight, pacing, waking up during the night, and retardation of speech or thinking. While major depressive illness may begin at any age, it begins most commonly in the mid-20s, about when Rosemary’s symptoms became more troublesome.
In fact, Rose noted in her book “Times to Remember” that a “neurological disturbance or disease of some sort seemingly had overtaken her, and it was becoming progressively worse.”
Dr. Watts did not recall what happened to Rosemary immediately after the operation, but subsequent independent evaluations of lobotomies were devastating. In Rosemary’s case, it became immediately clear the operation had turned her into a zombie.
Rose said that while the operation stopped Rosemary's violent behavior, it also “had the effect of leaving Rosemary permanently incapacitated” and in need of custodial care.
Before, Rosemary was able to write endearing letters, dance, and do arithmetic. At the age of nine, Rosemary neatly and correctly multiplied and divided: 428x32=13696, for example, 693x65=45045, and 3924÷6=654, her school papers show.
Only a few doctors who worked for the Kennedys knew the truth about Rosemary's condition, as did the FBI. At the request of the White House, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered the FBI on Feb. 6, 1956 to begin a background check on Joe Kennedy because President Eisenhower was about to appoint him to the Presidential Board of Consultants on Foreign Intelligence Activities.
In establishing Rosemary’s whereabouts, the bureau interviewed Joe’s Boston attorney, Bartholemew A. Brickley. For “many years,” he told the FBI flatly, Rosemary had suffered from “mental illness.”
One of the doctors who knew the real story was Bertram S. Brown, M.D. A former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Dr. Brown has unique qualifications to comment on Rosemary’s condition. As a special assistant to President Kennedy, he was executive director of the President’s Panel on Mental Retardation. In that capacity, he learned from other doctors retained by the Kennedy family that Rosemary had been mentally ill and was “not retarded.”
According to Dr. Brown, the fact that Rosemary could do arithmetic meant that her I.Q. was well above 75, the cutoff used by most states for purposes of classification in schools to define mental retardation.
Joe Kennedy’s prevarication about mental retardation began in June 1960, when Jack Kennedy was running for president. Especially in those times, it would have been embarrassing to disclose that the sister of a presidential candidate had mental problems. Instead, Joe Kennedy made up the story — first conveyed to a Time magazine reporter — that she was mentally retarded.
In dealing with Kennedy family members, Dr. Brown learned that they wanted to believe that Rosemary was mentally retarded.
“There was a basic attempt to deny that the sister had any mental illness, meaning crazy,” Brown said. “It’s pretty clear that if someone has mental illness in their family, how does he become president? Mental illness is a stigma. You could not afford to have a mentally ill member of the family.”
Rose Kennedy told friends her husband never told her about the lobotomy until after it had been performed. Joe was described in print as a Horatio Alger hero and chaste Roman Catholic who became one of the richest men in America. Usually, he would be pictured with Rose and one or more of their children. The pictures never showed his well-sculpted, green-eyed Hyannis Port secretary, Janet Des Rosiers, who described to me in a series of on the record interviews being his mistress for nine years.
In 1968, on the premise that Rosemary had been mentally retarded, Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded Special Olympics International Inc., a worthy cause which promotes sports training and athletic competition for the mentally retarded.
But Dr. Brown calls the suppression of the truth about JFK’s sister “the biggest mental health coverup in history.” The new book solicited by the Kennedy family continues that coverup by ignoring the record and whitewashing many other aspects of Joseph P. Kennedy’s complex, dramatic, and fascinating life.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. He is the New York Times bestselling author of books on the Secret Service, FBI, and CIA. Read more reports from Ronald Kessler — Click Here Now.
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