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Rosemary Kennedy's Inconvenient Illness

Ronald Kessler By Tuesday, 17 June 2008 08:47 AM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

As the news media reported the tragic news of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s brain cancer, they recounted the Kennedy family’s history, complete with its mythology.

The chief myth, perpetrated by family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy, is that Ted Kennedy’s sister Rosemary Kennedy was mentally retarded. Based on that myth, Eunice Shriver, another sister, founded the Special Olympics.

Laudable as that effort was to help those with intellectual disabilities, it was founded on a falsehood.

It’s true that Rosemary had always been slower than the other Kennedy children. But as a teenager, she was able to write endearing letters, dance, and do arithmetic.

According to Dr. Bertram Brown, a former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, the fact that Rosemary could do arithmetic meant that her IQ was well above 75, the cutoff used by most states to define mental retardation for purposes of classifying school children. At the age of 9, Rosemary neatly and correctly multiplied and divided: 428x32=13696, for example.

“If she did division and multiplication, she was over an IQ of 75. She was not mentally retarded,” Dr. Brown, who is the author of a book and 10 papers dealing with mental retardation, told me for my book "The Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty He Founded."

But as Rosemary grew older, her sweet disposition turned sour, and she often flew into uncontrolled and violent rages. After Joe Kennedy left England as ambassador, Rosemary “was upset easily and unpredictably,” her mother Rose Kennedy wrote in her 1974 book "Times to Remember."

“Some of these upsets became tantrums or rages, during which she broke things or hit out at people. Since she was quite strong, her blows were hard,” she wrote.


Joe Kennedy could not tolerate "losers"; he banned Rosemary from the house. He then consulted two surgeons in Washington who had become the leading proponents of prefrontal lobotomies. They agreed to operate on Rosemary.

While Dr. Walter J. Freeman supervised, Dr. James W. Watts did the surgery. In the only interview he ever gave on the subject, Dr. Watts described to me how he performed the lobotomy in the fall of 1941.

After Rosemary was mildly sedated, “We went through the top of the head,” Dr. Watts recalled. “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. As he cut, 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. “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.”

When she began to become incoherent, they stopped.

Dr. Watts told me that in his opinion, Rosemary had suffered not from mental retardation but rather from a form of depression. 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.”

A review of the papers written by the two doctors confirmed Dr. Watts’ declaration. All of the patients the two doctors lobotomized were diagnosed as having some form of mental disorder. None of the papers listed any of the patients as being mentally retarded, or being imbeciles, feeble minded, or morons, as the condition was then called.

Many of the symptoms described by Rose and Kathleen Kennedy 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 that a “neurological disturbance or disease of some sort seemingly had overtaken her, and it was becoming progressively worse.” The disease, according to Dr. Watts, was mental illness.

Unsuccessful Operation

In Rosemary’s case, it became immediately clear the operation had not succeeded. In fact, it made her condition far worse. Rose said that while the operation stopped Rosemary’s violent behavior, it also had the effect of “leaving Rosemary permanently incapacitated.”

Joe sent Rosemary to St. Coletta's School in Wisconsin, where she received custodial care. Within the family that posed as being so loyal, Rosemary had ceased to exist. Rose’s letters did not refer to her, and Eunice later said she had no idea where she was.

“Rosemary's name was never mentioned in the house,” Janet Des Rosiers Fontaine, Joe's mistress and secretary in later years, told me. “I knew she existed because I saw the family photographs in the attic. But her name was never mentioned. I think Mrs. Kennedy went every year to see her. I heard she did. As far as I know, Joe didn’t see her.”

Joe orchestrated an elaborate coverup. When asked about her, he would tell writers who were given access to the Kennedys that Rosemary taught retarded children. In the same way, Joe covered up the fact that Jack had been born with an unstable spine.

While Rose Kennedy said in her book that Rosemary was retarded, she tended to mirror whatever Joe's line was at the moment. Indeed, while implying in her book that she and Joe had agreed on the neurosurgery, Rose would later say she knew nothing about it until after the surgery had been performed.

Embarrassing Illness

Clearly, Joe felt it would be less embarrassing to portray Rosemary as mentally retarded. No one in the press learned the truth, and it was not until after Jack was elected president that Eunice felt comfortable talking about Rosemary publicly. On the premise that Rosemary was mentally retarded, in 1968 Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded Special Olympics International Inc.

However, as a special assistant to President Kennedy, Dr. Brown 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.

In dealing with Kennedy family members, he came to the conclusion that mental retardation was more acceptable to them than mental illness.

“There was a basic attempt to deny that the sister had any mental illness, meaning crazy,” he said. “It’s pretty clear that if someone has mental illness in their family, how does he become president? Mental illness is a stigma,” Dr. Brown said. “You could not afford to have a mentally ill member of the family.” He calls the suppression of the truth “the biggest mental health coverup in history.”

Besides Dr. Brown and the Kennedy doctors, the FBI knew the truth about Rosemary. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered the FBI on Feb. 6, 1956, to begin a background check on Joe 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, Bartholomew A. Brickley. For "many years," he told the FBI flatly, Rosemary had suffered from "mental illness."

When I asked Melody Miller, Ted’s spokesperson, for comment, she vehemently denied that Rosemary was mentally ill.

“If it was mental illness, they would not have established a foundation to combat mental retardation,” she said. But Miller said she had not yet asked the Kennedys about the issue. She said she would bring it to Ted Kennedy’s attention. She also suggested going over the new information based on the interview with Dr. Watts with Eunice Kennedy Shriver. But letters to both Ted Kennedy and Eunice Kennedy Shriver produced no response.

Rosemary lived in a separate house on the grounds of St. Coletta’s. Because of the lobotomy, she had the development of a 2-year-old. She could not wash or dress herself or put her shoes on. She had to be supervised at all times.

With Rosemary’s death on Jan. 7, 2005, the cover-up was complete.

“Rosemary Kennedy, 86, the developmentally disabled sister of President John F. Kennedy, died Jan. 7 at Fort Atkinson Memorial Hospital in Wisconsin,” the Washington Post obituary said.

The New York Times ran an Associated Press story saying that Rosemary was “born mentally retarded.”

Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via
e-mail. Go here now.

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As the news media reported the tragic news of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s brain cancer, they recounted the Kennedy family’s history, complete with its mythology. The chief myth, perpetrated by family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy, is that Ted Kennedy’s sister Rosemary Kennedy...
Tuesday, 17 June 2008 08:47 AM
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