Kate Clifford Larson's riveting new biography tells the story of Rosemary Kennedy, the eldest daughter of the American political dynasty, who lived a life subject to the tight and ultimately tragic control of her parents, as a result of her intellectual limitations and emotional unpredictability. The book provides a fascinating glimpse at a family whose public story was carefully cultivated and managed, one in which daughters were taught — both explicitly and by example — that women's lives should be sacrificed to those of the men around them, a dictum taken to a literal and horrible conclusion in Rosemary's case.
What begins as a fairly straightforward chronological account of the Kennedy family history quickly becomes something much more personal and compelling, the tale of a young woman whose increasingly volatile behavior became a liability to her politically ambitious father. As Joseph Kennedy's career ramped up, he grew all the more threatened by anything — or anyone — who might stand in the way. And so, without a word to his wife or other children, he ordered experimental psychosurgery to be performed on his 23-year-old daughter, Rosemary. The procedure was still very much in its infancy at the time, with a poor track record of success; in Rosemary's case, its failure was almost immediately evident. The lobotomy left behind a shell of the vibrant young woman she had been and sentenced her to full-time institutional care for the remaining six decades of her life.
Rosemary's younger siblings grew up with only a vague sense of what had happened to their sister. Not until older brother Jack was campaigning for president, in 1958, would he travel to the Wisconsin institution where Rosemary had been sequestered, and re-meet his sister for the first time since the lobotomy, an experience that had a deep impact on him both personally and politically.
The silver lining in this otherwise tragic tale is the way that Rosemary's life left a profound legacy concerning sensitivity toward issues of mental disability. As president, JFK was instrumental in passing key legislation in support of the disabled, and sister Eunice helped found the Special Olympics, inspired at least in part by Rosemary.
In the writing of this book, Larson gained access to an incredible trove of Kennedy family correspondence, journals and photographs, and the reader is quickly drawn into something that feels very private and intimate. Despite this access, though, we'll never truly know whether Joseph Kennedy's decision to have his daughter lobotomized was motivated by a heartfelt hope that this extreme course of action would improve her situation, or simply by a man's frenzied need to clear the path to his own success.
Emily H. Freeman is a writer and a teacher of writing in Missoula, Mont.