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A Hidden — But Quietly Influential — Life In 'Rosemary'

Rosemary Kennedy was a beauty, a debutante, and the daughter of one of America's most glamorous families. She was born with a wealth of advantages as the daughter of Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy — but her mental development was flawed at birth, and never got beyond about a fourth-grade level.

And at the age of 23, Rosemary Kennedy underwent a new neurosurgical procedure that a couple of respected doctors said might make it easier for her to function in the world: A lobotomy. The operation left Kennedy mostly mute, withdrawn and damaged.

Kate Clifford Larson chronicles her life in Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter, and she tells NPR's Scott Simon that Kennedy's troubles may have stemmed from a birth injury when a nurse held the baby in the birth canal until a doctor could arrive. "Apparently it was for close to two hours," Larson says, "so it seems that that's when Rosemary would have been deprived of some oxygen and as a result was delayed intellectually, physically as well.

Interview Highlights

On Kennedy's personality

She became a beautiful, beautiful young woman, and in her good times, in her happy days, she was bubbly and sweet and loving and caring. She did have a dark side, however, she did have outbursts and tantrums, but she was a lovely, lovely child, and she grew to be a lovely adult woman.

On Joseph P. Kennedy's decision to lobotomize his daughter

I have sympathy for their position, but given their wealth, there were other alternatives, and they only had one vision of an alternative, and that was convent schools. And there were alternatives for Rosemary at the time — and he chose this radical, radical choice. At the time, it was still very experimental, so as a father, would he have experimented on his sons? I don't think so.

On Kennedy after the operation

She was extremely disabled. She had to learn to walk and dress herself and move, basically, in the months after the surgery. She never regained full speech ability. She really lost most of her ability to function as an individual and an independent person, the rest of her life.

She was virtually hidden for decades, but the siblings apparently — or so it has been said — that they were not aware of what happened to Rosemary, or where she was, for nearly 20 years. I don't think that's entirely accurate ... but they had learned not to ask, and so they didn't ask.

On her influence on the family's charitable campaigns

She started becoming reintegrated into the late '60s and early 1970s, when [her] nieces and nephews were youngsters and becoming teenagers. And they were cognizant of what happened to her, and it affected them deeply, so that they were going to try to make sure that this doesn't happen to anybody else, and that the world will view people who have disabilities in a very different light.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff