This October two separate books were published about Rosemary Kennedy’s obscured and interrupted life. While the rest of her eight siblings went on to lead successful lives, often in the public eye, Rosemary spent her life largely alone in an institution after receiving one of the first lobotomies performed in the United States.

Growing up, Rosemary performed less well in school than her ambitious siblings, and her parents tried to conceal her academic and intellectual deficiencies by hiring tutors and not alerting her teachers at school that she may have a learning disorder (which may have been dyslexia.) Joe Kennedy was so embarrassed by his oldest daughter’s letters to him from boarding school when he was abroad serving as an ambassador to the U.K. that he had her handwriting censored because he believed both her script and the content of her correspondence to be too childish.

Her family tried to keep a very tight control over her in case anyone suspected she was different than the rest of them, or exhibiting troubling behavior. At social events, her brothers oversaw her dance cards by either dancing with her themselves, or carefully choosing some of their friends to dance with her – friends who would be discreet about Rosemary’s behavior and level of conversational skill.

Although much was made of her intellectual struggles, the biggest issue Joe felt he needed to address with his daughter were her mood swings, reckless social behavior, and tantrums at home. He feared, most of all, that the public would learn that one of the fabled Kennedys was “crazy.” There’s been a lot of speculation about why she seemed to have a stormy personality, mainly the fact that she felt pressured to compete with her siblings in areas that were a struggle for her. Thanks to the openness and bravery of Patrick Kennedy, it’s now known that many in the Kennedy family have dealt with mental illness, but at the time it wasn’t discussed. While other Kennedys were struggling with personal issues, her parents felt Rosemary problems seemed more likely to be observed by outsiders. By the time Rosemary was in her earlier twenties, her family had considered having her permanently institutionalized. Joe felt something should be done before her unpredictable behavior and sexual curiosity led to a pregnancy or other scandal that could derail the political hopes of her brothers. In his search for some “permanent” solution to the problem he viewed his daughter to be, he was alerted of a groundbreaking psychiatric treatment that had promising results for agitated patients.

Only 80 other lobotomies had been performed before 23-year-old Rosemary received hers from the procedure’s pioneering doctors Dr. Walter Freeman and Dr. James W. Watts. They had adapted a procedure called a leucotomy, developed by Portuguese neurologist António Egas Moniz, who received a Nobel Prize for this invasive psychosurgery in 1949. The basic idea behind both surgeries was to remove “white matter” connective brain tissue from the prefrontal cortex and the frontal lobes of the brain. Dr. Watts and Freeman’s procedure differed in that they removed even more of this white matter than Dr. Moniz attempted. The procedure was performed “blindly,” by drilling a hole in the head, and scraping the material out. Later, Freeman caused a rift in his relationship with Watts by developing the transorbital lobotomy, which went in through the eyes. He traveled around the country offering his operations out of a “lobotomobile.”


Dr. Freemon in his lobotomobile.

Between the 1940s and 1967, when the last lobotomy ever was performed by Dr. Freeman (which resulted in death,) about 40,000 lobotomies were performed in the U.S., and 17,000 in the U.K. Many more thousands were performed over the world to treat maladies like mental illness and behavioural issues, intellectual difficulties, and even chronic pain. Watts and Freeman published studies and articles touting the procedure’s results, focusing on what they deemed to be success stories while ignoring some of the more devastating side effects. Some people were able to go about their lives, while others, like Rosemary Kennedy, were so incapacitated that they could no longer communicate or take care of themselves. Often the “happy” and “docile” reports from “successful lobotomies” were due to the patients being in a permanent catatonic state. Sometimes the impairment had the opposite effect and caused patients to act out more. While the procedure often “worked” on severely depressed patients, it often had little effect on the symptoms of people with schizophrenia.

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Dr. Watts described the events of Rosemary’s lobotomy, which they performed while Rosemary was under mild sedation, but still alert. Throughout she was asked to sing, recite the Lord’s Prayer and count backward. When she became incoherent, they finally stopped. A nurse who attended the event decided to leave the field of medicine after witnessing what happened to Rosemary. “We went through the top of the head. I think she was awake. She had a mild tranquilizer,” Dr. Watts recalled. “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. We made an estimate on how far to cut based on how she responded. 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.”

Rosemary was often in the “docile” category after her procedure, and her intellectual ability, which had possibly only been slightly below average before the surgery, was decimated. She also suffered from incontinence, and difficulty walking. Her family, even more troubled by Rosemary than before, rarely visited or even spoke of her again, and she ended up being permanently institutionalized after all. Her sister Eunice, founder of the Special Olympics, was one of the only family members who visited Rosemary semi-regularly. In 1962, 21 years after Rosemary’s lobotomy, Eunice penned an article about her sister which left out her crippling procedure, instead focusing on Rosemary’s condition as a “retarded” person who got a chance at life thanks to being institutionalized. The language Eunice uses to talk about her sister, which is thankfully but heartbreakingly dated, is crafted to distance her from others, and was likely mirroring the story their father Joe had thought would be less embarrassing than being open about Rosemary’s mental health issues.

Rosemary reading on the beach.

Rosemary reading on the beach in 1935, six years before her lobotomy.

Because most details about Rosemary’s life were obscured by her family, it’s unclear exactly at what level she was functioning before her lobotomy, but excerpts from her diary reveal she was a curious, yet very controlled, young girl with normal interests and desires. There are other reports that she could do arithmetic and multiplication, activities not possible with severe intellectual impairment. Dr. Watts even said it was his opinion that Rosemary was not “retarded,” but instead depressed. She no doubt had a complex inner life that was impaired by her traumatizing psychosurgery. The potential of her life was unfairly stolen by what we now consider to be a barbaric medical procedure.

By the late 50s, lobotomies became far less common as long-term studies revealed the horrifying side effects and new drugs like Thorazine were developed that effectively dealt with some of the more severe symptoms of mental illness. Although powerful antipsychotic drugs can have devastating side effects as well, the harmful effects can often be reversed by ceasing use. A lobotomy cannot be undone.

When Rosemary died at age 86 in 2005, her lobotomy was still only quietly talked about and the truth about her life was still largely unknown. There are still so many unanswered questions about who Rosemary was and could have been, but these recent narratives are reviving the story of Rosemary Kennedy; the lies and half-truths that shrouded and scarred her, and ramifications of treating mental illness with fear and concealment.


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