In her new memoir, The Nine of Us, Jean Kennedy Smith, 86, writes about her eldest sister Rosemary, who underwent a disastrous lobotomy in 1941 when she was 23 years old.
Kennedy Smith, the last surviving sibling of JFK, addresses her father’s controversial decision to have Rosemary, who had an undiagnosed intellectual disability, lobotomized.
“It is easy from this vantage point to second-guess decisions, but in that time and place, our parents made theirs with advice from the leading medical professionals of the day,” she writes. “[Dad] remained heartbroken over the outcome of her surgery for the rest of his life.”
After reading about the lobotomy procedure and speaking to “multiple professionals,” she writes that Kennedy family patriarch Joe Kennedy, “became confident it would help ease his daughter’s growing agitation. It went tragically wrong. It is still not clear what happened. Rather than finding relief through the procedure, Rosemary lost most of her ability to walk and communicate. We had been so hopeful, and we were devastated.”
Earlier in the book, which focuses on her family’s early life, Kennedy Smith describes her sister as “gentle and kind.”
“Only as I grew did I begin to realize that Rosemary had challenges that the rest of us did not,” she explains. “The only words the doctors had to describe her condition was ‘mental retardation.’ “
After Rosemary returned home from England with her father, who was then the Ambassador to Great Britain, her sister suffered from increasing “anxieties,” Kennedy Smith writes.
“It greatly worried Dad and Mother, who both loved her so,” she writes. “Dad began an intense period of research, seeking out the best doctors to help Rosemary.”
But the lobotomy left her sister severely damaged. Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff, author of The Missing Kennedy, which details the relationship between her aunt, Sister Paulus, who cared for Rosemary for many years after her lobotomy, saw the results first hand. As a young girl, Koehler-Pentacoff got to know Rosemary when she would visit her aunt at Saint Coletta’s, a Catholic facility for the mentally disabled in Jefferson, Wisconsin.
“There is no good lobotomy,” says Koehler-Pentacoff whose book is newly out in paperback. “It’s a devastating procedure but not all was known at the time.”
“It basically removed a lot of the personality so that instead of the extreme highs and lows Rosemary was experiencing as a teen and young adult, Joe was very hopeful – and the doctor probably promised him – that she would become very calm and productive and happy once again,” says Koehler-Pentacoff.
She recalls her aunt telling her that Rosemary’s siblings often asked her about her condition. “They all questioned my aunt, ‘What do you know about Rosemary, what do you think was wrong with her?’ ” says Koehler- Pentacoff. “I think her siblings truly didn’t know very much.”
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“Her siblings asked my aunt what kinds of things Rosemary was capable of,” she recalls. “When Rosemary started reading road signs one day, it was like a whole new episode of her life began because it was a big sign that there was a lot behind Rosemary’s abilities that no one knew, even then.”
In her later years, she says Rosemary was happy when her siblings came to visit her at Saint Coletta’s.
“She was happy and loving,” says Kohler-Pentacoff.
As for Kennedy Smith’s admission that the procedure left their dad “heartbroken,” Koehler-Pentacoff says. “He felt guilty, he felt it was all on his shoulders. He wanted the best for his children and when the best turned out to be a disaster, that was his biggest disaster. I think it was a very big tragedy in his life, as well as for Rosemary, and of course for all of the Kennedys.”