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Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter

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About 29 women gathered at Churchill Street Recreation Center on Thursday, November 2nd, to discuss Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson. It was good seeing friends back agin and in Book Club again. Peg Tabor welcomed everyone and, noticing some unfamiliar faces, asked about new members and visitors. Welcome, all! Peg then explained that three Get Well cards were being passed around. One was for Marilyn Hetzer, who is at Shands receiving chemotherapy. She spoke to Marilyn and she said that she misses us. Another card was for Mary Jo Johnson, who had hip-replacement surgery, and Joan Gregan who had rotator cuff surgery last Thursday. Here's hoping they return to us in the near future; we miss them, too.

Club members voted on the books we wanted to read and discuss in 2018. Now we need discussion leaders for those books and the months that we can do it. Peg passed around the sheet so people could pick the book and month that they want. One of those books, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, was questioned. Peg acknowledged that the club had read and discussed it seven years ago, but members picked it again and we have quite a few who weren't members of the club at that time. By the end of the meeting, we had discussion leaders for six books, with five books still needing leaders. (please check them and the months you can do it, and please volunteer and tell Peg (click on link to get Peg's email address) the book and month that you want.)

Moving on to our annual Christmas/Holiday Luncheon next month, Peg reminded us that we will be going to Hacienda Hills Country Club (we've gone there before). Our reservation is for 12 noon, so we'll leave Churchill about 11:30 a.m. following our meeting. We'll have three local authors for our meeting beforehand. And, let's not forget about our traditional Secret Santa, where we pick out a used book (hardcover or paperback), not one that we've discussed this year, wrap it as a present and bring it to the luncheon. If you will be attending, let Peg know so that she can give the restaurant an accurate count of how many to plan for. We'll order from their menu and receive individual checks. She had one more announcement. On Sunday, November 12th, Barnes & Noble in Sumter Landing is having their Fall Author Event. Six authors (some local) will be on hand to discuss and sign their books if you buy one. The event is from 1:00 p.m. until 4:00 p.m.

With announcements out of the way, Peg asked Joyce Tisovec how much money we have in our Books for Children fund. Joyce said that as of last month, members have donated $457, and the donation envelope for this month was going around. It isn't as much as we've collected in the past (we collected and donated up to $600 in past years), but that's alright... it is what it is. There is still time to donate.

The meeting was turned over to Joan Puleo, our discussion for Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson. Larson is an author, historian, and consultant with a doctorate in history from the University of New Hampshire, is a graduate of Simmons College, where she earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Economics and History, and an M.B.A. from Northeastern University. She lives in Winchester, Massachusetts. Dr. Larson is an American historian and Harriet Tubman scholar, consultant and interpretive specialist for numerous museum, community and public history related to Harriet Tubman. She is also the consultant for the Harriet Tubman Special Resource Study of the National Park Service, and she serves on the advisory board of the Underground Railroad Coalition of Delaware. She lives in Winchester, Massachusetts. In addition to Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter, her published works include Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero, and The Assassin's Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln.

Dr. Larson has received many awards and honors for her work, which include:

  • Wilbur H. Siebert Award, National Park Service Network to Freedom Program, for outstanding research on Harriet Tubman, her community, and the Underground Railroad. September 2015.
  • Commendation, South Caroline House of Representatives Resolution, Bill 4234, for “significant work” on the life of Harriet Tubman. March 2013.
  • Education Excellence Award 2007, Maryland Historical Trust. For the Finding a Way to Freedom Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Tour, Dorchester and Caroline counties, Maryland.

These are just a few. She had many more fellowships and research enhancement awards. Describing connections with the Kennedy family, Joan said that being from Massachusetts, she was aware of the Kennedy "mystique" that ruled politics for years there. In writing Rosemary, Larson used newly discovered sources to bring Rosemary's story to light. Although Rosemary was a sweet, lively girl, adored by her siblings, Larson's research revealed the often desperate and duplicitous arrangements made by the Kennedys to keep Rosemary away from home as she became more difficult in her early twenties, leading Joe Kennedy to have her lobotomized when she was 23. The family kept it a secret, and it was many years later that her siblings understood what happened to Rosemary. Once they found out, it inspired them to direct government attention and resources to the plight of the developmentally and mentally disabled, ultimately transforming the lives of millions.

What prompted the author to write about Rosemary? She saw Rosemary’s obituary in the Boston Globe, knew who she was, but felt there was more to know. She started to explore Rosemary's story, the struggles and obstacles she faced, and how her family dealt with those challenges. Larson said she was fortunate to start research soon after the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston began to unseal the private papers of Rosemary’s parents. The two collections contained many letters to and from Rosemary, as well as scores of documents from Rosemary’s teachers, doctors and caregivers. Larson used all of Rosemary’s letters in crafting this biography, some seen in this book for the first time, interviewed family members and caregivers, and also mined information from other books written about the Kennedys.

Joan had the opportunity to meet Jean Kennedy on numerous occasions when she worked at the Child Study Center of New York while teaching special needs children. Jean served as United States Ambassador to Ireland from 1993 to 1998, is the eighth of the nine children born to Joe & Rose Kennedy, and founded Very Special Arts (now known as VSA "the international organization on art and disabilities"). She was the daughter assigned to the Department of VSA and Accessibility at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, focusing on providing arts education for young people with disabilities.

What did we think of the book? Some liked it but were disillusioned about the Kennedys. Many of us knew about the Kennedys, but not very much. At least one person was angry at what happened to Rosemary. Someone else said she got to a point where she couldn't read anymore. Joyce said that she liked the book, but was realized that the Kennedys were upper crust and the rich live differently from us. She also worked at a school, where she met Charlie, a higher-functioning disabled young man, who remarkably was admitted to St. Colette's free of charge, the same school where Rosemary went, usually reserved for the children of the rich. She was pleased about that agreed that the school had a great program. Someone else added that they actually met Rose and briefly talked to her at the Child Study Center. She visited the facilities, but never saw any of the children.

Jeanne is from Rhode Island, so knew a lot about the Kennedy's; they were always there. Someone else agreed and said the family had such power. She didn't like that the siblings didn't seem to have much concern about Rosemary. Some thought that, with so many children and such a busy household, they might not have had much time to dote on the missing Rosemary. There were high demands placed on all of them by their parents, and since Rosemary couldn't keep up, she might have always been in the periphery of their lives and not central to it. Peg recalled how Teddy, the youngest, missed Rosemary and asked where she was, then was afraid that if he wasn't a good boy, the same thing would happen to him. Also, the younger children were used to siblings going away to school.

Linda said she enjoyed the book, and liked that Eunice said that Rosemary was the star of the family. It was because of Rosemary that family members were so dedicated to helping disabled children. Sunny admired how well researched the book was... well done! But it broke her heart when she read about when they met the Queen. Someone commented about how near normal Rosemary appeared to be when she was young and could appear to be as she got older, to the point that boys were attracted to her. Someone added that her flirtatiousness may have been what led Joe to make the decision to have her lobotomized. Someone else added that as a Catholic, they couldn't have her sterilized. Being taken advantage of and getting pregnant wouldn't be good for appearances, Joe's position and ambition or his ambitions for his older sons. One of the members shared that while she was reading about Rosemary, it broke her heart; it reminded her of her severely autistic niece.

With what we know today, we pretty much agreed that delaying Rosemary's birth until the doctor arrived, with the nurse pushing the baby back out of the birth canal, depriving the baby's brain of oxygen, was the cause of Rosemary's condition. Why did the nurse do that? We recalled that the family paid a great deal of money to have this doctor be present for the baby's birth. If the doctor isn't present, he probably wouldn't get paid. Someone thought they read that the nurse was paid by the doctor. If he doesn't get paid, neither does the nurse. Others thought that the nurse was faced with an impossible dilemma. If anything happened, she could have been sued, and nurses weren't paid much; it would ruin her. Someone else added that Rose was just as culpable as the nurse and we agreed. She allowed the nurse to force the baby back, crossed her legs, etc. and was cooperating.

What was young Rosemary like? She was an easy child, didn't cry or demand a lot like the other children, but was slow in developing. From the letters she wrote her father, it was clear that she was eager to please, especially her father, and tried hard. She also wanted to join in with her brothers and sisters, but couldn't keep up and was uncoordinated. Her attention span was short and wasn't able to retain what teachers tried to drill into her mind. How frustrating and demoralizing that must have been for her. Her father seemed to dote on her... until... she embarrassed him or didn't live up to expectations. It was brought up that he did seem to want the best for her and tried to get the best teachers and care. But someone said, yes, but it was all for appearance sake, so she would fit into the family and expectations of how she should act and not detract from Joe's ambitions. Her parent's focus on weight also reflects the importance of appearances; she had to look good. And although Joe seemed to dote on her at times, it seemed inconsistent, and he'd delegate Eunice or Kit to care for Rosemary's needs and teach her how to act in public. It reminded us of the English aristocracy and royal families, sending children away to boarding school, keeping up appearances.

Rose wanted all her children to owe her. That was an absurd concept to many of us. To others, it didn't seem that different from mothers who make their children feel guilty to get them to do what they want or act the way they expect, or be more attentive to them. Others brought up how religious Rose was, but how unchristian; she didn't live the precepts that her faith teaches. Were her religious practices for show... or was her faith and how she practiced it the way that she coped and dealt with disappointments, like not being able to go to the college she wanted, becoming her shield... against life, an overbearing father, then an overbearing and philandering husband?

The topic of lobotomies came up again, reminding us of Nazi Germany and their experiments. Joe went full steam ahead, believing the hype of those who were advocating the procedure, even though his oldest daughter researched the procedure and the men performing it, and found most of their claims were false and that the results could be disastrous, even fatal, or were only temporary. She strongly urged against it, but Joe shut her down and went ahead with it. That was the end of it and there was no discussion. Peg interjected incredulously, and they weren't even doctors! Sadly, someone observed that in spite of the lobotomy, Rosemary had a mind and she was more aware than they realized. Again, how frustrated she must have been. It was brought up how Rosemary seemed to blame her mother for what happened to her, beating on her when Rose came to visit, or was she angry that her mother hadn't protected her? If her father made the decision to have the procedure because of her attractiveness and flirtatiousness, that was sad. It was reminiscent of women being blamed for the things that men do. Rosemary was to be fixed because she was attractive to men and the family would be disgraced if someone took advantage of her.

How could Rosemary's siblings not know or notice what happened to Rosemary, that she was sent was sent away, not even coming home for the holidays and not question it? Many couldn't believe that was possible. Do we believe Rose didn't know what happened to Rosemary until late in her life, piecing together bits of information over time? It was unanimous... she may not have made the decision, but she knew what happened and she did admit that the subject of a lobotomy had come up in discussion with Joe, if only briefly. After all, she was supposedly very smart, was college bound until her father decided it wouldn't have been politically expedient with his Irish Catholic constituents that she go to a non-Catholic institution, had a keen mind and advised her father politically and helped him campaign until she got married. How could she tolerate Joe's philandering? According to Larson, she knew he had a reputation as a ladies man, but fell head over heels for him and still wanted to marry him.


Eunice said that Rosemary was the most important Kennedy; it was because of her that the family advocated for the disabled and worked to get legislation passed that opened opportunities to them. Were they trying to make up for lost time and appease a guilty conscience or were they trying to do the right thing after seeing what their sister went through and how it affected the family?

These were some of the topics discussed. As always, it was a great discussion, borne out by the continuing discussion clusters after the meeting was over. Great job, Joan!

December is the club's annual Morning with Local Authors, Holiday Luncheon & Secret Santa. It will be at Hacienda Hills Country Club, we'll order off the menu and get separate checks, and our traditional Secret Santa (wrap a used book [hardcover or paperback], not one that we've already read and discussed, and Santa Peg will distribute them). Let Peg know ASAP if you will be attending so she can give the restaurant an accurate count of how many to set up for and expect. Please let her know by Monday, December 4th.

Also, please look over the remaining unselected books and months at Books we'll be reading in 2018, pick a book and the month you can lead the discussion, and let Peg know. Hopefully, the ones you want won't already been taken. If you want to get a head start on your 2018 reading, we'll be discussing Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf.

See you next month, and keep on reading....

Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson

The story of Joe and Rose Kennedy’s beautiful but intellectually disabled daughter is brought alive through major new sources, including Rose Kennedy’s diaries and correspondence and exclusive family interviews. Recommended by Sue Laluk. This will be our last book discussion of 2017.

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